Dear person who might consider supporting Serge in East and Central Africa-
You are very correct to note that the history of Western involvement in Africa is a mixed bag at best, and the harm has been monumental. We have lived in Uganda and Kenya for 26 years and would be the first to acknowledge that for every way that we have sought to lay down our lives and show the love of God, we have done so with impure motives, pride, false assumptions, exasperation, superiority, and at times cynicism. We are still a work in process ourselves, not to mention the work we do.
However, if your concern is to support a cross-cultural effort that is founded in partnership, focused on empowerment, and genuinely living out the Gospel, your church would be hard pressed to find a better investment.
All of our teams in East and Central Africa exist at the invitation of our African partners. We do not work anyplace as lone rangers. There is no place that we call the shots or impose our unchecked will. In every new endeavor we first seek invitation, and we only go where we are asked. I will speak specifically of Bundibugyo, since that is where we are currently based, but the principles are broadly similar in our work in Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Burundi, Malawi and South Sudan.
Church—the handful of churches planted by Serge are part of the Presbyterian Church of Uganda, which is fully self-governed and self-supporting. We attend one of them, and the Pastor and elders are all local people, the worship leader, the music, the choirs, all leadership is Ugandan. Americans are participants in the congregation only. Our role now is to bring in occasional training, to pray together, to be friends.
Bible Translation and Literacy—the area’s language was unwritten when we came, and listed as a priority for SIL/Wycliffe. Our team started the project, which is now fully in Ugandan hands, with SIL providing consultation checks a few times a year, usually remote conferencing. The New Testament is complete and printed. We supply a local office space to the translation team and some minimal support; the rest comes from the community and SIL funding. The local translators are plugging through the Old Testament. Our team has brought in Ugandans from other parts of the country to do literacy work in the primary schools and funded literacy training materials, again the model of partnership.
Health Care—we very specifically never built a clinic or hospital, but from the very beginning worked completely in partnership with the Ugandan Ministry of Health (government, though other teams work in partnership with African church hospitals). Over the years we have funded rehab and upgrade of various infrastructure projects, extended immunization outreach, trained traditional birth attendants and community health workers, sponsored dozens of nurses, lab techs, doctors for training, and provided clinical care alongside our Ugandan colleagues with ongoing medical education. We work in a government referral hospital where the medical director is a Ugandan whom we helped train, and is now our boss. We work under the supervision of the Ugandan District Health Officer as well. Our role is to empower and work alongside as equals. The healthcare system IS getting more trained Ugandans, though none yet with the level of training and experience our team provides. Many of our other teams are integrally involved in medical education at the student, intern, and resident level, offering both expertise and discipleship.
Water—we built the original gravity-flow water system in the area that saved countless lives, but now the entire engineering/water/sanitation system is managed by Ugandans, with our engineer providing consultation or doing specific projects under their authority.
Youth Work—we have a library which we open to kids after school, and have at times done evangelism and discipleship through sports. Like the other outreaches above, this is in partnership with the Ugandan church. On some teams we work through sports to equip coaches as positive, loving figures in a child's life; on others we have equipped teachers in trauma healing.
Education—the one institution we did build was Christ School Bundibugyo, at a time when this district was in the very last place in the country for educational achievement. The purpose was to have a Christian secondary school that would train leaders in the District. That school now has a Ugandan head teacher and full Ugandan staff, including some graduates who have gone on for further studies. Serge provides orphan scholarships for about 15% of the students, and a half-tuition-subsidy for the other 85% to enable the poorest people to access education. This half/half partnership with local Ugandan parents is, in our opinion, excitingly fair. Our board is 10 Ugandans and 2 missionaries. A missionary still works in a role of mentoring the head teacher and staff, and providing accountability for finances and direction for the spiritual care and overall trajectory of the project.
When we moved to Uganda we also assumed that 10-20 years would be fully adequate for a complete handover of all our assets and work. In fact, at the ten year mark, we led our team in an “exit strategy” retreat. We invited three respected African church leaders who did NOT live and work with us in Bundibugyo so had no skin in the game, to speak into our lives as a team. Should we accelerate our departure? Was it time to move on? They were familiar with the place and our work, and they told us NO. Bundibugyo, they said, needs the kind of change that is generational. They advised us to think on a longer timeline. So we did.
If you think about it, it makes no sense to Africans that what took Americans 300 years to achieve (moving from very basic hunter-gatherer existence with 50% child mortality and about a 40 year life expectancy . . .. . to a very industrialized society with paved roads, running water, sophisticated health care, universal education and literacy, electricity, and 5% or less child mortality with 80 year life expectancy) should be achieved in Africa in 30 years or less. And that is speaking nothing of the spiritual journey. Our culture has had Judeo-Christian influence for centuries with high rates of access to the Word, and yet we still struggle. Imagine having only had the Bible available for the last two years. Bundibugyo had very limited contact with the outside world prior to 1950. The world view of the average person is still very much shaped by fear of ancestral spirits, and the great harm the spiritual world can inflict.
