Secrets of a Missionary

Mission work is supposed to be about the people we are serving.  However, as a lifelong missionary, let me let you in on a secret:  most missions’ work being done in the world is more about the missionary than the mission field.   After most short-term mission trips, our greatest hope is that the individual missionary is changed and has a shift in perspective that helps him or her to know that life is not about creature comforts, but about a life in service to others.  Sometimes that happens and we rejoice; other times that doesn’t happen and we mourn.  Ironically, hundreds of people go to the field to help the poor and needy, and the leaders of those groups silently hope for the same thing:  Lord, let the poor and the needy help these people!

It is not easy to attenuate the thinking that we have so much to offer in order to see what we are actually gaining by the grace of the people we are serving.  It is even more difficult at times for us to figure out how to serve them.  At best, missionaries can give too much, leading the people to develop a sense of entitlement.  It is easy to become welfare for an entire community, and then become frustrated when they come to us with their every need and desire.  We can serve in such a way where we become just a resource for meeting a need.  At worst, missionaries can start to treat the people we’re supposed to serve like they are the servants and begin to patronize them.  We can act like we are better than they are, and that we know the will of God for them even when we are not so sure of God’s will for ourselves.  We can act upon a false confidence and treat people like we are not all beloved children of God.

Mission work is about building individuals, families, churches and communities.  We encourage individuals to have an authentic, mature relationship with Jesus as a foundation for life and family.  Families that are now centered on Christ can come together to establish churches that are stable and focused on the faith and encouraging one another.  These churches can develop and influence communities that celebrate Christ and live by Biblical values and principles.  We, then, have a system whereby the missionary can effect change and build the nation one community and individual at a time.  I have learned that by having this type of personal interaction, we can know exactly when to give and how to give so that it does more good than harm in the end.  We have discovered how to help community members look to the Lord and each other as “first responders” to their needs, and not to us as the “wealthy foreigners”.

Missionaries should also allow people the opportunity to give!  This is the place missionaries fail most often.  When we treat people as if they have nothing to give; they give nothing.  Then, it becomes the habit of people to think that what they have to give is not worth having.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and oh, how people love you when you are grateful for what they give you.  It is the story of the widow’s mite.  The Lord blesses and esteems their giving.  As missionaries, we should too!  People who are poor still have much to give – to each other, to us, and to the church.  Let them.  Honor them by receiving with a grateful heart.  Because the real secret is  we are just as needy and poor as they are!

Where Is Your Worship?

The last few weeks have been trying—to say the least.   A young man from my church whom I have known since he was a little boy suddenly passed away.  Finances continue to be strained as more money has to go out than what is coming in.  Our ministry stands at a crossroads as we continue to ask God which  new direction He would have us to move.  These are the ordeals that make up life and they can lead to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.  But then God spoke to me and asked a very simple question similar to the one He asked Adam in Eden.  The question was, “Where Is Your Worship?”

As people, and yes as Christians, we often shift our gaze off of God because of our failures or distractions, or the circumstances of life.  We not only lose our focus, but sometimes, as Adam did, we even run away from God.  As the Genesis 3 account goes, the all-knowing God called to Adam and asked, “Where are you?”  God didn’t need to learn where Adam was, but He needed Adam to locate himself and realize his separation from God.

Similarly God asked me the question, “Where Is Your Worship?” because as I sat depressed over the loss of a beloved person in my life or over my current life circumstances, the evidence was clear that I was not focused on Him.  There are a ton of scriptures throughout the Bible that express how God cares for us.  Whether in John 3:16 where He sent His Son to die for us, or Jeremiah 29:11 where he holds our hope and future, or where he knows the very number of hair strands that remain on this slightly balding head of mine as per Matthew 10:30.  So we know God loves us and is concerned for us.  But do we hold that same concern for Him.  Does He hold our attention the way that we hold His?

God Loves South Africa

I love South Africa – the people, the topography, the various cultures, the animals and yes, even the odors.  I love it all! It greets me like a faithful friend as soon as I step off the plane, and welcomes me like a local.  As a local, I like nothing more than to have my American family, friends and colleagues visit and catch the same love for South Africa as I have.  This is the first year in the past 15 years that I have not stepped foot in South Africa.   I miss it.  I ache for it, and I believe it misses me.  However, this year has been a rebuilding and transition year for both the ministry and me.  Adapting to a new way of doing things is never easy for anyone involved, but what has eased the ache of transition, are the missionaries who have come to support the work.

