Embracing Tacky Christmas

I have a tacky little Christmas tree. It’s loaded with wacky or odd ornaments, with lights that are gaudy Santas that glow orange. It’s topped with a fake bow in garish colors. Even the tree itself is tacky. But this tradition Phil and I started about four years ago, the tacky Christmas tree, has a meaning that goes back quite a bit further. 

Our first Christmas in Africa, in 2000, I felt like we were pretending. Removed from family and friends, removed from all community and all clues that it even was Christmas. The weather was more sno-cone weather than snowmen, and I distinctly remember how absurd the  gecko on the wall behind the Christmas tree looked. 

The next year was a bit better. December in Cote d’Ivoire was the season for burning fields, so we joked about how the falling ash kind of looked like snow if you squinted your eyes just right. 

It was about our seventh year in our career as missionaries when I first really started to think about the tacky. 

We lived in Togo that year. Lomé has developed a lot in the 12 years since, but in those days, there was very little to buy here for Christmas gifts. So we went to Accra. Accra is the capital of Ghana, the country next door to Togo. It is about four hours away by road, if you count the time spent at the border crossing, and it had all kinds of restaurants, fast food, and shopping. 

It was night time when we pulled up at a shopping center in the Osu district. The street was always crowded. It was where the best restaurants at the time were, which meant it was frequented by tourists and ex-pats. Where there are tourists and ex-pats, there are vendors, merchants, and hawkers selling them stuff. Booths stuffed with African shirts, djembes, beaded necklaces, locally made leather goods, etc. They were always squished in there like kids trying to get to the front of the line and it was always chaos.

That night was no exception. What was different, though, was that most of the touristy-stuff was gone. In it’s place, every single vendor in a long line as far as we could see down the street, was packed to the gills with a eruption of Christmas decor. It was gaudy and raucous.  Garland in colors never found in nature, and seizure-inducing lights lights and more lights. Inflatable Santas and strange decor in plastic and tin foil. Absolutely nothing I would have ever considered purchasing on its own merit to grace my own home. It was all just so tacky. 

And yet. The overall effect was glorious, as if all the festivity the world could conjure was packed like brown sugar into this one little street. In the sum of all the Christmases in Africa before, I’d not seen so much actual decor as was in that one place.  It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas and I was utterly enchanted. 

A whole street of gloriously tacky Christmas decor! Osu, Accra, Ghana, 2007

Years went by, and I didn’t give a lot more thought to that one moment on the street in Osu, Accra. For some of those years, we had a home in Africa. For others, we lived in the US and traveled back and forth. We had our own decor and I never gave the “tacky” stuff I could find here much more thought.  Until 2015. 

In October 2015, with both kids in college, we came back to Togo, Phil and I. We packed up our empty nest, put it all on a shipping container, but by December, our container, which should have just taken 6-8 weeks to reach us, was still in the US. We didn’t know it,  but we wouldn’t get our own things for four more long months. But Christmas was upon us. We had no friends nearby, no family with us, no community celebrating around us, and on top of that, not even a shred of decor to remember it was Christmas.

 I woke up one day and decided, I guess, that instead of being sad for what I didn’t have, I would embrace what I did. So we went out the door laughing. We bought a small tree. It’s anorexic, but at this point, tacky became the point, and it was only $3. (And I had a full-sized tree already. It was just somewhere on the Atlantic at that moment.) We bought a basket full of the worst ornaments we could find for it. In fact, Phil made me put one or two back because they were too cute. We bought a set of lights that are little plastic Santas with pipe-cleaner beards, and I laughed until I snorted when I got home and discovered that they are orange when lit up, and that they have different settings of blinking, all of which are awful. And we decorated our tacky tree. 

This is what the tacky tree looked like the first year we had it up. It was our main tree that year.

Every year since then, the tree must go up. Our container eventually arrived, so the tacky tree took a place in the kitchen bay window. But every year, it has become part of our tradition put up the tree. The Santa lights break a little more every year. The tree itself falls over if you blow on it. But every year, we buy another tacky ornament for it. The tackier the better. 

Because that’s what you do, right? You embrace where you are– make the best of it. Find the joy, even when its hard to find. Even when your kids are far away. Even when you feel disconnected from your own culture and community. Even when your friends have decided they don’t have time for you anymore and you are struggling to find your place again. You look for the joy. Embrace the tacky. Celebrate what you do have and not what you don’t. 

I suppose that’s the moral of my tacky Christmas tree. 
I’m preaching to myself. 

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The Mountain Story: A Cautionary Tale of Outside Solutions

There was once an old village at the tippy-top of a mountain peak. The village was beautiful, dug into the hillside and commanding views of the entire countryside around, but there was one pressing problem. The trail that led up the mountain to the village was windy, folded upon itself in switchbacks to counter the steep and plunging hillside. And because the trail was so precarious and the mountain so steep, people kept falling off. Men, women, and children had all been inured, and some had even been killed. 

