Spell Check Doesn’t Know “Itineration.”

Someone has posted on my wall. “Oh, I didn’t realize you were in America right now! What are you doing home?”

Am I home? It doesn’t feel like home.  I don’t even know where home is right now.

I respond. “We’re on itineration”

And there it is. That little red squiggly line. Windows’ way of saying “Hey stupid, you might want to look at this. That’s not a real word.”

Itineration is a word, Windows. I promise.

Admittedly, if you don’t live in my bubble, if you aren’t a born-and-raised Assemblies of God church-goer, (which I don’t think Windows is) you probably don’t know the word either. Maybe you might recognize another word. “Furlough.”

Only problem? We don’t like to use the word ‘furlough.’ It implies a vacation.

“Oh how nice. You get a one-year vacation every five years.” 

Uh. No.

Furlough doesn’t adequately describe what we are doing. It is not a rest, a sabbatical, or a vacation. In fact, in some ways, it’s more work than being on the field in our country of service.

So what is “Itineration?”

In order to understand that, let me explain how our work is funded. We are not hired by the Assemblies of God. We are affiliated and accountable to them, but we aren’t employees. As such, we don’t draw a salary from them. They don’t fund our projects, our work, our travel, anything, out of a general fund.

Everything we do, 100%, is funded by donors, and we have to raise that money.

Currently we have about 250 churches and individuals who donate to us monthly so that we can do what we do.

Itineration is about donors.

Donors need attention. They need to hear what we’ve been doing with their funds over the past four years. They need to know that we can’t do what we do without them.

We need donors to renew their commitments to us, so that we can go back to Africa for another four years without running out of funds. We need them to know that we can’t do what we do without them.

One year out of every five, we leave our field of service and come to the US to connect with our donors. That’s itneration, and it’s a real word.

The Dalles

Life in Christ Center, in The Dalles, Oregon is one of our faithful supporting churches.

What happens during Itineration?

We have one year to connect with as many donors as possible. One year to raise new commitments and new pledges that will keep us going for the next four.

How does that happen?

We connect with churches.

Churches are the bedrock of our donor base. Historically, they are the most faithful, long-term, and partnering with the church is the Biblical model for missions, all the way back to Paul.

The most traditional way of connecting with churches is to call them and ask for the opportunity to come and speak to the congregation. Speaking in services generates awareness of what we do. It promotes missions in general. It provides potential new missionaries the opportunity to hear about the need. And it results in offerings and new pledge partners.

On any given week, we usually speak at at least two different churches, sometimes more than that. Sundays are our busiest day, and we aim to spend the morning with one church and the evening with another.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We connect with pastors.

Since our time is so limited, our schedule fills up fast. Often if we can’t fix a date with a pastor to come and speak at their church, we’ll meet him or her for coffee or a meal.  Even if this involves a drive across the state for a coffee date. It’s what we are in the US to do.

We connect with individuals.

Most of our individual support comes through people we’ve met at churches. Some missionaries are good at connecting with  para-church organizations, business-people and groups like Rotary clubs. While we’d like to find these kinds of connections, we haven’t yet made much inroads in this area.

We speak at events that peripherally support our work.

The Assemblies of God has programs for both children’s ministries to give to missions, and youth ministries to give to missions. We speak at events that promote and raise funds for these programs. (And our ministry benefits too!)

We spend a lot of time on the phone and in the car.

Setting all of this up takes a lot of phone calling. Getting there takes a lot of driving. Our home district is the Oregon Ministry Network, which means that we can, and do, travel the entire state of Oregon. But we also have supporters in a number of other districts, including New Jersey, New York, Iowa, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Kentucky, Arizona, Florida, and Washington. So travel is a constant state of being during itineration.

We also eat a lot of fast food, make a lot of emergency stops at Walmart for things we forgot, and know most of the rest stops in the state. (The one on I-5 near Canby is my favorite, because it’s in a grove of old growth fir and it’s gorgeous.)


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We keep doing a lot of the work we usually do while on the field.

In an ideal world, we are supposed to leave field work on the field, and work only on itineration. while we are in the US. But we all know the world isn’t ideal, and things like curriculum projects don’t just stop. So in a way, it’s a little bit like having two full-time jobs.

See? Not a vacation! And here’s the kicker. . . 

We can’t go back until we have 100% of our budget accounted for with signed commitments from donors.

In theory, we are going back in August of 2018. We know God will provide and we aren’t worried about it. But if I’m being perfectly honest, this itineration period is really hard. It’s like trying to stand on a platform that keeps shifting underneath you.

So, to answer my friend’s question, “What am I doing home?”

I’m on itineration.  And it’s a real word. I’m not sure I’m home, however. I am a wanderer, a vagabond who doesn’t even know what address to use when filling out a simple registration form.

I love you all. I’m incredibly thankful for your support that lets us do what we do. But I’m ready to go home.


Apparently I have a lot of homes.








The Smoke that Thunders

An excerpt from my memoir, (still in progress). . .

September 2004, still struggling to overcome PTSD and depression from all the trauma during our first term, still wrestling with whether or not I could obey the call on my life to go back to Africa. . . . 

The smoke that thunders. Victoria Falls. It’s easy to see why the Batongan people called it that in the days before Livingston came along and named the falls after his queen.

With the African sun on my shoulders and my toes on the edge, I looked down into the chasm, where the Zambezi river falls off of Zambia, into a crevice in the Zimbabwe earth, and then fans out in a river of life across the plains. With the smoke thundering around me, and I made a decision.

September 2004. Not at full flood season, but not at the most dry time of year either.

I hadn’t been sure I was ready to come back to Africa.  Two years had passed since my foot left African soil, since that night in Ghana when I boarded a plane to leave the sounds of war behind me.  Two years, the sounds of a different war still dogging me, depression clinging to me. Two years, entrenched in a battle between what I wanted and what I knew was right. Go back to Africa long-term, with the possibility of more pain and more suffering, or quit missions, trailing shame and failure behind me.

When we received the invitation to go to Zambia for two weeks of teacher training, I knew I had to go. It’s only two weeks, I kept telling myself, with the boarding pass crumpled in my hand so tightly it transferred ink to my skin. Only two weeks, I told my rolling stomach.

When the ministry portion of the trip was the rear-view mirror, we took a side trip to Victoria Falls. We did all the things tourists did. We followed the trails across a chasm at the end of a precipice, where a bridge called “the knife-edge” grows moss in the heart of the savanna. We hiked the paths opposite the spillways, damp in a secret rain forest in a crack in the earth. We took pictures of the rainbows like party streamers until rainbows seemed ordinary. And I breathed the steamy breath of a different Africa than the one that I had exhaled two years previously.