First, our longtime friend and ministry partner, Michelle Smith returned to South Africa in January for six months to minister in various local and continental churches and work with our students.  Michelle is like a local herself and is always welcomed with open arms by the people.  She and Michael navigated the students in the first few months of the year. Together, they settled them into school, lead weekly home cell meetings, and ensured that the program moved forward seamlessly.

Next, Marshall Grant, whose entire family moved to South Africa, arrived to scout out the land, begin leadership training sessions for local pastors, and supported Michael in continuing the program and working with the students to further ensure their success.  I believe that Marshall’s transition to South Africa was complete when his family arrived in June.  As a team, they are able to serve the people of South Africa both by helping us and developing programs and initiatives of their own.

In September, we were blessed to have a mother of our church, Mother Claire Carter fulfill a longtime dream by coming to work and serve in South Africa.  She was welcomed into the community with all of the respect and honor due to her as a mother in the faith.  While in South Africa, she served the women in the township, preached at the local church, taught our students, and did a daily prayer walk through the town!  South Africa captured her heart as much as it captured mine, and she is determined to return to once again serve and pray for the people.

Finally, we were blessed to have my pastors and godparents, Bishop Garland and Eileen Hunt, come to South Africa!  Although only there for a short time, they ministered at four churches, came to our ministry in South Africa and travelled throughout the Western and Eastern Cape evangelizing and ministering to people who were hungry for a Word from the Lord.

So, although I was gone for the entire year, the work and ministry to the people of South Africa continued and flourished.  God sent others to hold up the people, to minister to those in need, and to represent His vast care for them.  I may have been missed, but the Lord made sure that there was never any lack felt amongst them.  Although our ministry is still in the midst of transition, the Lord continues to show Himself faithful and to retain all the glory which is due His greatness!  Amen!

Fees Must Fall

There is a lot of talk in the world right now concerning free college education.  In the United States, politicians like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have declared from their political pulpits that college education should be free for most, if not all, of those living in America.  In South Africa, the call does not seem very different.  Students across the nation are protesting on college campuses and at government sites declaring the now familiar mantra “Fees Must Fall.”    Putting aside the merits and/or detriments of such demands, it does highlight a common sentiment that young people from different corners of the globe share.  They all are looking for what they feel is the easiest way to secure their futures.

It is easy to get caught up in an outcome.  The Western world conditions us for it.  The fact is that the South African educational system has lowered its standards so that more students can gain access to college.  The “Fees Must Fall” movement tries to manipulate the tuition structure despite the economic reality of the country.  The economy of the country remains such that few jobs are available even with a degree, and the cost of that degree continues to rise due to inflation and other economic factors.  As the number of trade schools remains low and a broad-based investment in youth development is still lacking, the country seems fixed on producing a particular outcome that is unrelated to each student’s individual need.

We started Goshen International in response to a call from God to simply provide students with opportunities.  In the fourteen years that I have served in South Africa, I have learned that it is a fine line between providing opportunities for students and ensuring a certain outcome for them.  We too had a pretty narrow approach to what success looked like for our kids.  But over time the Lord showed us that He has a unique plan for every person’s life.  That seems like a pretty obvious statement, but in practice, it is difficult to fully grasp.

The truth is that He is the great prize!  He is the only outcome that measures success.  The Lord prepares us and equips us to do whatever He has called us to do as we draw closer to Him.  We don’t have to worry about college or careers or the future if He is the focus.   The familiar scripture rings true today as it has at every other time in history—“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  At Goshen, we know that our educational program is just a tool or platform to disciple, engage, and strengthen students in their walk with the Lord.  We have learned that there is no “outcome” that each student must possess other than a strong relationship with their Creator.  When that happens, tuition fees and college admissions are taken care of if a degree is necessary to fulfill His purpose.   Obstacles are removed if we are on the path that glorifies Him.  So whether the future involves college, a trade, family life, or missions, the one truth remains that if He is the center, it will be a life worth living.