Moutntain Village

One day, a short-term team came to the village on a mission. They were full of compassion and good intentions and they wanted to help. “The nearest clinic is 10 km away?” they asked. “You need an ambulance to transport people to the clinic!”

So this team wrote to their church back home and raised the funds. And when they went home, the village had a nice new ambulance to transport victims to the clinic! The people of the village were so happy! Now they had a way to take care of the injured who fell off their mountain! 

But days and weeks passed. Soon, the ambulance fell in disrepair. With no parts for it, nobody that knew its mechanics, and no way to pay for the repairs, the people of the village ignored it until one day someone else fell off the mountain. Embarrassed, they wrote to their patrons. “We need help!” they said, and the patrons promptly sent more money to repair the ambulance.

Days and weeks passed, though, and it kept happening. The ambulance would break down, the people of the village, despite the shame of begging for help, would write to the patron in another country, who would then send money. This continued until one day, the foreigners said, “we can’t keep raising money for you. You are on your own.” 

So the ambulance was abandoned, left to rust and decay, and the people of the village were right back where they had started. With people falling off the mountain and no way to help them, they could do nothing. 

Mountain Ambulance

A year or more passed, and another short-term team came to the village from a church far away. They, too, were full of compassion and wanted to help. They heard the story of the decrepit ambulance and they said “we have a better solution. You do not need to drive 10 km to the nearest clinic. You need a clinic here.” So the team raised the funds. They built a clinic, right there at the base of the mountain. They provided the equipment, the medications, and the staff. Then they went home and the people of the village were so pleased! Finally, a clinic of their own to care for those who fell! 

But time went by, and the clinic staff needed a break. They went on vacation and the clinic was left unattended. The people of the village wrote to the patron church, hat in hand, and explained that the clinic was providing poor service. So the church sent money to hire more staff. Then the clinic ran out of medications, and again, the village wrote and complained about the poor quality of care for those who were falling off the mountain. So the team, again, raised funds and sent more money. 

Finally one day, the pastor of the church in the far away country retired. He was replaced by a new pastor who knew nothing of the village and its clinic, and when the people of the village wrote to him and asked for more funds, the pastor apologized, saying “this is no longer part of our vision. We cannot help you anymore.”

So the clinic was abandoned, left to crumble and invaded by rats, and the people of the village were right back where they had started, with people falling off the mountain and no way to care for them, they could do nothing. 

They called a town meeting and began to discuss the original problem. “We need to care for those who fall off the mountain,” they said. “But we can’t. The solutions the outsiders brought us did not work, so we need another short-term team to come.”

But among them, a wise village elder cleared his throat. “I had a solution in the beginning, but nobody wanted to listen to me. It wasn’t free. It wasn’t given to us. We would have to work for it.” Then he explained his idea. The village could build a fence, all along the edge of the trail, to keep people from falling off.

“Okay,” said the village leaders. “Let’s do it.” 

Mountain building fence

The whole village turned out to build the fence. Each household donated funds from what they could spare. They set posts in cement so that they would last, and built a sturdy rail of wood all along the length. And several weeks later, when the work was done, they had a fence that would stop anyone who slipped from tumbling to the valley below. And over the years, as the wood began to rot, it was a simple task to go into the forest and cut a new tree to replace the damaged rails. The people of the village were so proud of their accomplishment! 

This project transformed the community. Whenever they had another need, instead of looking for an outside solution, they began to ask themselves what they had on hand to fix the problem themselves. They did not have to  go to an outsider, palms out, begging for help. Their dignity was elevated and they grew in confidence in their ability to solve their own problems. All because they owned a fence along a mountain trail. 

The moral of the story, dear readers, is that sometimes we come in, as outsiders, with great intentions. We think we know the solution and we can raise the funds to provide it. What a blessing!  But our helping is sometimes not the right solution. It can lead to unintended consequences and can even be an offense to the dignity of those very people we are trying to help. If we want to help, we should, always, ask the right questions, listen to local solutions, and invest in the dignity and agency of those we are helping so that they can own the solution.

This story was adapted from the Global CHE Network Training of Trainers Level 1 Materials. Illustrations courtesy of Jeannie Seck. 

Community Health Evangelism. (2019). CHE Training of Trainers Manual 2019. Retrieved from https://chenetwork.org

 

Grief is an XBox

I’m selling a bunch of stuff. We have too much junk and a lot of stuff we don’t use anymore. Among the piles of old ipods, E-readers, crock pots, etc, there’s an old XBox 360.

It’s had a good life but nobody uses it anymore. It’s obsolete from what I understand. So I’m selling it.

