International Ministries

God doesn’t abandon us in our poverty

January 21, 2011 Journal
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The Ligue's* 3-day New Year's retreat started off with very challenging questions.  How do Ligue members become a truly transformational force in local villages?  Do they share Good News?  Do they make village life healthier, safer, more satisfying, more productive?  Do they care for the land and the other creatures that depend on it?

The scope of these questions turned out to be too large.  Retreat organizers decided to look at transformation through the lens of one specific issue: how Ligue members relate to former Ligue members who have dropped out, who are losing their faith, or have lost it.  Too often people stop coming to Bible studies, drop off the fellowship map without a trace, and no Ligue member bothers to talk with them again.

This led us to think about how Jesus handled discouraged people with wavering faith.  In Luke 24, we find Cleopas and his companion crushed by Jesus' arrest and crucifixion.  Their dreams had vanished.  In this disappointment, Jesus sought them out.  He listened to their deeepest concerns.  And then he explained from the Scriptures how God's purpose was being worked out in the chaotic events in Jerusalem, even though that purpose was different from what they had expected.  In a matter of a few hours, the wavering disciples understood God's plan in a new way and recognized Jesus alive, tangible evidence of the plan.  Their faith revitalized, they immediately returned to Jerusalem to testify. 

What are the "deepest concerns" of Ligue members who drop out, even repudiate their faith in Christ?  Obviously there is no single answer.  But a surprisingly common concern that young Christians have is: "Why does poverty have such a stranglehold on rural Congolese, even those who follow Christ?  Why have so many dollars been poured into development activities here for so many years, with such meager results?  We pray; does God not hear us?  Does he only hear and help foreigners?  Has he only chosen them and abandoned us?"  By listening to and addressing this preoccupation, we might be able to point the way back to God and his purpose.   

This is where Pastor Mulama Mozart and I had a chance to share reflections on poverty, development, and literacy.  We often think of the evil, brokenness and waste around us as something that simply happens to us, caused by others.  What we often don't see is that we ourselves contribute to it.  We are responsible both by what we do and by our inaction.  We need to be changed in order to restore the world.

Pastor Mulama pulled no punches.  "God," he said, "has given Congo so many resources that he might well resent Congolese Christians constantly badgering him in prayer and song to do something about their situation."  Other Congolese have described the poverty in Bandundu as “poverty from lack of initiative.”  Pastor Mulama pressed the point. 

"We cannot go on blaming others," he said.  "We can't depend on handouts from the church, the mosque, the government, the United Nations, the Americans, the Europeans, or the Chinese.  SOPEKA is not for us."  SOPEKA is a popular acronym here for the dependent mentality that is going nowhere fast.  It comes from three phrases.  SOmbela ngai - “buy for me”.  PEsila ngai – “gimme”.  KAbila ngai – “share with me”.  SOPEKA says "Take care of me, it's not my fault."

But we don't understand how our values and decision often entangle us and mire us in poverty.  When we neglect the infrastructure and means of production we already have (roads, buildings, water sources, or machines, for example), poverty is inevitable.  When we encourage ignorance, isolation and conformity, we close ourselves off from the knowledge and tools that can help us to escape poverty.  When we tolerate corruption and oppression, they siphon off important parts of our production and discourage initiative.  Our rivalries and conflicts create insecurity which consumes resources and discourages people from building for the future.  And of course laziness, alcohol and drugs weaken both resolve and strength to change.  We have choices to make.

Pastor Mulama offered this advice:
    1.  discover, define and accept responsibility for what we’re doing wrong or failing to do that is right (giving 2 Kings 7:9 as an example)
    2.  seek the change within ourselves that is necessary (Rom. 12:2)
    3.  define the plan that is needed in order to change what we can in our exterior situation
    4.  work the plan

I started by suggesting what true “development goals” are.  It is a “shalom” of health and well-being.  Development becomes possible when we allow God to step in and straighten out our relationships: with him and the spiritual world, with the physical world around us, with others and society.  We care for God's creation and become productive stewards of our particular corner of the world.  This responsible production allows to take good care of our families and share generously and graciously with others.  We nurture and extend community life. In healthy community, God adds to our knowledge, intelligence and personal gifts from the stores of other people.  We reflect God's image more clearly and we regain the purpose He had for us from the beginning.

I told participants how literacy lets us hear God's Word in his scriptures.  Our hearing the word is an important part of His transforming work in us.  But being able to read also opens a door to the accumulated knowledge and experience of hundreds of generations of people from all around the world.  The knowledge and experience available from the Lusekele agricultural development center are part of God's enabling gifts.  High-yielding, disease resistant varieties of cassava - a mainstay of the diet.  High-yielding varieties of protein-rich peanuts and cowpeas.  High-yielding varieties of oil palms.  Much improved crop-management techniques.  New vegetables for combating malnutrition.  Improved processing techniques.  Mastered and incorporated into everyday life, this is the kind of knowledge that can transform traditional agriculture and reduce poverty and protect the long-term health of our environment.

I spent the rest of my time describing a technique for doubling or tripling corn yields while reducing the work and the land needed, and saving precious forest.**  The idea comes from Central America.  Corn is associated with a soil-restoring legume called velvetbean.  A farm family can cultivate corn every year on the same plot and actually improve yields over time, all the while improving their farmland.

In the scriptures God constantly reminds us that he has made provisions for our lives.  These allow us to live sufficiently, to care for those close to us, to be gracious to others, and to care for his creation on which we depend for life.  But He also calls us to be full partners in this endeavor of living abundantly (even if simply.)  The Holy Spirit illuminates God's word, making it living direction for us personally and for our world.  Meditation on God's word aids the process of apprehending and understanding.  A willing spirit that asks God to change us first opens the door.  And obedience to God's direction leads to action that actually touches the world around us.

It was refreshing to see God's people wrestling with the word, trying to figure out how to share Good News for their neighbors.

Miriam

* The Ligue is the Ligue pour la Lecture de la Bible (the Bible Reading League.)  It is the Francophone equivalent of Scripture Union.  Chapters encourage people to encounter God through Bible reading, regular study together and prayer.

** See Roland Bunch, Two Ears of Corn, World Neighbors