Phil took a ride in a World War I bi-plane, taking pictures from an open cockpit. He came back breathless, his cheeks ruddy with the wind, scrolling through aerial photos. Savanna and scrub, the river etching a ribbon of green in the soil before vanishing into a crevice in the ground. Plumes of mist like the smoke from a thousand villages. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he had said. It was. There, on the tiny digital screen, images of an Africa I’d never witnessed.

We  cruised above the falls in a flat-bottomed boat, where Africa unfolded in color and texture and smell. Egrets waded in the water and a crocodile slipped off the bank as we passed. I reached for the binoculars when the guide pointed to the shallows. The two circles in the eyepieces came into focus on a bloat of hippos rolling languid in the sparkling sunlight. Elephants, the magnum opus of the Zambezi, slipped in an out of the shadows, their wrinkled skin blending with the figs and ebonies on the forested banks. I couldn’t look away. I was smitten, like a middle-school crush on this Africa I had never loved.

When the boat bumped on the shore of Livingston Island at the edge of the falls, we disembarked for afternoon tea, but tea and cookies seemed so trivial, there with the ground rumbling under our feet. Phil and two colleagues followed the guide out into the flow of the river, with the current tugging them closer to the edge, to sit in the Devil’s pool, a natural hollow at the threshold of the falls.

I stood at the crest, taking pictures, trying not to think about the terrible plunge below should the current catch them wrong. And suddenly, I was overcome by the raw power of the truth surrounding me. The river flowed, to the left and to the right, spilling into a fissure in the earth a mile wide, like sand through fingers. It didn’t hold back, didn’t try to stay in the sunlight on the plateau. It allowed itself to be swallowed, steadfast in purpose, to bring life to the thirsty land below.

And then, with the African sun on my shoulders, and my toes on the edge, I realized that Africa had thrown at me the worst it had to offer and I’d survived. But I’d only seen the worst. It was time to see the best. To see the wild beauty of this place, to hear the roar of the river and to see the land turn green. To allow myself to be poured out, to offer whatever I had to give to a dry and thirsty place.

I made a decision. I would come back to Africa, because coming back to Africa was the right thing to do.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Don’t You Forget About Me

Are you picturing Judd Nelson in a trench coat walking across an empty football field? If not, you really should stop what you are doing and go watch “The Breakfast Club.” At the very least, you should recognize that I’m about to quote song lyrics. (With all thanks and credit to Simple Minds and the owners of the copyright on the song.)

I guess a little humor lightens the mood for a blog post I’m still trying to figure out how to write. Some blog posts are easy. This one isn’t. No matter how I say it, I feel like it’s going to come out sounding all needy and whiny. So I guess I’ll just say it and let the chips fall where they may.

See, here’s the thing about missionary life. We need you to not forget about us.

I’m not talking about the “remember us in prayer,” or “your donations allow us to do what we do,” kind of thing. I’m talking about the fact that we need our friends now more than ever.

Won’t you come see about me? I’ll be alone. . . 

When we first went to Ivory Coast in 2000, it was hard. Really, really hard. You may already know bits of the story, and believe me, the whole thing is coming soon, but we had all kinds of trauma and stuff going on. But even if we hadn’t—even if all we were dealing with was the usual cross-cultural transitions, I’d have still needed my friends.

Okay deep breath. Here’s where this gets sticky, but here goes.

At a time when I needed my friends the most, I felt like most of my friends forgot me. In the middle of my darkest moment, I had one friend who answered my emails. One.  (And God bless you—you know who you are.)

I get it. I left, your lives went on. I wasn’t there and communication was difficult and it’s just the natural order of things. It wasn’t intentional on your part. And that’s why this is so hard for me to say—because I know you are going to read this and feel defensive.

Slow change may pull us apart.. . 

It’s just that I needed you. I was alone on the far side of the world. My world was shattering and every unanswered email confirmed the suspicion that I was on another planet, all alone.

It’s just not the same as moving from one state to another. Unless you’ve done this kind of cross-cultural adaptation, you don’t have a frame of reference for it. Please be careful comparing it to a move from state to state in the US. That’s like comparing a kiddie wading pool to an Olympic swimming pool.  Yes, there are similarities, but this is so much harder than that.

You may have assumed that I had friends in my new host culture.

Being friends in a cross-cultural context is incredibly complex. Every word out of my mouth has to be dissected for cultural appropriateness. Every gesture is scrutinized to make sure it doesn’t have another possible interpretation. Even something as simple as saying “Hey, come over for tea,” prompts a thousand questions. “Is this an appropriate thing to do? Will it make them uncomfortable due to perceived differences in social status? Will they feel uncomfortable in my house, which is much nicer than theirs? Will I feel uncomfortable with them in my house, knowing how nice it must look to them? Do they even drink tea in the afternoon? Will they want sugar or milk with it?”

The first time I was really alone with a group of women in a non-church setting, I remember thinking “oh good! Friends!”  Except that the longer I sat there, the less it felt like that. I couldn’t follow  the conversation very well- -they were using a mix of French and a local language. Even when I did understand, I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. Their lives are very different than mine and I didn’t have the context of their daily life to put it in. One of the women was obviously pregnant and I didn’t even know if it was acceptable to ask her about it. So I just sat there listening. And they kept looking at me and kind of giggling under their breath. I was trying so hard but it was so terribly uncomfortable. It wasn’t what I needed. It was what I came to do.

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you will become, and still gently allows you to grow” — William Shakespeare

A real friendship- the kind where you can completely relax, is so challenging in this setting that I’m not sure that even after all this time, if I could pull it off. It is much better than it used to be, and I do have friends here now. But there is still a cultural wall like a glass patio door, and I still haven’t figured out how to completely open it. I know some missionaries who do it and do it well, but not me. I’m still always trying and often failing. And all of this trying and failing is changing me in ways that I can’t even express well.

Will you recognize me? Call my name or walk on by me?

Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling down down.

You may have assumed that I had friends among the other missionaries here.

Yes, it’s true, I did. I do.  Everywhere we’ve lived, there have always been other missionaries, and I’ve always been friends with them. Some of them have been very good friends. They’ve talked me down from ledges and held me while I cried. They’ve laughed with me about the kind of stuff that I couldn’t even tell you because it would sound horrible unless you live here. But there are some that I just don’t connect with either. It’s not any different than in the US- you are friends with some people and not friends with others. The only difference is that the pool is much smaller here.

Over the years, communication has gotten better. Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram have allowed me a connection I never had before. They have allowed me to share my life here with you and bring you into my world, and they’ve allowed you to keep in touch with me in a quicker, more immediate way too.

But I guess what I want to say is that it’s still true. Please don’t forget about me. When I am the one initiating the conversations all the time, I notice. I sometimes feel petty and jealous when you post about things you got to do that I didn’t get to be a part of. I feel left out when everyone gets together and I’m looking at the pictures on a screen 6,000 miles away.