I take it out of the box and wipe it all down. It’s filthy and as I’m scrubbing all the dirt out of the cracks of the controllers, I suddenly have a picture of my children’s hands. How many hours were small fingers clutched around this thing? How much laughter (or frustration) or escapism did this facilitate? How many times did I threaten to unplug this console if homework wasn’t done, or or because we had to run an errand and I was tired of “I’m not at a saving place”? 

I start to cry. It’s stupid, me standing here over this old X-Box and crying. My nest has been empty since 2015. This is my second Christmas without either my kids, my third without Jake. They both have their own significant others, and places to go and people to be with, and I should have moved on by now.  But this old console is still here with me. And suddenly I realize . . . . 

This is grief. 

Christmas- either 2008 or 2009. Jake thought we didn’t have the budget for an XBox that year, so it was a huge surprise. I love his face! (And I love Grace in the background, who looks either bored or left out.)

They were both so excited. Even Grace, who is not nearly the gamer her brother is.

I had to step away from my social media this morning. I was bombarded on all fronts by tired moms complaining about their kids and how busy the season is. I can’t fault them. I remember. They don’t think I do. They think I’m old and outdated and couldn’t possibly understand how hard the holidays are for families with kids. 

But I do. And I’m grieving it. I miss those days. I miss the laughter and the love. I’m afraid of forgetting what their hair smelled like after a bath or what face they made when I asked them to clear the table. 

Hello grief. I see you. I acknowledge you and understand like you are like glitter. I might clean up the big mess, but there will be little flakes of you scattered all over my life forever. So I’ll sell the X-Box, wipe my tears, and look forward to the day when I can do Christmas with not only my children, but hopefully my grandchildren too. And there will be new game consoles and new little hands and new laughter and love. But for now, please pass the tissues and thanks for letting me grieve. 

Goodbye XBox. I hope you make some other kids as happy as you made mine.

 

Cross-Cultural Magpies: Thoughts on Home

I got up this morning and pulled my clothes out of the closet. A pair of denim capris, my new pair of locally made flip-flops, made from wax-print fabric, and my Seahawks t-shirt. 

Suddenly it struck me what an odd combination this was. The cross-cultural version of going to Walmart and putting random things on the belt: A car battery, four pounds of grapes, and a packet of those party favors that uncurl when you blow them. Oh and of course a box of tampons. (And every female is nodding her head and thinking “yes, there are always tampons.” But I digress.) 

Our home is sort of the same thing. I am a nester and my nest reflects us. Artwork from the Pike Place Market, and the Lome artisan market and the Cocody market and whatever that market was in Ouagadougou. Or Panama. Or that copper platter Phil got me in India somewhere. It’s full of the bits and bobs and shiny things from all the places we’ve lived and traveled to. It is a museum of us. Of the places that speak to us, mean something to us, or call to us on lonely days.* 

I’m putting out a few fall things this morning. Normally I have a strict rule. September is for Seahawks decor, maybe a scarecrow or a sunflower. October is for pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns. November is for Pilgrims and Native Americans and turkeys made of Legos that my children made for me years ago. 

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Seahawks Table runner, made by me, from local West African wax-print fabrics. The wood tray is ebony, purchased here in Togo. The lions are part of a collection I have of African animals in ceramic, from South Africa. (The lioness and her cubs are my favorite pieces of the whole collection.)

It’s drizzling out today.

You might wonder why that matters. It matters because it’s unusual here. Rain in Togo is tropical monsoon downpours, and when I am home in the Pacific Northwest and we get a rare deluge like that, I think of Togo. But here, in Togo, when it drizzles just enough to make the dog’s coat a bit wet when she goes out, but not enough for her to shake when she comes in, I think of the Pacific Northwest. And fall. And leaves changing colors and cozy evenings under my Pendleton blanket. And I get a bit homesick. 

So I’m pulling out the fall decor early.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s still in the 80’s out there, with 100% humidity. But inside, I can turn up the AC and pretend, and maybe feel a bit less homesick. 

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The Pendleton blanket (from Pendleton Woolen Mills, Pendleton, OR) is the middle one, in blues, grays, and browns. It sits on the shelf in my bedroom between three different Maasai blankets from Kenya, and on the bottom of the stack, the heaviest (and so, least used here) blanket is a Campbell tartan wool blanket from Scotland. The basket came from Ghana and of course the children and comic books are American!  

 

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The runner underneath is from, I think, Ghana.  The woven chargers are from Benin. The tool in the back is from Kenya. It has a name but I don’t know what it is. It’s for hunting lions. I call it the lion-bonker. And the Jack-O-Lantern candle holder is from Hobby Lobby. 

The Thanksgiving stuff will have to wait, but pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns are out, along with an acorn or too. (I got rid of most of it a few years ago, so I just have a couple things.) But what’s weird is the contrast. Africa and America, with bits of other places too. 