Kindness and Community

When I first arrived in South Africa, I initially worked in a large children’s afterschool program called Kids Explosion.  Every Friday afternoon, the rest of the staff and I would feed and teach the Bible to about 500 children from ages 5 to 16.  I remember standing in front of the room, boys at my right-hand and girls at my left, quizzing them on everything from memory scriptures to Bible stories.  As a reward, I had a bag of lollipops to give to those blessed enough to answer my questions correctly.  Sadly, I did not give away many lollipops.   I never really thought much about it.  Then, one afternoon, I hung around outside and saw one little boy place his well-earned lollipop on the ground, crush it, and give out all of the tiny pieces to at least 15 children hovering around him.

I was floored.  I knew how hard it was for him to earn that lollipop, and to give out the pieces showed a kindness and generosity of spirit that I rarely see in Americans even today.  I think about that scene often, and I ask myself am I giving away my most prized possessions to those around me?  Am I thinking more of myself and my own needs or the needs of others?  Then, I wonder if you can “teach” that type of attitude?  I see it over and over again in this impoverished community.  I have seen children wear shoes on alternating days so that they can share them with others who don’t have any.  I’ve purchased clothes for one child only to see parts of that outfit (shirt, pants, socks, coat, shoes) on four different children.  I want to be frustrated, but inside, I just smile.

In America, I am challenged convincing a child to deny themselves any form of pleasure to give to someone else in obvious need.  Sometimes, even adults choke on the words, “thank you”, and recently, even common politeness is done away with because of differing opinions.  We as a society are not only selfish with our resources; we are becoming mean-spirited with our words.   Somehow, it is easier for us to eviscerate others than to love them.  Yet, ironically, in a community rife with a variety of issues large and small, they express graciousness and generosity.  Somehow, they have figured out how to see each other and desire to help each other in the spirit of true community.  These lessons are not just willed into being when they become adults; they are nurtured and practiced while they’re children.  In America, we have every resource, but struggle to teach and train our children not be entitled and self-consumed.  We are not sure how to train our children to see others in the face of their own needs.  I know that I have many lessons that I want to teach the people and children of South Africa, but this is one lesson that I would love for them to teach us.

Religious Revelations

home cell 1

Okay! I don’t think that I have ever admitted this in my life.  In my defense, I don’t think I really knew it, but here goes.  I love religion.  I do.  I love the rules.  I love the simplicity.  I love the “this is right and that is wrong” of it.  I love the absolute “this is good” and horrific “this is bad.”  It takes the guess work out of life, puts rails on it, and tells you if you go this way everything is going to work out, but if you go that way then doom, death, destruction.  Simple!  Easy! To the point!

For most of my life, I have lived and breathed religion.  As a child, that was great.  I didn’t have to deal with issues that were too complex for my mind to grapple with.  I just really needed to know what to do to make my parents and God happy with me.  As an adult, this simple love relationship I have with religion began to fall apart.  My own confused half-humanistic  and half-Biblical theist viewpoint caused contradictory behaviors and ideas that wrestled against the religion of my youth.  I began to ask the logical question:  “Why?” along with the bigger questions of “What is life about?” and “What am I supposed to be doing here?”

Fortunately, I grappled with these challenges in college when everyone else was also in some version of confusion.  However, as an adult who is guiding the next generation of South African leaders, I force them to face the comforts of religion and push back at questions of why and what is the point?  Last week, at our weekly meeting with our high school students, I asked them why did Jesus die?  I smiled as they all responded like the well-trained children they are: For my sins!  “Really?” I said, “What’s the problem with sin? Why is that such a big deal?”  My smile widened as the usually loud room was blanketed in silence.  No one knew.  Although I love the fact that they had the “right” answer; religion stole from them the reason why.

Unfortunately, the real problem with religion is that it gives you pat answers without forcing you to engage with the problem.  You have a ready-made answer without your brain ever having to fully ask a question.  Why can’t we have sex before marriage?  What’s wrong with drinking alcohol and doing drugs if it relieves my pain? Why can’t I steal if my family really needs something? Don’t I have the right to do whatever I have to do to take care of my family?  These are the questions that my students ask because they never fully got an answer to the ultimate question:  What is the big deal with sin, anyway?