I wish I could make you understand how much a simple note that says “We missed you,” means to me.

Will you call my name? As you walk on by?

And now I’ll go and argue with myself for an hour or two about whether I should actually post this. I know I sound whiny and needy, but the truth is, I am needy. You are too. We need each other.

Just know I’ll be doubting myself for the next five years for actually saying it.

Don’t you forget about me.

Sarah’s Story: God Still Does Miracles

When I walked into the kitchen on Monday morning, I knew something had happened. My housekeeper Kountouma was washing dishes, a wide grin across her face. It’s been months since I’ve seen her smile, but it was more than that. Her face was radiating joy.

( I wrote about Kountouma a couple of weeks ago. If you’d like to read more about her story, click here.) 

Kountouma’s daughter Sarah was in a taxi-moto accident a few months ago. These kinds of motorcycles are all over Lomé and they are really dangerous. Many of them don’t respect any sort of traffic laws. Accidents and even fatalities are common.

Accidents are a daily reality. Sarah’s accident was minor, but many are more serious, such as this accident involving a motorcycle and a larger vehicle.

Sarah had been wearing a helmet, which is unusual for a passenger. She had bumps and scrapes which healed quickly, and seemed otherwise unharmed. But a few weeks later she started having pain in her hands, arms, and legs. The pain escalated and soon she was in too much pain to even walk.

I knew about the accident, and I knew Sarah was having some residual pain, but I didn’t know how bad it was. Right before we left for Burkina Faso last week, I noticed how troubled Kountouma had been and I asked her about it.

She was having trouble paying for medical care, she explained. Her church had helped her pay for some blood-work and a doctor visit, all of which had turned up nothing. The doctor had told her that Sarah needed a scan. It was going to cost about $140 US and she didn’t have it. She’d exhausted every avenue available to her.

I felt the Lord nudge me to give her the money, so we did, and then we left for Burkina Faso for ten days.

*Giving money to meet a need is complicated. It is inherently related to dignity and sometimes has unintended consequences.. If you want to read about some of the complications, here’s another blog post I wrote about it. This was an exceptional situation, since it was an immediate need that Kountouma wasn’t able to meet herself. 

Monday was the first time I saw Kountouma since that day. And she was glowing.

“What’s happened?” I asked her. She couldn’t stop smiling and she was talking so fast that I was having trouble following her explanation.

Instead of doing the scan, the original doctor ended up sending them to a specialist. Understanding Kountouma’s financial reality, the specialist ordered some localized scans and did his exams. And he charged her very little.
When the results came back, he said that Sarah has nerve damage from the accident. He told her that she had waited a long time for medical care, and it was getting worse quickly.  In fact, he told her that if she had waited even just a week longer, Sarah would have been paralyzed. Instead, with physical therapy and medication, she will heal.

God provided a solution just in time.

“I was so afraid,” Kountouma finally admitted. “I hadn’t been sleeping or eating. I was calling her several times during the day while I was here working. I was so afraid I was going to come home after work and she would be dead. It had gotten so bad that I was having to bathe her and feed her.”

“If it wasn’t for you, my daughter would be paralyzed. Or even dead. Instead, yesterday, she showered by herself for the first time in weeks. She fed herself. She got up and walked around the neighborhood for about half an hour.” She began to cry.

“It wasn’t me, Kountouma. It was God. I didn’t do this. He did it.” By this point, I was crying too.

“I saw a man in my house. . . he dug up the floor and pulled out a coffin. Then he threw the coffin out of the house.”

“One night when I couldn’t sleep,” she continued, “I saw a man in my house. He was really big. I didn’t know him. He came into my home and he began digging up the floor. He dug for a long time and I just watched him. Finally, he reached into the hole and pulled out a coffin. Then he lifted it up as if it were nothing and he threw it out of my house. I looked up, watching the coffin fly out the door, and I noticed that the walls of my house were twice as tall as they had been before. And then when I looked back, the man was gone and the floor was smooth again.”

This happened before we knew about the situation– before we helped her with the money for Sarah. “I didn’t understand it,” she said. “I was so afraid because the man found a coffin in my house. But now I understand. God removed death from my house.”

“God showed me that He was removing death from my house.”

On Wednesday, Sarah came by our house. Unfortunately, we missed her because we didn’t know she was coming, but our intern Lauren was here. Lauren took a photo of Sarah for us, and she said that Sarah looks good. She looks healthy and strong. Just a few weeks ago, she was in too much pain to get out of bed, not even able to take care of basic needs. But on Wednesday, she came on her own just to thank us.

Sarah has made very rapid improvement and should be back to her normal life soon!

Americans tend to be cynical about miracles. We wonder if God really does them. We suspect coincidences. I’m guilty myself. But it’s hard to be cynical when you see it in front of you. We live in a place where we see the reality of a broken world on a daily basis. We are surrounded by people who, when they pray, have no plan B. They have no fallback. They need God to answer, and sometimes the only way that is going to happen is through a miracle. Sometimes the miracle is an instant healing. Sometimes it’s provision that comes just in time.

God still does miracles.

To our supporters- we all know that all thanks for this miracle goes to God. But the thanks that Kountouma and her daughter can’t stop giving us really belongs to you. It is you who allow us to be here. You give sacrificially. You pray. You encourage us. And it changes lives.

We hired a housekeeper. We had no idea that God had a divine appointment arranged to change the life of one little family.

And it wouldn’t have happened without you.
Lomé, Togo, March 29, 2017

Kountouma’s Story: The Daily Reality of Material Poverty

I believe in the power of stories. Stories carry a weight that no amount of essay and exposition ever will.

Did you know that when you listen to someone speak, you engage the language processing portions of your brain- where you decode words into meaning?  That’s all.

But when you listen to a story, you not only engage language processing centers, but you also engage any other area of your brain that would engage if the story were happening to you!

When you listen to a story, your brain engages as if you are experiencing the story.

(You might be interested to read my source here, but do it later. Don’t get distracted because there is a story coming.)

This is a story about Kountouma. (Koon- TOO-ma)  I want to tell you her story, because telling you her story will allow you to experience the reality of material poverty better than anything else I could write.

This is Kountouma’s Story

Kountouma has been our housekeeper this term.

Kountouma is our housekeeper. She is a Togolese woman whom I hired when we first arrived in Togo in October of 2015. She works for me three days a week helping me keep a house clean in a dusty and humid climate. She frees me to write curriculum, teach seminars, and to sit at my desk and write blog posts.

A few months ago, one of Kountouma’s two college-age daughters was in a motorcycle-taxi accident. She was wearing a helmet and at first it seemed she was just a little scraped up and sore, but otherwise fine. Then about four weeks later, she started having extreme pain. Even walking hurt.