It’s just. Us. It’s who we are. Little magpies collecting bits of our life and tucking them into our nest. Our home. And if you are a cross-cultural magpie like me, don’t be afraid to display all your shiny treasures when it does your soul good. You don’t have to wait for October. 

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I’ve always loved seasonal kitchen linens. The fall towels wait to find their place in my Togolese kitchen in front of the ceramic tile from the iconically-tourtisty “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in Seattle. 

*Disclaimer. I can’t speak for Phil, since he’s not hear, but I doubt he’d say the things “speak to him on lonely days.” That’s probably just me. 

 

The Well of Slaves: There are no words

 

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I picked up this shell today.

I am maybe two hundred yards from the beach, hearing the roll and crash of a cheerful surf, and the warm tropical breeze carrying scents of cooking fires. About ten miles from the city of Lomé, Togo, the sand under the cashew tree is the color of new pennies, freckled with these tiny mollusk shells of all kinds. The shell itself is worn so smooth that I can barely feel the ridges, as if time has worn away the razor’s edges, and its the perfect size to make a cap over my index finger. I drop it quietly into my wallet as my husband starts up the SUV.

I don’t know what compelled me to pick it up, except maybe to remember this place. There is a weightiness here. You can feel it. A memorial, mostly forgotten, razor’s edges worn by the wind and sand, that reminds me of the not-so-distant history of this place I call home. What happened here makes me feel ill.

It is called “Golovoudo,” or “the Well of Slaves.”

One of the last slave ports, this place remained clandestine and active until the very end of the 19th century, meaning it’s atrocities are only a few generations old. A deacon from the local church shows us the site.

His name is Kossi and he’s telling us of his grandparents’ generation.

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“Golovoudo, or the well of slaves. Site of the ritual purification of slaves before embarking for the new world, Second half of the 19th Century.”

Slaves were captured all along this coast. They were taken to a slave-house up the coast a bit and put into a windowless cellar. Kept in total darkness, they were only allowed out at night, briefly, for some food and water. The hope was that in the darkness, they would not know where they were and would be unable to escape.

When a ship arrived in port, the captives were then taken to this well in darkness. They were forced to wash from this well, a both practical and symbolic gesture. Told to forget who they were, where they came from. To wash the old life away. It was gone and they were no longer their own.

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I watch Kossi, in the dying sunlight, and my heart hurts. He has tears in his eyes as he recounts the story.  In a culture in which men do not cry, he is so close as he speaks of human beings thrown overboard because they were too sick or too weak or too young or too old.

I have no words. There are no words. I know I am not responsible, but I want to apologize. To ask forgiveness from this man for what was done to his people two generations ago. But there are no words.

And then he says something that surprises me.

“But,” he says,”there are people in America who have more opportunity than I will ever have, because of what happened here. Black people who are no longer African people, but who are my family.”

It’s his perspective. It’s incredibly generous, in my opinion, and I’m humbled. While it might be an expression of cultural fatalism, the tears in his eyes testify to his sincerity. 

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And as we turn to climb back into the vehicle, we thank him and his brother Agbe for showing this place to us. And something compels me to take that shell with me. How long has it been here? Have feet trod on it with one of their last steps in their homeland? 

It’s quiet in the car. Three Americans, a Romanian, and two Togolese, remembering what happened in this unremembered village.

As the car rocks and bumps over the rain-rutted roads, it suddenly occurs to me how powerful is the symbolism of God. Here, in this village where men were stripped of their identity by washing with water, we have been working, Phil and I, along with an NGO-charity, to help facilitate clean water solutions.

I just now thought of that, but God has been planning this for generations, I think.

 

 

 

What Does a Team Do: Day 5 Orphan Care and Africa Adventures

It’s 8 AM on Thursday and we load up in the back of the Land Cruiser. No luxury vehicle, this one is nicknamed “The Beast.” It’s probably north of 3 tons, built for carrying heavy cargo, and the Beast is a workhorse. It regularly totes loads of steel framing for new church buildings over the roughest roads Togo throws at it. Today, though, it just has to carry eight of us out to visit a shining example of a project that is working to reunite and reintegrate street children with their families.

We pull off the main highway onto a dirt track, following it back about 200 yards until the complex opens up before us. “La Solution”, the signage says, and for seventeen years, this place has truly been a solution for many children in desperate circumstances. Under the ministry of MAWUSSI Celestin, volunteers seek out children living on the streets of Lomé. They offer the children a safe place to stay, a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a chance to go to school, and most importantly, a chance to change their lives with Jesus.

The ministry is an amazing example of holistic ministry, seeking not to institutionalize orphans or to provide long-term care, but instead to investigate the reasons the children are on the street to begin with, and to provide counseling, training, and restoration for entire families. So far, the center has successfully reunited over 400 children with their families.

