Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Encountering the Face of Christ in Africa - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #32

Dear Children of Light,

Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flightsKisumu Airport from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.

As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month's experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.

It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was gratefulRipley Friends for the time that we were able to share together.

The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it "darby-sheer") and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.

This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord's hand was
QYPers and John Punshon at Friends Library in London present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!

While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year's Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their "natural habitat." I was also able to visit Ben Gosling - another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting - and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.

Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.

Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more Lionabout the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.

The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.

As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa - especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and ESR Visits Kaimosi Hospitalhave a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.

While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.

When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda's capital felt similar in Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwandamany ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).

During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda's apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.

Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls - solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). Jay and EmanuelThe properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.

The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.

Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends' warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda's apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling Friends Meeting House in Rural Rwanda (near Gisenyi)experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.

By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, "...you say 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked."(1)

Guilty as charged. I pray for God's mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients forRural Village Meeting Near Gisenyi, Rwanda any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.

I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have - even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans - and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly - not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.

On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice Etienneand hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.

I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ's call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.

Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of "having David Johns with Childrenenough." I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.

Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb's War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.

Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.

Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,

Micah Bales

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1. Revelation 3:17

5 comments:

Jamie said...

Thanks, Micah. An eye and heart opening experience. Praise the Lord. Thanks for your work for Kingdom of Christ!

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

Thank you Micah, your assessment of the Rwandan situation matches what I saw. Kigali is a boom town, but the underbelly is very real. But the generosity of Friends is also very real.

Please take seriously the case of the spiritual, emotional, physical "bends" that you will have from coming from Gisenyi to home in 48 hours. You will need much time to process and decompress. Even as a brief visitor this is a real thing.

peace to you,
Peggy

silas said...

Thanks for sharing the adventure and thoughts of your travels, Micah. I have truly been touched by the way you report on your experiences with Quakers (and others) in England, Kenya, and Rwanda that you were able to visit. thank you for sharing your presence and love with them all. I am glad that you touched based with Quakerism in these areas among other things, and your contribution in understanding the various challenges faced by Friends in these regions.
As a Kenyan Quaker, I have been encouraged by your observations. We still have a long way to go and we need prayers and support from friends all over the world. I am impressed that the abject poverty you saw in Kenya led you to appreciate your own privileges, questioning our systems in Kenya, while at the same time questioning the areas of comfort and privileges that Friends hardly mention.
Amidst all these, you also raised spiritual questions. It is encouraging to read that there also some positive contribution that the world can learn from Africa. ( Most times the stereo-type question is: can anything good come from Africa?)
Thanks for your observations. I hold you in the light as you continue processing all the experiences. At the same time I look forward to read more of what you might add in future!

Jez said...

I wish that I had known in advance that you were coming to London and that we could have had some time together. I am sorry that I was so pre-occupied with other matters when we had a moment together.

Perhaps next time?

Mackenzie said...

Quakers in Africa are EFI-type, right? I don't think most Americans would find Evangelical Friends at all unusual. The unprogrammed form of worship is what I think is found most unusual by non-Quakers.