So yes, Africans are in charge of Bundibugyo. We do not work independently in the church, in health or education, or anything. Nor do we want to. But we do believe that the call to take up the cross and follow Jesus to all nations, to come and listen and work and serve in the most difficult places, is still relevant. Why? This morning my Bible reading included Micah 6, and we have verse 8 on our prayer card, so it’s as good a summary as any. What does the Lord require of you, of us? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
JUSTICE-this is one of the primary themes of the Bible and a core character of God’s nature. American Christians enjoy a high proportion of the world’s wealth and education. As a pediatrician, I choose to work on the continent with the majority of the sick kids with the least doctors. It just makes sense. I did not deserve to be born to parents whose work and opportunities allowed them to purchase a home and cars, to live in a country where a public high school and state University gave me a solid education, to have excellent medical training, clean water, abundant access to electricity and books, almost no exposure to fatal diseases as a baby, and on and on. Even living in a remote place on the Uganda/Congo border, it is hard for me at times to imagine the life of my neighbors. Until I would be content for my own kids to live with those resources, I should be working to improve them.
MERCY-Thankfully, God does not only operate on justice, because all of us receive much better than what we deserve. Jesus modeled going to the margins. Jesus walked the dusty obscure roads, and lived His entire life in poverty and transience. The parables talk about seeking out the lame and the blind, calling those on the edges to come to the feast. Jesus spoke of being encountered in acts of mercy to the prisoner, the hungry, the naked. There is also a joy and holiness in going to places that are hard to survive in, to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD--let me just leave you with that last idea about joy emphasized. Our team enjoys the people, the beauty, the challenge, the spiritual growth of living and working cross-culturally. It is a rich life in so many ways. Walking with God is a privilege we have. We love this life. It is also a path that leads to knowing God’s heart more deeply. And it takes decades for all this to happen. We keep learning. I probably thought I understood the place at the one-year mark more than I think I do now at the 26-year mark. Eugene Peterson and others write about the value of a long obedience in the same direction.
I have one more idea to add to that list, it is something I think about that is perhaps more from Ephesians 6 than Micah. And it is this:
RESIST EVIL—we are in a struggle against principalities and powers that seek harm. And sometimes being an outsider gives us an independence, a platform that is harder for a cultural insider to have. A couple of days ago, I cared for an infant who was three weeks old. Her father has AIDS, her mother was not yet infected at the time of her prenatal test. (Our team pioneered HIV testing and care here). But around her delivery time, this young mother was hospitalized and our team gave her nutritional boosts because she was so frail. She was also anemic, and needed a blood transfusion, something we have often supported. Sadly a few days after delivering and going home, this mother died. In most of the history of Bundibugyo, if a mother dies, the baby dies. It is assumed. But because we don’t assume or accept that, as outsiders, we say no, let’s do something for this baby. So we have a program that enrolls such orphans, and while we might give a few cans of powdered formula to tide them over emergently, our goal is to help the baby’s grandmother re-lactate. Yes, she is only in her 40’s and her youngest child is four, so it is not that difficult for her to produce breast milk again. For a few dollars of medicine and a few minutes of my day, I could talk to her, examine the baby, prescribe, encourage, and just be that little outside boost that helped the family bridge from death to life. There are so many ways that our presence is salt and light, that we draw a line against evil. One of the reasons we have kept our involvement in Christ School is that it is a tiny piece of the Kingdom of God carved out of a place that has known much darkness. We don’t allow students to be beaten with canes. We don’t allow teachers to sexually abuse girls. We don’t allow the staff to buy the answers to exams. We don’t allow sacrifices to spirits. We don’t allow extortion of parents. I promise you that those things are happening in many schools, but we have a role of being a little outpost to show a handful of students a different path, which we hope they will choose to stay on in their lives. MANY have, and the impact shows! So there is a disruption that is good that we embrace. My husband and I did MPH degrees at Johns Hopkins on our first sabbatical. One of our professors there was actually a former missionary kid from India, and when we enrolled he was an emeritus professor of public health in his 70s. He wrote and taught about the power of the three-part partnership in transforming for health: the community must be involved to analyze and solve their own problems, the government must drive policy and provide infrastructure, and the outside “expert” catalyzes change by bringing new ideas, training, questions, connection. I think that’s very insightful and applies to missions too. In fact, I daresay that our American churches could use some disruptive majority-world people asking hard questions about our patterns of evil, African missionaries to challenge our assumptions that it’s OK to be a church elder and live a lifestyle driven by consumption and accumulation, or to be a Sunday school teacher who is addicted to social media or gossip, or that it’s normal to worship only with people from the same social and racial background. We all have our cultural blind spots, and evil pushes in on all sides.
This has been a long answer, because we take the church’s partnership with Serge very seriously. I hope you and your staff take the time to prayerfully seek God’s heart on this. We don’t want you to go against your conscience and if you believe that your calling to the world is specific to your home town, and shouldn’t extend overseas, or that all cross-cultural commitments should be short-term, then our models would be incompatible and we would need to find our support elsewhere. But for the sake of our missionaries and our partners on the ground, we do hope that you can come around us with blessing and care. And for your sake too, because I think your connection to people at the margins of your world will bring YOU blessing and joy.
Hoping to be your partners for the world’s good and God’s glory.