Read more about the ministry of La Solution here. 

And here. 

Our team follows along, perhaps a bit overwhelmed. The facility is adequate in its context, but to the American eye, it likely looks worse than your average summer camp. Dorm rooms are bare concrete floors, walls lined with mosquito-netted beds. The kitchen is an open fire at the back. The toilets are long drop latrines.

We are directed into a chapel, where around 50 children are waiting for us. The director, Mawussi, greets us warmly, and then explains. “We are going to sing a song. One by one, I will call the children by name. They will come forward and dance for you, so that you can know their names.” One by one, he calls them. Boys and girls. The oldest is near 18. The youngest, about 4. Some dance with big grins and enthusiasm. Others are more reticent.

When they are done, we applaud and Phil stands to introduce our team. With a big smile on his face, he repeats the introduction of our SAGU students in the same way. Everyone clapping a beat and singing, and he calls them one by one to step out and dance. One by one, they laugh and show off a few moves before melting back into the crowd.

We are doing a chapel service here today. We start with a puppet song. The kids are enthralled. They’ve likely never seen a puppet at all, let alone in person. Even Mawussi recalls the last time he saw a puppet show. 1984, when another missionary was in his town.

After the puppet show, Lex does an illustration with vinegar and baking soda and dish soap. As the soap overflows the bottle, he shares how God takes the little bit of talent that we have to offer Him, and multiplies it beyond our imaginations. Then, Phil tells the story of Shamgar, the judge mentioned in Judges 3:31, who saved the nation of Israel with nothing but an oxgoad.

Emma (background) and Jerica (foreground) sitting with the kids before the chapel starts.
Jordan (left), Josie (center), Harmony (right) with the children at La Solution

While he’s telling the story, poor Emma has the misfortune of being seated next to an ill child. As the little one is escorted out, she’s got to pull her feet out of the way to avoid the puddle of sick the little girl has left behind. I offer to her to move to a different place, but she shakes her head no, choosing instead to stay among the little ones, despite the circumstances. Soon, another child comes in with a bucket of dirt and throws it over the puddle to absorb it, and we all keep moving on as if nothing has happened.

The chapel ends, and after profuse offers of thanks, and one of the children asking us to come back on Sunday, we take a tour of the facility. Mawussi tells us the story of how the one lot he planned on buying through a donor’s generosity, turned into 23 lots and the existing buildings, as a direct result of his integrity in the face of temptation to misuse funds.

We say our goodbyes, waving to the kids and snapping a few pictures. On our way out the door, Mawussi hands us two flats of eggs- 60 eggs- from his chicken farm as a thank you gift. Someone will have to hold them on their lap, because there is no safe place in the Beast for them and we have some bumpy roads ahead.

We are going to drive about an hour north to visit the second property that is a part of this ministry- a farm and vocational training center, where they raise livestock and crops to support the ministry center, and where they are launching programs to help children learn vocational skills. But we get to the parking lot and stop short. The mighty Beast sits in the dirt with a tire so flat it looks as if it’s melted in the hot sun.

Mawussi calls a few of the older boys to help, and he and Phil set to work to change the tire. It’s run over a giant nail, so the spare is our only option. Only they can’t find the right tool to remove the lug nuts, and the jack in the vehicle is broken. Eventually, someone runs over to the truck yard next door and a stranger comes over with the tool to help remove the lug nuts. There’s still the problem of the jack though, and eventually, about 15 of the older children come out to help, and through sheer will and muscle power, they lift a 3 ton vehicle and wedge a brick under it.

While they work, the team waits. They wander back into the courtyard, where a bit of dancing breaks out. The children come and demonstrate some local dance moves, and the team joins in, copying the kids and adding some moves of their own.

By this time, Phil has got the jack to work. The tire is changed and the Beast is lowered back onto all fours as we hit the road north.

We are running out of time. The afternoon sun beats in through the vehicle and the A/C barely keeps up, but the team brave the adventure. An egg breaks in Jerica’s lap as we hit a pothole and we scramble to clean it up. We stop for fresh roasted corn beside the road, and everyone enjoys this- the only local street food we really eat.

Roasted feed corn is about 20 cents an ear this time of year. It tastes a bit like popcorn.

The sun is blazing wicked overhead by the time we get to the farm. Everyone is tired, hot, and exhausted, but their enthusiasm doesn’t wane. We quickly visit the seamstress training room, the brand new hairdresser training center, and see the buildings and clay oven that will soon be baking bread. We also take a quick tour back to the livestock, where the goats are calling out “hey, hey” to us as we pass by, and the pigs stick their snouts out of pens to greet us.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time we head back. The team is fairly quiet, taking it all in, red-faced, watching rural African villages pass by outside the windows. We arrive back at their lodgings at West Africa Advanced School of Theology (WAAST) and they trek back to their rooms, everyone in need of a long nap before dinner.