Kountouma is a single mother. She was married once for a few years, but her husband’s mother opposed the marriage. She didn’t think Kountouma was good enough for her son, so she manipulated to separate them and eventually her son chose his mother over Kountouma.  He left her, refusing even to help her financially support their little girls.

Kountouma does have a legal recourse, but he is an officer in the military, which means he is connected in the government. If she took him to court, there is a chance a judge would rule in his favor due to his position, rank, or influence. Even if she won a ruling in her favor, it would cause him enough disgrace to lose his rank and position, which could make him vengeful. She’d be required to give him access to her daughters and she would fear for their safety. It was much easier for her to make an agreement with him. He stays away, and in exchange, he owes her nothing. She has traded financial security for the safety of her daughters.

I’d like to tell you that while she lives modestly, she is managing. But the truth is, she is not.

She has very little. She works for me part-time and I pay her significantly above minimum wage for her job, but she still only makes about $70/month. She has not been able to find another part-time job in the 16 months she has worked for me, so she is supporting all three of them on $70/ month.

Financial poverty at this level is a downward spiral. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as an individual living on $1.90/day or less. Do the math- she and her  daughters are living on $0.77/day.

Her home is a little ways out of town because that is where she can afford to live, but it means that transportation to work each day costs her more. She pays about $1.25 per day for a ride on a taxi-moto. Her daughters also need transportation money. During the rainy season, her neighborhood is inundated with mud. She has trouble getting a moto to come to work, and a car taxi would cost her $5.00 or more. Either way, even the weather can lead to loss of income.

She has no electricity at her home and no running water. They draw water from a well in their neighborhood, and the water isn’t clean.  Lack of clean water, electricity, and adequate sanitation means that she wages a constant battle with preventable illness. The swampy area where she lives means that she constantly has malaria.

This is not Kountouma’s home, but it does show the living conditions of some in similar circumstances. I don’t know how many people live here, but it is likely to be an extended family or possibly multiple families. This home, unlike Kountouma’s, has electricity.

It costs less than $10 for her to visit a locally-trained physician, but even that amount means she only goes to the doctor in a dire situation.  It’s much easier to go to the pharmacy , purchase whatever the pharmacist recommends, and hope it works. If the pharmacist is wrong, she’ll have to come back and try something else at more cost to her.

But even more devastating is the catastrophic effect one setback, like a motorcycle taxi accident, can have.

When Kountouma’s daughter was unable to get out of bed from the pain, Kountouma took her to the hospital with money borrowed from a neighbor. Her church helped her pay for blood tests and exams. Everything came back negative, but her daughter continues to be in extreme pain. The next step is for her to have a scan. (The word she used is generic. It could be an MRI, or it could be a CAT scan.) The price is going to be about $125.00. Almost two months salary.

Kountouma has no other resources. She is just out of options. She has been crying at work off and on for a week. She tells me she hasn’t been sleeping.

You may be wondering at this point why she didn’t ask me for help. About a year ago, Koutouma’s other daughter found a lump in her breast. Kountouma’s financial situation was exactly the same then as it is now, and at that point, we helped her pay for the surgery to have it removed. We gifted her some of the money and she borrowed the rest. She just finished paying that sum back a few months ago and she didn’t want to ask us for help again. It was humbling. Humiliating.

Without help, Kountouma’s financial situation will continue to deteriorate. She didn’t ask, but the Lord spoke to us to help- because it was within our power to do so.

Kountouma needs help in two ways. She needs help that falls under the category of “relief,” and she needs help that falls under the category of “development.” 

1. Kountouma needs the kind of help referred to in humanitarian circles as “relief.” She has an immediate and urgent need that she is unable to meet herself. This afternoon, we gave her a gift to pay for the scan for her daughter. And even more importantly, we prayed for her. Will you join us in prayer for a miracle for Sarah?

2. Kountouma also needs the kind of help that falls under the category of “development.” She needs someone to work WITH her (not FOR her)  to create long-term solutions. When we leave for the US in a few months, she will be unemployed again. But she needs to be able to support herself, even when something unexpected arises. She needs to own a solution with dignity. 

We are trying to help her with this need as well. Before she came to work for us, she had a stall in a local community market. She sold dried pasta, canned tomatoes, oil, and rice– basic staples in the local kitchen and the kind of thing that people buy daily to make a daily meal. She has managed to pay the subscription to keep her market stall, but she needs money to start back up again. Getting a start-up loan from a bank is difficult and comes with exorbitant interest.

Will you pray with us for this need as well? We want to help her, but this is a step of faith for us too. The amount she needs is not a comfortable amount for us to lend. This falls outside of the designations for our missions account, so this will be a personal arrangement.

I’m not telling you this story to make us look good. In fact, I didn’t really want to tell you what we are doing to help her, because we aren’t trying to brag and we don’t want praise.

But I decided it was important to tell you this story because I want you to see the face of extreme poverty. It isn’t laziness, or bad management. It isn’t lack of determination. It isn’t even lack of faith. Koutouma is why I have trouble swallowing the validity of the  “health and wealth” gospel.

The world is not fair, and that is just the honest truth. It is broken and fallen. Some people have, and some people don’t. But where there is great need, there is also great faith. The African church sees so many more miracles than the American church because so many believers in the African church have nothing else to fall back on. And where there is that desperation of faith– that need for God in which there is no plan B if God doesn’t answer– God answers. In fact, we got to be part of a miraculous answer to prayer just a few days ago. 

This is the hope we all have in Jesus. You. Me. Kountouma.

Will you join with us in prayer for her needs, and for the needs of millions of other individuals with just as desperate of circumstances whose names we don’t know?





All We Had Was Beans: Stories from the Field

Once upon today. . . . we went to visit an orphanage.

Well, it isn’t really an orphanage. But it’s a little clunky to say “once upon a time we went to visit a program for former street children who have been invited off the streets and are now short-term residents, during which time trained volunteers will attempt reconciliation and reintegration of the child with their family.”  They call it an orphanage, so we will stick with that.

This wall shows all the children currently in residence.

A bit of back story

Last fall we were contacted by King’s Circle Assembly of God in Corvallis, Oregon. The church wanted to do something special for children in Africa during the upcoming Christmas season. We, in turn, approached the Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries department and asked about ministries directly impacting orphans or vulnerable children. The national leaders directed us to La Solution Orphanage, just outside of Lomé, Togo.

We first visited La Solution in November. We toured their facility and asked questions about the services the facility provides, and we heard about their needs, and we passed that information along to King’s Circle.

Click here to read more about the services and needs of La Solution Orphanage.