It ultimately boils down to this every time:  “Why can’t I just live as I want and apologize later?”  The answer is clear.  Sin separates us from God.  Jesus had to die for our sins not so that we could go to heaven (nice side benefit!), but so that we could re-engage in relationship with God.  We are not dissatisfied because we are not wealthy enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or powerful enough.  We think that if we can just get a bit more then we are going to reach a point of satisfaction.  That never happens.  The truth is we were created to worship our Creator.  Nothing satisfies us more than that, and nothing ever can.  We search for fulfillment by committing sins; yet, it is that very thing that steals satisfaction and joy from us.  Sin causes separation from God, and being close to Him is really what life is all about.  Religion answers this question by saying simply don’t sin because God does not like it.  That is great for a season, but it cannot sustain young people who must face questions of sin every day.  Religion alone confuses things.  It leads us into right doing, but not necessarily into right being.  Religion still turns the focus on us, but the focus should always be on the King.  Nothing is more important than He is.

My kids and I are still working on seeking out the more complicated answers behind religious questions and that is going to take time to decompress.  However, I think they walked away from our rip roaring discussion with this: We have to truly worship God if we want to have any hope of true happiness.  I’ll take it.

Turning 40

Michael 40

Turning 40 years old is a milestone in any person’s life. Having recently accomplished this feat, I did the typical soul searching and contemplated the last four decades of my life. There are so many goals that I have yet to achieve—career, home ownership, financial independence.   However, I have come to realize that these are just natural things. Yes, they are noble and worthy aspirations which I still strongly desire. But in the end, these are the things that will one day burn. They won’t mean much in eternity.

The work that I am doing in South Africa is lasting. I came to this country when I was 26 years old, and I haven’t really left. I didn’t know when I was 26 that I would turn 40 in a foreign land. Back then, my whole life was ahead of me. I was young, and in my youthful naivete, I thought I would just spend a year or two serving and then move on to the next thing. The next thing was probably marriage or home ownership in my mind. Little did I know that this nation and these children would capture my heart in a way that would consume my service and commitment for 14 years. It has been the defining chapter of my life.

As for Goshen, we are moving along well. We continue to educate and disciple disadvantaged youth, and though it comes with ups and downs, I am proud of the impact we have been able to have over these many years. I recently learned that all of the elementary students that attend our Learning Center program literally form the top tier in their regular classes. Our older students are also flourishing. While some of our high school seniors have been accepted to premier South African universities, our senior college students are preparing to graduate with degrees in Pharmacy, Law, and Education making them all the exceptional pride of their communities. Spiritually, we are teaching the kids to “shift their gaze” from the distractions and circumstances of this world to focus on the Lord and hear His voice. We constantly reinforce that education and achievement mean nothing outside of the will of God, so it is important to always live to please Him!

Living to please Him in the light of these accomplishments has been the highlight of my adult life. My path, whether by choice or design, did not end up the way I thought or the way that most of my friends’ paths have directed. However, I am grateful to have educated these students in a way which has added just a few more opportunities and choices in their lives. I am grateful for the young men and women that I have had the privilege of mentoring—to shape and mold their choices. I am grateful that my life, though not perfect, has been an example in some ways to show others how theirs can be just a bit better. Finally, I am grateful for a Savior, who gave His life for mine, and how His Father’s plan for this life has pushed me beyond my comfort zone to do something amazing and lasting for His glory. I used to dread getting older, but now I realize 40 looks good on me!


Conflicts of Worship

Face painting - boyA while ago, I was invited to an imbeleko, a traditional Xhosa ceremony honoring the birth of a child (only in this instance the child was 17 years old). This was indeed a unique experience for me. While I would like to say that the highlight of the event was eating a slaughtered goat that was skinned and cut up before my eyes, something else from that day has been lingering in my mind.

You see an imbeleko is a ceremony that announces to the ancestors that a child has been born into a particular family, and therefore make them aware of the child’s existence. The blood spilled from the animal is the channel through which the message is delivered. Although I didn’t participate in the ceremony, I struggled over eating meat that had been dedicated to the ancestors. However, it was important for me to gain a deeper understanding of traditional ceremonies since I mentor young people who are raised in this culture. I was also intent on telling someone there just how ludicrous this whole ancestral worship really is.

Enter the old man. I became conversationally engaged with a very talkative, elderly gentleman who was eager to find out more about this American in his homeland. However, he was also quite passionate and informative in relation to Xhosa customs, including the one in which we found ourselves immersed. While he talked about the need for family identity and the ability of the ancestors to protect them from sickness, I was eagerly waiting to pounce on his ideals until the strangest thing happened. The old man seamlessly transitioned the discussion into his faith in Christ.