In the spirit of an African adventure, we are having local cuisine tonight. Chicken in peanut sauce, with fufu, rice, and fried plantains.

We have guests tonight. Rev. EVU Koffi, the director of the Children’s Ministry Department of the Assemblies of God, and Rev. AFANGBEDJI Renee, the treasurer for the department. As I am explaining what fufu is (pounded manioc served in a lump about the size of a softball. It has the texture of raw bread dough and doesn’t have much taste) and how to eat it (with your fingers. Break off a lump and dip it in the sauce) Evu interrupts with his characteristic huge grin. “Just follow me” he says in English. “I’ll show you.”

It’s a great dinner. We pose a series of questions to our guests. What are the needs of the Children’s Ministries in Togo? What are the biggest challenges? What are your current projects? And the team gets a chance to hear straight from the national church what they are doing and what they need. And the students pipe up with a number of their own questions. Great and insightful questions. I’m so glad they had this opportunity.

{insert a couple pictures I forgot to take here. Of our dinner and our team with Evu and Renee}

Dinner is done and being cleared. We are all tired and heat-exhausted. But there is one more small thing to be done. My seamstress, Michee, has stopped by at my request. She’s brought a dozen different fabrics, and can make skirts or shirts for those interested. So we browse her selection and everyone chooses something. Orders are placed, measurements taken, and everyone is really excited to see their Togolese clothing, which should come back handmade by Tuesday. (Click here to read more about purchasing clothing in Togo.) 

It’s been a great day. A day to watch, listen, and ask questions. A day to experience some of the realities of life here, like flat tires and long, hot days. Tomorrow will be another day. And early one. So everyone heads to bed.

Morning and evening, day 5.

What Does a Team Do, Day 4: Kids Everywhere!

It’s 5 PM on Tuesday, and the real work is just getting started for the day. We gather under the corrugated metal roof of the church, a breeze blowing through the open sides. Outside, the sounds of Togo daily life drift up the street. Some music from the bar, the calling of children and Mamas, bleating of goats, and birds singing in the coconut trees.

This is the same church where we helped construct a Sunday school shelter yesterday, only right now, we are inside the building. Concrete walls, blue plastic chairs, and a good gathering of the church’s members to help with the event. The Americans sit on one side, Togolese on the other. It’s not intentional. It’s just a language barrier and an awkwardness that will soon be overcome.

Waiting for instructions and pairing up the Americans with an interpreter and a local church member to go out into the neighborhood door to door.

Everyone is praying.

Praying for the teams about to go door to door out in the neighborhood to pass out Book of Hope booklets for children, and to invite children to the outreach event tonight. Praying for the children and families of the neighborhood. Praying for divine conversations. That people, children and adults, would come tonight and hear the truth of Jesus’ immense love for them.
The prayer ends and the team heads out.

They return a few hours later, faces beaming. “This was the best,” they say. “I could have kept doing this all night.” We grab a quick dinner (sandwiches again) as they swap stories of children and families they met, and the welcome and smiles they received. One tells a story about having failed to greet a father before greeting a child, and how the father was offended until the translator smoothed over the waters and invited the whole family.

It’s getting dark. We hastily scoop up the remains of dinner and trail out into the darkness.

The service opens with a greeting. First, Pastor EDJE, and then Phil greet the children. He then introduces the American team and asks if the children would like to hear a song. After an enthusiastic “yes,” the Americans duck behind the puppet stage and a puppet choir sings a couple of songs to the delighted children.

A puppet stage in the dirt is our reality here. But the children are captivated! Many have never seen puppets in person before.

Then, Emma, one of our American team members, comes out and teaches a Bible verse with gestures. She’s worked very hard to learn this verse in French, a language she does not speak, so that the kids can repeat it with her. She does an amazing job and the kids are already laughing and excited.

Emma’s notes, with the phonetic pronunciations of the words to help her. She memorized Romans 6:23, in French, to teach to the children! Way to go, Emma!

The few lights that light the sandy lot outside the church are dimmed, and under the African stars,  the film starts. All eyes are on the screen.

It’s called “God-man” and it’s a production of One Hope. It starts with showing typical African children encountering a difficult situation. They have kicked a ball and accidentally broken the dishes in the shop of a local merchant. She tells them they must work to pay off the price of what they broke.

A man comes out from the back of the shop and offers to clean up the broken dishes for them. They don’t understand why he would do this. He walks with them begins to tell them a story- the story of Jesus, beginning with the creation of the world, and telling the story of the Bible, from the creation of the world, to the fall, to the life of Jesus.