 King’s Circle then took an offering. A lot of consideration was given to how to use the gift to best help the ministry of La Solution. In collaboration with both the Togo Children’s Ministries  Department and the donor church, it was decided that the best way to help the program was to provide a three-month supply of food to meet an immediate food shortage, and to designate the rest of the funds toward an animal husbandry project that will both provide meat for the children to eat and provide income for the other needs of the ministry.  Meanwhile, the director of La Solution, Celestin Mawussi, knew nothing about the upcoming offering. The national leaders decided to keep it a surprise.

Once upon today, we went to visit an orphanage.

We pulled up this morning at a few minutes before 8 AM. Executives from the Togo National Children’s Ministries department pulled up in vehicles beside us. One of the vehicles was noticeably loaded, the wheel wells just inches from the tires.

The courtyard was quiet. The children were all next door at school, but Mawussi greeted everyone in typical African fashion, friendly and welcoming, but obviously not sure why we were there.

Pastor Renée Afangbedji, the children’s ministries treasurer, apologized for the unexpected visit and asked Mawussi if there were some people around who could help unload a few things from his car.  If Mawussi hadn’t guessed by then that something was up, the amount of cameras recording video certainly gave it away.

Renée opened the back of his little SUV to reveal that it was laden with food. Jugs of cooking oil, boxes of canned tomatoes and macaroni noodles, and five 50-kg bags of rice were unloaded, hoisted onto the heads of young men jumping in to help. Mawussi was quiet- not reserved or ungrateful– but thoughtful, and contemplative. I wondered what he was thinking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After the food was unloaded into his office, he invited us to come sit down. Introductions and social protocol completed, Pastor Koffi Evú, President of the Children’s Ministries department, began to explain.  “The department believes in what you are doing to touch the lives of children. Our missionaries, when they saw your work, were truly touched. God has put it on the hearts of a church in the US to help meet some of your needs. We’ve brought some food, but in the interest of helping you move toward financial independence, we also have a financial gift- enough to develop the animal husbandry programs.”

I was filming, but I looked up to see that Mawussi’s eyes had filled with tears. He stood formally, and explained.

Celestin Mawussi expressing his thanks for today’s gifts.

“I am lacking the words to say thank you . . . except to say that the Word of God is always true. Your visit is written in the Bible. One day Abraham received three angels without knowing they were angels. He showed them hospitality, and he fed them. He did not know why they were there. But when they had finished, they revealed that they were angels. They delivered a message of God’s promise- a promise that was fulfilled the following year when Sarah gave birth to a baby boy.

“In seventeen years, I have not had something like this happen to me. What you do not know is that this morning, there was nothing on the cooking fire for the children except beans. I was troubled because I knew that if I didn’t feed them, they would sleep during their class, but I had nothing but beans to give them. Our flour and our sugar are gone. I had no bread or beverages. So I gave them the beans and sent them to school. If you have ever had to tell a child that you have no food to give them, you know it is difficult.

“What you do not know is that this morning, there was nothing on the cooking fire for the children except beans.”

“But you have changed our situation. You have shown the love of God to these children. My faith was weak this morning, but those who believe in God are not disappointed.”

The Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries department leaders, plus Mawussi, Director (far right)

I have no ulterior motive for telling you this story. We are not raising funds for this project. In fact, the offering that was given was for the specific purpose of helping the project be financially self-supporting. I tell you this story today because sometimes we all need to be reminded that God still sees us. Whether your situation is as desperate as having nothing to eat but beans, or whether it isn’t quite that desperate, God still sees you.

Psalm 25:3 says “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.” We arrived with food on the very day they were out of food. Consider how much God planned in advance for this to happen. All of the preparation for this day, stretching back to last October and all of it came together just when Mawussi had reached the end of the food and the end of his ability.


“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:7-8


Mission KidMin: The Donated-Curriculum Connondrum

“We have some used children’s curriculum we would like to donate to Africa. How can we get it to you?”

It’s a question we receive on a regular basis and to be honest, it’s a hard one for us to know how to respond to.

We are so excited that you want to help. The lack of curriculum and resources is one of the three most common challenges churches here struggle with, and we appreciate that you are willing to spend money and make the effort to ship us your materials.

So how do we  let you know that your materials would be better donated somewhere else without punching your compassion in the throat?

The answer, I think, is to show you.

three reasons why U.S. Curriculum doesn’t usually work in Africa

1. Language

Your curriculum is probably written in English. This is a problem in some countries in Africa for the simple reason that English is not spoken. Africa is home to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of the world’s languages, with even small nations like Togo recording 40 or more languages. Many countries have adopted a foreign language as their official language, the three primary being French, Portuguese, and English, but even those three don’t cover all of Africa.

In the nations where English is the official language, it is often people’s second or third language. Children may not learn to speak it until they attend school. Adult teachers will have to read the curriculum in English and translate it into the local language to teach it. And in some places, such as Liberia, the English spoken is so different that even the teachers would struggle to read a curriculum written in American English.

Still, there are plenty of places places in Africa where an English curriculum would be usable in terms of language. In fact, English is one of the primary languages in which we try to make materials available. But language isn’t the only issue.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

2. Resources

When we first arrived in Cote d’Ivoire in 2001, we visited a local church that was asking for help with their children’s ministries. They were using a donated curriculum from the US that someone had translated into French for them.

We opened it to the first lesson- Creation.

Opening Activity: Attach a large sheet of paper to the wall. As children enter the class, give children crayons and have them draw a mural of all the things God created.

We looked around at the classroom space. A concrete floor, wood supports, a corrugated tin roof. No walls.

Even if they had walls, they had no crayons. Colored pencils were available but the cost was out of reach. The church had no budget for children’s ministries and the teachers couldn’t afford to donate them. Even the cost of the paper was out of reach.

Lesson Introduction: You will need to black out the windows before class. Seat children in a circle and turn the lights on and off. Talk about how God separated the light from the darkness.

No windows to black out. No electricity. Even seating children in a circle is problematic because there will be over 150 children in this 15′ x 15′ space on Sunday morning. They will be crowded so tightly on the benches that the children on the end will fall off.

The lessons continued, item by item, with very few ideas that could reasonably be done in this setting. At some point, their curriculum was just irrelevant because most of the ideas wouldn’t work as written. They just didn’t have the right resources.

The slideshow below highlights conditions in various Children’s church/ Sunday schools in West Africa.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

3. Cultural Appropriateness

Anybody who has worked in KidMin for a while is familiar with the term “age-appropriate.” It refers to adapting content and teaching methods to correspond to the age of the child. But did you know there is such a thing as “culturally-appropriate” too?

American curriculum is full of cultural imagery and references. For example, one lesson refers to a fisherman character. He wears waders, a utility vest and a big floppy hat. He carries a fishing pole and makes puns about the Bass Pro Shop.

Children here don’t understand any of this. A fisherman here goes out on a lake or on the ocean in a wooden boat and uses a net. He’s often dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts. Bass Pro Shop? What is that?