The man spoke about the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. He quoted scripture to support our need for a savior. He spoke with as much passion about his Redeemer as he did about the ancestors. I couldn’t believe it. On the heels of celebrating Resurrection Sunday, this man was acknowledging the atoning grace bought with the blood of the living Christ, while at the same time holding on to the need to spill the blood of animals in order to secure the protection of those long dead. It was in that moment that I realized that there was a serious disconnect. While we have been fairly successful in helping some of our students come out from under the bondage of these cultural realities, there is a host of others who are not just lost, but very confused!

Then I thought about myself.   I thought about many Christians I know. I thought about how many Bible-believing Christians embrace all of the tenets, ideals, and blessings locked up in Christianity, but at the same time, hold on to things that can be quite antithetical to our Christian ideals. Whether it is money, television, Beyonce, or our pastors, idolatry runs amuck in most of our lives.  While I’m not necessarily equating sin to ancestral worship, I do recognize the hypocrisy in both situations. The point is that while I will continue to emphasize the need to let go of ancestral worship here in South Africa, I must also challenge myself and all of my brethren in Christ to streamline the faith, return to the simplicity of the Gospel, and live a holy, single-minded life before the Lord!



Thandie’s Story*

not too happy2

This year, we have asked out students to write their stories.  We are going to periodically post them for you to hear from them in their own voice. They want to be heard!  For some, we have changed their names to offer them some degree of anonymity.  Thus, we have noted these stories with an asterisk (*).   For others, they do not mind you knowing who they are and the struggles they have endured in becoming who God has ordained them to be.  You will hear from students in various phases of our program.   The grade levels are evident in their writing, but we did not want to take away from the authenticity of  them explaining themselves in their own words.  This is Thandie’s story*.

This is the story of a little girl who was devastated by her parents’ separation.  She was raised by a drinking single parent, her mother, and a father who was almost never there for her. That’s my life.

When I was a teenager everything in my life turned from bad to worse. During my second year at Wittedrift High School while I was doing grade11, I started to do things I never thought I would do. I didn’t realize that I was digging my own grave.

Nothing was right in my life. I left my best friends because we started fighting.  As with every group of friends one of us had to be the leader, and I was tired of living in her shadow.  Two new girls came to our school that year and they had no friends at all.  I was more than willing to join them because they had the money and popularity that I longed for.  They had everything I ever wished for and that was more than enough to draw my attention. I had rich friends now and that was all that mattered. They paid for the cigarettes and alcohol, and I was more than happy. It was us against the world.

While the fun increased, my grades started dropping.  I didn’t care. I was having a great time! We were smoking in the school’s bathroom and drinking at school functions. We had friends with cars who took us anywhere for free. Everything was too good to be true. We were living the good life.

That was my own way of forgetting about everything that happened in my life –My suicide attempt, the separation of my parents, the men in my mother’s life and all the violence that came with them. Everything was my fault. I thought committing suicide would be better for everyone. I thought that it wouldn’t make a difference if I was gone because no one noticed me anyway. No one could see the pain that I was feeling. I just had to take the blame. Wasn’t I a mistake, anyway?  No one had time for me and I just had to do it.  Everyone was too busy with their own broken lives to notice that mine was also reaching a breaking point.

After all that drama in my life,  I dealt with more drama. Things were now way more than worse. In my matric year I was kicked out of the Learning Center because of changing the subjects that they believed I needed. I was furious and sad at the same time. I was their responsibility; at least, that was what I thought. It was now time for my parents to do their job. They had to pay my school fees on their own. My mother could afford my school fees if only she drank less and wasn’t in debt. But, she wouldn’t. What else could go wrong in my life? Why was I being punished? I started asking myself questions that I couldn’t answer. I needed answers.

One day I decided to make a change in my life. A good change. A spiritual change. I felt a need for God. I just had to turn to him for comfort and answers. I needed to be uplifted; so that, I could live a better life. It was time for a new life. I’ve been through so much, but it was time to put all that behind me. It was time to move on, and with the help of the Lord I could learn to forgive and forget. I had to break the cycle. As time went on my mindset changed. I grew mentally and spiritually. I learned how to make the right choices so that we don’t have to be caught up with consequences. My self-image was once broken but I had a choice. I could either rebuild it or keep it broken. With the help of the Lord and my spiritual leaders, I chose to rebuild it.  My life is still not perfect, but I have hope that it will only grow from here.