At the point in which Jesus is crucified, the One Hope volunteers stop the film. By this time, there are over 300 children and at least 100 adults sitting in chairs in the darkness. They’ve come from all over the neighborhood for this event, and even passers-by on foot or on motorcycles stop to see what is going on.

More of our team comes forward. Phil does an illustration and Jerica does an object lesson. Sin separates us from God, but though Jesus and His death and resurrection, we can be restored with God.

They’ve been practicing since they arrived. And all morning today. They came with a bit of nerves but they all did great! They’ve worked with a translator for the first time, and for the first time, several of them seem to realize that there are not one, but two languages being used tonight. French, and the local tribal language, Ewe!

It’s really hard to get a good picture in the dark! In this photo, Jerica is doing an illustration about how sin stains our hearts, but Jesus can wash us clean.

When the illustrations are done, Pastor EDJE reiterates the Gospel message. He invites children and adults who would like to receive Jesus’s free gift to pray. Nearly every hand goes up.

It’s a sacred moment and we have an incredible honor. To witness the birth of a new disciple of Jesus, and somehow, in some way, to have the honor of having had a small part in what God is doing here. Most of the team have tears in their eyes. I don’t blame them. It’s always moving.

Children raising their hands to accept Jesus’ free gift.

Nobody is in a hurry. But, when the prayers have finished, we will finish the film, showing Jesus’ resurrection and the eternal hope that we have in Jesus.

This part- this event- is far more important than the building we helped build yesterday. That was building a structure. This is building the church.

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Evening and morning, the fourth day.

What Does a Team Do? Day 3- The First Build Day

After a quick breakfast, we left our lodgings this morning at 7:30. Traffic was bustling as we made our way through Lomé, and if you knew where to look, you could catch glimpses of the Gulf of Guinea along the Atlantic Coast between the coconut palms.

Today was the construction day of the first Sunday school shelter this team will be building! (You can read more about the Sunday school shelter project here.)

We turned off the main road just on the edge of the city, and only a rutted dirt road. Both vehicles bounced and tossed over the potholes around a few corners and through a few mudholes before we pulled up at a concrete church building. Signage painted on the security wall identified it as Temple Eben-Ezer de Kpogan II, and listed all the service times.

In a cleared lot beside the church, a group of men were already hard at work. Upright poles had already been cemented in the ground, and the sound of hammers bounced around in the space between the concrete church and the concrete building next door. A pile of raw wood and boxes of nails waited for us in the sandy dirt, and we quickly unloaded the tools from the back of the Land Cruiser.


After a liberal application of sunscreen, which for some of us would still later prove to be inadequate, and a small amount of nervous laughter, the team jumped right in. They picked up hammer and nails and began following instructions. Nail this support here. Climb this ladder and nail another one there.

Among their first discoveries were that the nails here are soft and the wood is hard. It takes a practiced hand to drive them straight, and after many bent nails, it was easy to hand the hammer over to the more experienced Togolese men there as volunteers to build at their own church.

Still our team did valiantly. With the sun rising higher and hotter in the sky, and the occasional breeze rattling a palm tree, they sawed, cut, climbed rickety ladders and conquered fears of heights as the framework for the corrugated tin roof started to go into place.

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As the day wore on, the work shifted. Sometimes too many hands make heavy work, and the tools were left to the men, both the team members, the missionary, and the Togolese builders, who know what they are doing. Meanwhile, the women were given another task. A long roll of sealing tape had to be cut into small squares. Three boxes of roofing nails, and each one had to pierce a square of the tape, so that when the nails are pounded into the tin roofing, the hole seals underneath. Thankfully, this was a job that can be done in the breezy interior of the church, and with a lot of conversation, laughter, and questions.

Left to right, Emma, Lex, Harmony, and Jordan, working on roofing nails.

After a brief break for lunch, (sandwiches, chips, and fruit), everyone was back at work for the afternoon. The pastor of the church, Pastor EDJE Kossivi and his wife were there, observing the work and chatting with the team. In fact, Pastor EDJE made a special effort to learn every member of the team’s names, despite the fact that they were all foreign to him and difficult to say. He succeeded with a round of applause.

While we were seated, in the shadow of the church to escape the heat of the afternoon sun, he and his wife explained to me how much this shelter means to their church. “We have maybe 60 children that come on a Sunday morning,” he explained. “That isn’t many for this neighborhood. I asked them once why they don’t come. They said it is because there is nothing for them. Everyone just tells them to be quiet. But, when I announced that you were coming and we were going to build a Sunday school just for them, where they can learn and make noise and play games, they were the first ones to cheer.”

We then talked about the fact that everywhere we have done one of these shelters, attendance usually doubles within a few weeks. He might even need more benches, I told him. “In faith, we will need more benches!” he said, laughing.