Superheros, spies, science laboratories, the circus, adventure sports– All themes that most children here would not relate to at all. Don’t even get me started on Pirates.

Setting aside the cute themes, let’s just talk about a curriculum’s application to children’s lives. The issues that children in America deal with are very different than those that African children deal with. There is overlap to be sure- some issues are common to all of mankind. But rarely does an American curriculum deal with trusting God in the midst of Ebola outbreaks or war. Rarely do they address the issues of children who are kicked out of their home onto the streets because a new step-parent doesn’t want them there, or with children accused of witchcraft, or children converted out of Islamic families.

I’m not saying that every child in Africa deals with such extreme circumstances. Even in less extreme circumstances, a US curriculum is much less likely to deal with food insecurity or how to witness to your Muslim friend.

American curriculum, written for American kids, just isn’t culturally-appropriate.

The Result:

If we try to fit this sort of square peg into a round hole, if we give a teacher a curriculum imported from the US, knowing it isn’t designed for her situation,  one of two things will happen-

  1. The teacher will conclude that in order to do children’s ministry, she must have walls, electricity, crayons, paper, glue, puppets, a projector.  If she cannot get these things, or the missionary cannot purchase them for her, she cannot do children’s ministry.

2. Or, she will just set the curriculum aside and not use it.

This is not a projection or a guess on our part of what may happen. This does happen. We’ve seen it. Either way, the investment of  purchasing a western curriculum, or of shipping donated curriculum here, is wasted.

The slideshow below is a real-life example of an American curriculum, with notes about what can and can’t be done in our local churches and why. *Note: The curriculum pictured is the Gospel Project, ©LifeWay 2016. The curriculum is well-received and popular in the US and this slideshow is in no way intended to disparage the materials. It is simply to highlight the difficulty in using them here in West Africa. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

what you are probably thinking:

Let’s keep the conversation going. If you have read this far, you are probably still interested. I can guess what you are thinking because its what I would have been thinking.

Isn’t something better than nothing? An experienced teacher could adapt activities to their situation when they don’t work. 
That is true. And “experienced” is the key word. Few teachers here have  worked with creative teaching methods. They weren’t taught themselves using creative teaching methods.  They have no frame of reference. They aren’t ready to adapt. So what happens? Either item 1, or item 2, above.

We can provide the paper, the craft supplies, and the puppets as well. 

Thank you for your generous heart! I don’t want to be a jerk, but let me ask this question. Can you provide those things to all the churches? If you provide them to one church, another may conclude that they also need those things in order to do children’s ministry. Since they can’t get them, they can’t do children’s ministry. Is that the message we are trying to send?

We’ve donated before and the national people are always happy to receive it. 

Yes, they are. You are offering to help them and they need help. They may not yet realize that the materials you are sending them won’t work. Even if they do, their culture will not allow them to turn you down. It would be very rude to say “no,” to an offer of help, so they say “yes,” even if it won’t help them.

I’m not saying there is not a place in the world for donated curriculum. Even if Africa, there are a few isolated places where the conditions might be right for donated materials to be reused. But those places are few and far-between.

So now that I’ve trampled all over your good intentions, let’s look at the alternatives. What is the solution? What is the better way?




Mission KidMin: The Curriculum Campaign

We first met with the team of children’s ministry volunteers at Temple Eben-Ezer in Lome earlier this year. There are about 12 of them, each one a volunteer. They are men and women, married and single, young adults, and middle-aged,  each with his or her own job and family to attend to. But they come every week to teach around 300 children between the ages of 2-16 the word of God.

“Tell us what you are doing,” we asked them. “How do you decide what to teach each week?  Are you using a curriculum?”

An uncomfortable silence followed. They eyed each other nervously, each one hoping another would speak. Finally a young man in his twenties smiled shyly, “No,” he said. “We don’t have anything. We meet every week. We decide who will lead the music and who will lead the prayer and who will teach from the Bible. We decide what the Bible theme will be. Then we come on Sunday and teach it.”

“What are your biggest challenges?” we asked them.

“We need training,” they said. A few of them nodded and another one raised his hand, commenting that he had been to one of our training seminars. “And we need curriculum.”

Temple Eben-Ezer is normal. In fact, curriculum for the children’s programs is one of the three most-often expressed needs in Children’s ministries across Africa.


The Children’s church volunteers at Temple Eben-Ezer in Lome, Togo

As KidMin missionaries, one of our number one priorities is to-

  • Locate usable materials for Africa and facilitate their translation and distribution, and
  • Create new, culturally appropriate materials

why do african churches need curriculum?

This may seem like a softball question, but let’s take it apart and examine it. Why do they need curriculum? Can they not teach directly from their Bibles? Children’s ministry is as old as the church, but children’s curriculum is a relatively new concept.

African kids ministries need curriculum because they need solid biblical content.

Children’s pastors in Africa are almost unheard of. Most of those involved in children’s ministry are volunteers. They may be adults, or it may be teenagers teaching the children. Many are new believers themselves. And in order to faithfully teach the Bible, they have to adequately understand the Bible. A good curriculum provides solid, Bible-based, doctrinally-sound content.

african kids ministries need curriculum because the teachers are largely under-trained.

Most children’s ministry volunteers in this part of the world lack any personal experience with creative teaching methods.

I was raised in the suburban American church. I am familiar with a flannel-graph Bible story, a memory verse game, what an object lesson is, etc. But across most of our region, those teaching children were taught as children using rote-memory and lecture-based learning. They were taught to repeat what the teacher says and to sit down and listen to the teacher talk. It’s what they know.

In our efforts to train teachers how to disciple children, how to transform their lives, we constantly stress the importance of teaching in a way that children will learn– that is to say, abandon lecture-style teaching, or preaching a sermon to children. Use methods that allow children to participate, to be involved in church, and to be active and vibrant members of the church, not just pew-warmers.

In fact, we kind of have a catchphrase we stress in all of our training:

The more you participate, the more you learn. 

But if the teachers don’t have any frame of reference to even know what those kinds of methods look like, and they don’t have a curriculum to tell them how, they fall back on what they know- lecturing, preaching, and reciting.

african kids ministries need curriculum because they need comprehensive biblical content,

If you are writing your own lessons, week after week, month after month, how do you know if you’ve covered the entire Bible in the years that children pass through your ministry? How do you know that you have covered the broad range of topics that children need to hear in order to build their faith? How do you know if you’ve spent too much time teaching about the life of Joseph and not enough time teaching about the life of David?  A well-written curriculum is intentionally planned to teach a broad and balanced range of topics, and to tie the Bible into one cohesive story.

So now that we know why. . . .

what makes materials USABLE in the african context?

A good curriculum covers a broad range of topics, and has been written to intentionally give children balanced spiritual nourishment. A good curriculum in any country, in any church, should always be Biblically-based, doctrinally-sound and comprehensive. But in addition to these criteria, what else are we looking for?

