Climbing Kilimanjaro step by step – Lessons for America from Africa

In about 11 hours our team from Seattle will board a flight that will take us (eventually, by the 5th airport) to Seattle, and we’ll be home, our exploratory trip of this region completed.  We came here in order to meet some people who are doing marvelous development work and to visit the sites of wells our church has funded, some of them completed already, and one just getting started on the day we arrived in Uganda.

We encountered so much in the previous 8 days that it seems like a lifetime ago when last I was in Seattle.  Before we leave, I wanted to gather my thoughts for a brief few minutes and share them with you.  Woven into the fabric of this trip there have been cords have new friendships, amazing conversations, wrenching poverty, and infectious joy.  I hope to share much more from these categories in the days ahead.  But above all else, this has been a trip of receiving, learning, and being challenged.

1. Development is different than Relief - Our team read the book “When Helping Hurts”, and learned, even before landing, of the substantial distinction between relief and development.  Development consists of initiatives which will move people towards sustainability and independence.  Relief is an intervention to stem a crisis.  This is an important distinction and conversation, because as the book “Dead Aid” addresses, too much relief creates a dependency mentality and can ultimately have the effect paralyzing communities rather than empowering them. Armed with this simple principle it was tremendous to see local initiatives, supported by local village churches (usually working together ecumenically), to change the culture, leading their communities in next steps, not towards entrenched dependency, but empowerment.  This doesn’t make relief an unimportant matter, but it’s vital, whether working on Aurora are in Rwanda, to see that the ultimate goal is empowerment.

2. Poverty is complex – One village stopped drinking from their new well because their poop suddenly became solid.  For the first time in their lives they didn’t have diarrhea, but since diarrhea was their “normal”, the new normal was perceived as wrong.  Getting to the “New Normal”, whether that means fidelity in marriage, drinking healthy water, brushing one’s teeth, practicing genuine democracy, or moving from self-interests and independence (our American normal) to interdependence and communitarian values, doesn’t just happen with a snap of the fingers.  Whether it’s the poverty of relationships in our own country, or the material poverty we’ve seen these past days, it’s vital to understand that many factors have created the culture, that long term solutions take some time, that change is challenging.

3. Joy is available everywhere.  In the midst of poverty beyond description, our team gathered for worship this past Sunday.  After the offering, some began singing and within minutes most of the congregation was up dancing including me.  Three little boys, less than 7 years old, made their way over to me and we danced together – pure joy on their faces as they lived in the only moment they know or care about – this one.  Without the trinkets of civilization, I’m guessing billions know what we have a hard time perceiving, let alone believing; that joy comes from relationships.  Without skiis or bikini waxes, without even a bicycle for transport, without sanitation or infrastructure, joy’s still available.   Every time I travel outside the US I’m reminded of the truth that my material wealth blinds me to the reality of my relational poverty, and I’ve a feeling I’m not alone.

4. Step by step – The complexity of it, the immensity of it, the slowness of progress, the powerful interests that are threatened by movements towards wholeness combine to potentially paralyze our hearts.  Yesterday I, and the rest of our team, were sitting on the platform with the 1st lady of Uganda (another story for later) and while she gave her speech (which included a thank you to Bethany Community Church for the wells we’ve provided) I was able to look, behind a thousand African faces, out to the hillsides beyond, where my eye caught two women walking, with loads on their heads.  In all likelihood, they’ll never see anything within more than a five mile radius of their huts, maybe ten.  As they walked with their loads, patiently, step by step, I realized that whether you are addressing global poverty, trying to live more simply yourself,  seeking deeper friendships, or simply trying to pray five minutes a day, nothing happens fast!

There’s a saying: Americans are on time.  Africans have time.  Indeed – they’ve time to laugh, dance, sing their hearts out in joy, time to live.  Movement and progress require patience.  They’ve got it.  I need it, maybe you do too.

See you, hopefully, soon.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://laveedoonfee.blogspot.com Greta Weisman

    Great to read, Richard– can’t wait to hear more on Sunday. I’ve used the “step by step” analogy several times in the past week… It’s a great encouragement to me to recognize, no matter where we’re at on this “climb”– at least we’re all in process.

    Praise the Lord for movement. Even and especially the small kind.

  • Daniel Beers

    Richard, so great to read your reflections on your experiences in Africa. As a college instructor who studies and teaches about international development, and a former member of the Bethany community (sadly no longer in Seattle), I very much appreciate your open-minded approach to the developing world. It is well-known among academics and aid workers that our best efforts to “help” the developing world can often have serious unintended consequences. However, in my experience, this part of the story is all-too-often left out of the conversation among followers of Christ. I cannot count the number times I have heard about (or personally witnessed) enthusiastic and well-meaning people diving into aid projects without an adequate understanding of the local context, the real needs of the people, and the complex questions of sustainability and accountability that necessarily accompany the aid delivery process. This is not to say that we are powerless to help. In fact, I strongly believe that we, as Christians, are called by God to use our talents and resources to better the lives of others–particularly in the developing world, where the needs are so great. However, if we our work is to be successful, we must approach it in a reflective, self-conscious way, which focuses on empowering local communities to help themselves, rather than creating dependent relationships between donors and recipients. Despite our privileged position as Americans in the developing world, we must not forget that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, not parents and children.


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