By the time the shadows started to get long, everyone was losing steam. The professional builders and the missionary continued to work while others broke up into smaller groups for more relational conversation. One of our team learned French words from some teenage boys, and in exchange answered questions about America. Some of the girls had conversation among themselves, or just asked questions about what they were seeing around them. Whose goats were those, roaming freely around the neighborhood? (the pastor didn’t know, but it’s a problem because they eat other people’s gardens)  Why do the Agama lizards do push-ups? (It’s a mystery.) or what is that noise? (It’s the Muslim call to prayer from the local mosque.)

Lex, deep in conversation with some of the guys, about men wearing earrings in the US, and what the Ewe word “Yovo” means.

The Shelter wasn’t 100% finished when we left around 4:30 PM, but there wasn’t much left for our team to do. The builders will finish it tonight, and we’ll be back tomorrow to see our new friends again, to see the completed structure, and to go door to door in the neighborhood to invite children to an after-dark children’s evangelism event!

Left to right, Jerica, Emma, Charles, Josie, Lex, Jordan, Phil, Me, Moise, Pastor EDJE, Madame Pastor EDJE, Harmony.

I’d imagine our intrepid SAGU team is sleeping well tonight. Good job, guys.

Evening and morning, the third day.

Click here to read about Days 1-2

What Does a Team Do? Day 1-2

So you decided to go on a short-term mission trip to Togo. But what does that look like? What kinds of things will we be doing? Where will we stay? What will we eat? 

Come along with us and we’ll show you! For the next 12 days, we are hosting a team of five young women and one young man from Southwestern Assemblies of God University. I’ve made it a goal to blog every day, so that you can see what they see, and maybe get a better idea of what to expect if you decide to be on the next team!

I don’t promise it will be good writing. Teams are exhausting and I don’t have time to spend an hour polishing. But I hope you’ll come along anyway. 

SATURDAY- DAY 1: 

Our team arrived yesterday about 11:30 AM local time. They had taken a flight from Dallas to Newark, and Newark, directly into Lome, Togo. They’d been in transit about 20 hours or so. 

It took them about an hour and a half to complete airport formalities. You arrive, go through a fever checkpoint (an automated system that checks your temperature, as a part of a control system to keep Ebola out of the country) and then apply for a visa. The form is a quick one, but they take your passport and then you wait. You can usually go get your luggage while you wait. (Please, no matter how much they offer, don’t let the porters take your bags for you. They will expect payment once you leave the airport. The carts are free to use. Just keep saying no, politely.)

Once you have your visa, you can exit the airport where we are waiting! 

file3-7Everyone’s luggage arrived and we hopped in a couple of vehicles and transported them over to West Africa Advanced School of Theology, where they are staying for the duration of the trip. Lunch was waiting, and after a bit of a challenge with a broken lock, we got everyone into their rooms. 

Then, in order to avoid jet-lag, we kept them up through the afternoon, going through an orientation meeting covering topics such as how to stay healthy and safe, how to be respectful in this culture, and the schedule. 

Dinner and bed was next on the agenda.

There was evening and there was morning on the first day. 

SUNDAY~ DAY 2

Good morning! We were off to an early start today! Temple du Calvaire is one of the first churches planted in Lomé, Togo, and is the mother church for a large number of the 150 + churches in the Lomé area. They have three services, but the first one, at 7 AM, is an English/ French service. We want our team to see the church service, and we them to understand, so we chose this one. 

It was an interesting experience for the team members, and the church was so excited to welcome them. Phil was invited up on the platform to introduce them, and they ended up on the church’s Facebook page! Observations were that it was more westernized than they expected. (It is- but still with a Togolese flavor.) They enjoyed the drums, the two choirs, and participated in the two different offerings that require everyone to come forward in a parade-style to give. Afterwards, we were invited to the administrator’s office for a guests welcome, served coffee, pop, and pastries. 

Temple de Calvaire

After church, we dropped them back at their lodging for a couple hours before lunch. When we returned at 12:30 to retrieve everyone for lunch, everyone had fallen asleep. Jet lag is a killer! 

We had lunch at Les Nuit d’Orient, a Lebanese restaurant, where even the pickiest eaters found something they liked. 

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Then we came back to our house. We spent the afternoon practicing puppetry skills, object lessons, and illustrations, so that each team member can be a part of the presentation of the Gospel on Tuesday evening and beyond. 

Dinner was pizza back at WAAST, prepared by our cook. Luke Tarr joined us for dinner and afterwards did a brief training on the use of water filters. Luke works with an NGO that does clean water charities in Togo. Later next week, we will be participating in an event to distribute water filters in one of the villages in which we are working, and help with getting people set up and trained how to use them. 

I think jet lag is about to catch up to everyone! Dinner is over, we are done for the day, but we start early tomorrow. 

Stay tuned tomorrow for pictures of Sunday school shelter #1! 

And there was evening and there was morning of the second day.