In order to be usable by a local African church, it must also be:

In a language the teacher can read.

If we can find materials in English, French, Portuguese, or Swahili, we can cover most of Africa. We can also cross-translate materials.

Resource-level appropriate.

A curriculum that requires A/V equipment, supplemental materials or costly supplies is out of reach. Even one that requires photocopies, crayons & craft sticks is probably out of reach.


Children in this region are not familiar with western cultural references. Going deeper, even some of the issues children here face are different than issues faced by children in western cultures. A curriculum here needs to be able to challenge children to deeper faith in their own daily reality.

Unfortunately, this excludes 99% * of American curriculum from being usable in Africa. We hate to be Negative Nellies, but importing donated and out of date materials from the US really doesn’t help our churches. If you are interested in more information on why this is the case, please click this link to read my previous post, “The Donated Curriculum Conundrum.” 

*May be poetic license, but you get the idea. 

Locating and distributing existing materials

Why re-invent the wheel? We are always on the lookout for existing materials that are usable here. We look for materials that meet the above requirements, and we look for materials that incorporate creative teaching methods. How can we tell our teachers they need to teach creatively so that children learn, and then give them materials that don’t?

There just isn’t much that fills all of these requirements. But we are always on the lookout.

We ask Missionaries:

Missionaries have been here for decades and many of them have written materials for children. We just have to locate them. We ask everyone we meet. We ask other organizations. We ask other regions of the world. “Do you have any materials you’d be willing to share?”Then we put them on an online library that we all can access.  It’s all about sharing.

we ask national churches:

National churches have written some of their own materials. The country of Togo has been producing Sunday school material and distributing them to all of their 2,000 + churches for at least ten years. This material contains good content, but is weak on creative ideas. So what can we do to help them strengthen it?  We can help them add creative teaching methods! This way, they create a product that is both 100% theirs, and still effective at discipling children. We are also encouraging them share too!

We translate:

Finally, we are working to translate the materials we do locate into other languages to widen their availability. One of our ongoing projects right now is the translation of an age-graded French curriculum. Eight years of Sunday school materials, already available in French, soon to also be available in English. This is a big step forward!

Creating New Materials

Creating new materials is a very labor-intensive process. That’s why we’d rather locate existing materials first!  But in some cases, creating brand new materials is the best option.

We are currently involved in a  project to create new Children’s church materials. The project, whose working title is “Principles for Life” is a cooperative effort between every region of the world. Missionaries and national people from all over the world contribute individual lessons which are being compiled into five years worth of curriculum. The lessons are specifically written for use in churches with little or no financial means, for use by teachers with little or no training. Currently, year one is complete, year two is in the editing process, and year three is completely written and waiting for editing. Translation is also in process into French, with the possibility of Portuguese to follow.  We are serving as the coordinators of the project, facilitating the French translation, and we have input on the editing team.

The slideshow below shows a lesson from the Principles for Life Materials. Notice that the only props required are items that someone in a developing nation can find in their home, their neighbors home, or on the way to church. The activities are simple and the materials cover the entire Bible in five years.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Please click here to find out more information about how you, personally, can be involved in any of our ongoing ministry projects, including Curriculum development.

Thank you so much for your interest in The Malcolms in Africa Curriculum Campaign. We would be glad to answer any further questions you might have about the project, and we appreciate your partnership. Together, we can build children’s ministry in Africa, reaching a generation for Christ and shaping the future of a continent. 


An Orphan and a Sheep Pen

An Orphan:

*Koku is a ten-year  old  boy. He’s an orphan by local definition. His mother died. His father remarried, and Koku’s new stepmother had little inclination to care for another woman’s child. Day after day she told Koku’s father, “Your son refuses to obey me. He is lazy. He has disrespected me.” Grave charges in this culture. Maybe they were true, and maybe they weren’t, but one day, Koku’s stepmother forced her husband’s hand. “Either he goes, or I go.”

So Koku became a street child, struggling daily to survive and facing a future that could include crime, being trafficked or exploited, or prison.

“La Solution” is an orphanage, but it isn’t what you expect. It wasn’t even what I expected. This orphanage is not a permanent residence center. It focuses on kids like Koku, and it’s primary goal is the restoration of Koku’s relationship with his family.

Welcome to the Orphanage "The Solution"

Welcome to the Orphanage “The Solution”

This orphanage looks for kids like Koku. “We go out after nine o’clock,” one of the orphanage staff explains. “That’s when you will find the children. They sleep next to gas stations and under the tables in the public market.” This was where the staff found Koku. They offered him food, clothing, a place to sleep, if he was willing to come with them.

Trained staff, licensed by the state, visited Koku’s parents. They explained that Koku was safe with them. They explained the law- that Koku’s father has forfeited parental rights for three years, but  both Koku and his family will be offered counseling and education, and a chance at reconciliation at the end of that time.

Koku moved into the boys dormitory. He was welcomed into a community with friends from similar situations and adults who understand the unique needs of rehabilitating street children.

The dorm room housing boys Koku's age.

The dorm room housing boys Koku’s age. The green netting keeps malarial mosquitoes from biting while the boys sleep.

Today, Koku is fed, attends school, receives medical care as needed, and is expected to participate in daily chores. Deliberate attention is paid to making sure that Koku hears about the love of Jesus, and that he is given every opportunity to allow Jesus to transform his life.

Koku attends school in a classroom like this one. (Koku is not pictured.)

Koku attends school in a classroom like this one. (Koku is not pictured.)

At the end of three years, another reconciliation will be attempted with Koku’s family. Will it be successful? I do not know. But the success rate after three years must be high, since this particular orphanage has had nearly 500 children come and go in the last 15 years. It currently houses 40 boys and 33 girls between the ages of 5-18, and has a waiting list of 45 more children.

A Sheep Pen:

But what does any of this have to do with a sheep pen? Stay with me and I’ll get there.

This program sometimes doesn’t have food to feed the children. “I can explain it to the older ones,” the director told us, “but the younger ones just cry. They are hungry and they don’t understand. It breaks my heart.”

This program struggles to pay tuition fees. “We can’t send street children to public schools. The children don’t adapt and the schools won’t adapt. So we have to send them to private schools. It costs 2,600,000 cfa (about $4,500) to send all of the children to school for a year. We never know where it will come from.”

This program constantly struggling to pay for basic health care for the children. “There is a clinic just around the corner. The woman runs it out of her home. She treats the children, for free when she can, and on credit when she can’t- something nobody else will do. But we owe her 450,000 cfa. (About $785) She needs us to pay her even just a little bit of that because she is out of medicine. But we don’t have it.”

