Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Agent for change

Four church leaders, one missionary pastor. To my right, Daniel, chairman of the church council, who works in a hospital and is noticeably tired from the night shift. Or perhaps because his newborn daughter hasn’t allowed him much sleep. His long arms stretched out in front of him and his face nose down on the table. Facing me, first next counterclockwise, Pierre, tailor and church secretary, of all people I have met here – with Joseph, our guardian – the most conscientious and least likely to be after financial gain. Untamed and irregular front teeth protrude from his earnest but always smiling lips. Next to him Jonas, subsistence farmer and elder of the church furthest removed from civilisation, such as it is in the Mono-Couffo. Ill-fitting suit jacket over a greasy shirt, knobbly hands folded in his lap, uncertainly following the conversation when it is conducted in French, which he barely speaks. And then finally, to my left, Salomon, elder and couturier in the larger village of Deve; with a church consisting largely of his 14 apprentices whom he trains and feeds and educates in Christian doctrine. I have been asked to meet with them at Kpodaha to discuss their programme of study for the month of June: they have  almost completed their course of three years at the I3B, a Bible college in Bohicon, an hour-an-a-half’s drive away. Once each month they leave their family and work and church behind from Monday to Friday to be taught theology, theoretical and practical. Quite a commitment and sacrifice! But in order to complete their studies they have to spend the entire last month, four weeks, in Bohicon. This poses all kinds of problems, naturally enough. Financial and otherwise. And we are together find a solution, if possible.

But it turns out that there is another, previously unstated, reason for our gathering. That doesn’t surprise me, that is the way it always goes here. Someone comes to bring us a bag of oranges, to greet us because they just happened to be in Dogbo, to thank me for a fine sermon last Sunday, or whatever. And once that is out of the way, and we begin to edge towards the front of our chairs in order to rise, inevitably there is the: o, yes, one other little thing, monsieur Pasteur… And 9 times out of 10 it has something to do with money. Money they need and I probably have.
This afternoon the well-planned afterthought is also about money. Money for the reception after the handing out of their diplomas in July. This money has been in discussion for a long time. And yes, in their perception it is truly a necessity. They had negotiated an considerable amount with my predecessor and included it as a budget amendment proposal to DVN-Gowa for 2012, back in October. For various reasons there had been no response to the amendment, and they had assumed that there would be no objection. However, about three months ago I had had to inform them not to get their hopes up. And after much discussion, there and here, last week they received DVN-Gowa’s final decision: good stewardship financial support is only given for what is strictly necessary. If they feel that a reception is very important, fine, but it is up to themselves to find the money.

To European ears and mind, this position is eminently sensible. To the Africans around the table this afternoon incomprehensible. And if I, their Pasteur, would perhaps be willing to mediate. All stops were pulled out, from flattery to righteous indignation. I listened, expressed every sympathy (with both positions), and concluded that I was not going to intervene. I explained why. And they accepted that. Though I gave them no hope of success, they themselves would try to contact headquarters. Their problem, not mine.
All of this is preface to what, in my mind, was the most important accomplishment of the afternoon. I said to them: brothers, this is an example of something very important which you need to realise. Not the question of whether you do or don’t receive the money you would like. But the difference between how you and we arrive at conclusions. And then we had a very good discussion about cultural differences and their impact on the decision-making process. I said: it strikes me that you have a more or less circular way of arriving. You talk and talk and talk again, take a position and then alter it again when a new partner enters the discussion, and you keeping moving around and around until you arrive at a consensus, a compromise which everyone can live with. For you it is hugely important that every participant in the discussion takes ownership of the outcome. Your relations are the most important thing. And therefore you find it quite normal to start again, after all the negotiations are concluded, if the outcome doesn’t please someone. They looked at me and confirmed what I had said. Of course, their faces read. That’s the only way to do business. And then I continued. A European doesn’t think like that, I said. I’m not saying that our way is better, but it is certainly different. A European is much more focussed on the goal, the answer to the original question, the target. We can talk a lot too, but we more or less follow a straight line. From here to there. Along the way we gather all the arguments that each person has to contribute. And then we draw our conclusion. Finis! (This is the short version of the lesson, of course.) Some comprehension dawned. You mean, said Salomon, when the visitors from Holland were here earlier this month, they were gathering the arguments which we had to contribute? And that was the end of our turn? I was impressed. Exactly, I said. And that is why I do not expect any change in the decision.

We continued our discussion. I drew two circles, one overlapping the other about one third of the way. Here: this is us, your brothers and sisters in the Netherlands. And here: this is you, our fellow Christians in Africa. We are partners in God’s kingdom. But can only work well together in this area which overlaps. We will only become hopelessly frustrated if you, or we, try to demand things or impose things which lie outside of the overlap. The importance you attach to ceremonies is in your own part of your circle. We do not, and will never share that. And there are plenty of things in our own part of our circle which you do not need to adopt. I am here, with you, in this middle part which we share, to work with you. And that’s the way it should be.
I’m not pretending that we achieved full comprehension. But I do think that an important lesson was learned, in part. And I am excited to be agent for change here in that way. I love and respect my African brothers. And I hope that I will become worthy of their love and respect in return. But they are they. And I am I. Long live the overlap. And vive la diffĂ©rence!


  1. Hi Joe,
    was thinking that that reasoning would benefit us westerners too - making venn diagrams, as we have such strong differing opinions within our own people. Love and respect can stand while we meet where mutually beneficial. Praying your work continues with much understanding from both sides!

  2. So beautiful that this can be examined with respect for both sides. Definitely not the traditional missionary way ....
    We love you!

  3. Wow! That is so intriguing! I learned an important lesson, too! Thank you for that, Joe. You are such a unique teacher. Mum would be so proud! Co