I know what you are thinking. You are already reaching for your wallet. I even commented to Phil, “this is the kind of thing that makes me want to empty my pockets.” But let’s rein it in for a moment. Is a one-time donation the right solution for this project? It might solve an immediate need, but what happens next week, or the week after?

This orphanage is not a missionary endeavor. It was started by Togolese people for Togolese children. That is a good thing! It represents local people creating their own solutions, and ownership is the beginning of sustainability.

Sustainability is the ability of a project to maintain its own operations, services, and benefits, without dependency on outside help.

This orphanage depends entirely on donations: local churches, alumni, local people, and the occasional outside organization. None of these are stable sources of income. Donors are hit by recession and can no longer afford to give. They lose their jobs. They change their giving strategy. Or they just get bored and give to a new cause. For whatever reason, when the donations stop coming in, the program will suffer. Until La Solution has a stable source of income, it will always be vulnerable.

How can we help projects like these? You are generous. You are ready to give, but this isn’t intended to be a fundraising post. It’s intended to be an illustration. Sometimes the best way to help projects like “La Solution” is not the glamorous way.

The orphanage is building a sheep pen. It is just one of several projects they are working toward to generate their own income. Their plan is to buy lambs and raise them, breeding them and selling them year after year. The annual income will help keep the program running. Most of the project is complete- they have purchased land and they have built a shelter for the animals. But they only had half of the roof on when their funding ran out.

the best way to help a street child like koku may be to help the program supporting him achieve financial independence. It may be to build a roof on a sheep pen. 


As a missionary of 18 years, I can tell you from experience that some things are easier to raise funds for than others. Raising funds for food, for school supplies, or for medicine is easy. Raising funds for a roof on a sheep pen is harder. It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t tug on our heartstrings.

But my hope is that the next time you are making a decision about giving, you will remember the sustainability principle and consider how giving to an unglamorous project, like a tin roof on a sheep shed, might be the best way help a street-child like Koku.

*Koku’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.

The “It’s Complicated” Relationship Between Poverty and Dignity

A number of years ago, Phil and I were in a difficult financial situation. I had been unemployed for several months despite my persistent attempts to find a job, and the mailbox was full of envelopes stamped in angry red letters, “Last notice”. One day, when we had just $10 in our checking account, and no reserves, I stood at the gas pump doing math in my head. “For six dollars, I can buy 2.5 gallons of gas. The car gets 27 mpg. It is 20 miles to Phil’s office. That should be enough to last until his next payday. I’ll use the last four dollars to buy a gallon of milk.”

That same week, a friend happened to hear of my difficulty by reason of tears I couldn’t hide in time. She asked what was wrong. I broke down and told her the whole story. Being my friend and a wonderful human being, she immediately took out her checkbook and wrote me a check for $300, no further questions asked, no repayment required.

It was a tremendously generous gesture and to this day, I am moved by her act. But there was a consequence of her gift that neither of us had anticipated. I felt shame. Had I somehow manipulated her into giving to me? I hadn’t intended to. Her own finances probably were stretched by the gift. How could I have taken it from her? The money helped, but what I really needed was a job.

For the next several months, the vague sense of dishonor returned every time I saw her. I didn’t post on my Facebook when we scraped together the money to go out to dinner because I didn’t want her to see. When I wore a pair of shoes that looked new, I felt like I had to explain to her that they weren’t new. How could such a kind gift produce such a humiliating consequence?

As a missionary working in some of the poorest countries on earth, I hesitate to tell this story in this context. Even in my moment of poverty, I still had a car to drive and a home to go to. I never missed a meal, had electricity and running water and clothes to wear. My situation was not dire. But the story still illustrates my point. There is a complicated relationship between poverty and dignity.

In their book, “When Helping Hurts,” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe an exercise in which they asked various people to define poverty.

While poor people [in low-income countries] mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. [pg 51]

Interesting, isn’t it? That people living in some of the lowest income places on earth don’t define their poverty solely as a lack of money.

Think about how you might feel if you needed a foreign person to send you money every month so you could feed your children. Would you feel thankful, but oddly ashamed at the same time?

Might you feel a little humiliated, too, if a tourist in your country snapped a picture of your child sitting in the dirt and then used it to elicit sympathy for their fund-raising campaign?

What kind of desperation would drive you to surrender your child to an orphanage supported by a church far away because they might give your child a better life than you could? Would you not wonder why someone wasn’t using those same donations to create opportunities for you so that you could support your own child?

What if your child got a letter from a child in a far-away country who was far richer than you, asking your child what it was like to be poor? Would you feel inferior? Embarrassed? Marginalized?

Might you feel a little voiceless if you ran a shop selling clothes, school supplies or toys, and a church in a foreign country spent more money than you would earn in a year to ship a container of the same items, to be given out in your town for free? Would you wish they had used the money they spent to ship the container to purchase from you instead? Would you fear what the influx of free goods in your town might do to your income?

So what am I really saying? Am I saying that my friend did something wrong in giving me a check for $300? Am I saying that we shouldn’t participate in child-sponsorship ministries or support orphan care initiatives or donate material goods?

No. That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying that sometimes help, even help with the purest of intentions, has unintended consequences. I’m saying that sometimes our helping hurts. I’m saying that all of us, missionaries, pastors, lay-people, anyone who wants to help others, can and should consider the dignity of those they want to help.

The fact of the matter is, we like to know who we help. We want the personal connection. We want to put the picture of the child on our fridge, or see before and after videos for the project we gave to. And that isn’t wrong, but it shouldn’t drive our methods. We should be careful that we respect the dignity of people- as capable and intelligent, made in the image of God and not just an object of pity- even if it means we miss the photo-op.
For example:

  • There are child-sponsorship programs that protect the dignity of those they help by channeling funds into projects that benefit many children and their families without putting people in situations that might be embarrassing for them.
  • There are a lot of great orphan-care ministries run through local churches. These ministries place local orphaned children in homes and communities, and help support parents who might otherwise be tempted to surrender their children to an orphanage. These types of ministries have an extra sparkle in their shine because they elevate the local church. The entire community sees the local church caring for children in need, which draws people to the church.
  • A clothing and school-supply outreach is a fantastic idea, and if the organizers are deliberate to purchase locally, more sparkle in the shine. We heard a story recently of a church in the US that wanted to purchase school supplies for children in need in Togo. The church sent a financial donation to the school. The school, a Christian school operated by the local church, purchased the supplies from the vendor next door, a Muslim man. The man was so touched by the idea that a church in America would support his business that he continued to donate supplies to the school in the months and years following.

These are just a few examples of hundreds of ministries endeavoring to be deliberate about when, where, why, and how they engage with the materially poor. A small adjustment to our practices, our attitudes, and our responses can make a big difference. By making informed decisions, we can avoid  unintended consequences and do a better job of showing the world the light of Jesus.