These Trees

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I wonder how old they were then. When Africans were hustled to the sea for transport. Some of their roots are above ground. These ancient roots are tangled perhaps from trying to see, then hiding from the atrocities that took place. They saw Africans, those who lived on the land; those who had families, tribes and villages. Africans who grew food and hunted among these trees were driven to the shore in chains and herded into ships hewn from the wood of trees. They were packed like sardines on wooden planks made from the relatives of these very trees, to be shipped to the new world.

Could these trees like the Baobab all over West Africa have provided shelter for those who were running, trying to find a place of protection? Probably not, some of them have branches with leaves that are too far off the ground to provide protection,. Though some of their cousins that stood nearby tried to provide a hiding place. Every now and then because of trees, perhaps the thick trunks, or the ability to climb, one African, man or woman or child escaped capture to run back to the village to tell. They were able to call the names of those who were now gone, to remember those who were carried out on the water that did not end.

The stories that these trees could tell: of hurt and pain and capture, of love and family, of fun, of how it used to be before those with pale skin came and how it was after. These stories were whispered as I sat in a lounge chair, enjoying the African sun so close to the Atlantic Ocean. I sat a descendant of those taken and those who took. I sat with many who may be ancestors of the captors. These oblivious visitors who now sit listening to the sounds of the ocean that once carried Africans as profit for their lives. Now they come to sip fresh juice and rum. Now they come to dip in the cool water and listen to the waves.

The days of capture are over, yet the Africans still feel the affects of those days. The affects of colonization are still so apparent. Poverty is rampant in this country outside the walls of this oasis of luxury. In this place the Africans serve and wait on those who once stole their relatives. The Africans laugh and entertain to make a living in this place of vacation leisure. And the trees are still witnesses.

Doing What I Love!

IMG_6133My heart was broken open by pastors of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. This happened as they responded to the brief three hour teaching that I did with them on Lutheran Theology and Preaching Law and Gospel. Rev. Kate Warn, YAGM Coordinator in Rwanda, and I traveled to Rukira, up a steep unpaved mountain road to be with this group. It was a request from Bishop Mugabo of LCR thIMG_6157at brought us there.

The teaching began as I answered the question that Bp. Mugabo had posed to me “Why Lutheran?” He wanted me to discuss with his pastors what difference it made to be Lutheran. I started my teaching that needed to be translated from English to Kinyarwanda. Right in the middle of my presentation the heavens opened up and there was a down pour. So, I stopped talking and the pastors began to sing. Not only did this mostly male group sing, they also danced. They stretched out their arms like cow horns and seemingly began to glide graceful around the room. It was amazing hearing songs of praise to God and seeing dance to accompany it. As the rain poured so did my eyes.

When the rain cleared the teaching continued. It was obvious that they were eager to learn; they were attentive and asked excellent questions. One of those questions was from one of the women in the room. She asked, “if God’s grace is free and there is nothing that we can do to earn it, why bother going to church?” All my seventeen years as a pastor, I had never been asked this question. This young Rwandan woman who was on the path to ordination astonished me. Fortunately, there is an answer and it was right on the tip of my tongue. I turned to my colleague Rev. Kate Warn and I said “the means of grace; right?”

I then began to explain that we go to church to be strengthened by the hearing of the word, to receive Christ himself through bread and wine, body and blood and to be held up by the mutual consolation of the faithful.  I am grateful that this seemed to be a satisfactory answer for this wonderfully inquisitive soon to be pastor. I am also grateful that the answer was in my heart and on my lips.

The day continued with sharing, conversation and listening to the teaching of Rev. Prince, general secretary of the church, and others. Liturgy and the Augsburg Confession were also being taught. For some, this was the first time they had heard about these major tenets of the Lutheran faith.

The next day they thanked Pr. Kate and I for making the trip up the mountain to be with them. They had a brief presentation and sang a song for us that included the beautiful, graceful dance that is part of Rwandan culture. They also prayed for the two of us. They asked God to provide us with health, strength and traveling mercies. They especially prayed for our safe passage down the mountain. They knew that we Americans would be frightened driving down a wet, slippery, muddy road.

We were blessed. I am not sure what the pastors got from our time together. What I received was a strengthened love for Jesus; a renewed passion for the proclamation of the gospel and a heart for the people of Rwanda. From this visit I felt a wonderful sense of being and doing exactly what God would have me do! And doing what I love. I thank the bishop for the invitation and the pastors simply for being.

As always, I am continually Madagascar, West and Central Africa bound.

*(excuse the upside down video, I just wanted to share)

Impressions of Rwanda

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I cannot help feeling that I must write about how I am experiencing the stories of Rwanda and its people. Especially as I visit the week of April 7 a day that marks the beginning of 100 days of horror so many years ago.

I read in books about the history  of  this beautiful little country in East Africa. This country that was harmed and then abandoned and ignored by the West. At least it seems so in my reading. 

I read books of prose and poetry about the genocide in 1994 and come to know that it did not happen by accident.

I hear the stories of those who were not present when the genocide took place, because their families sought refugee in Tanzania and Uganda years before. They left in the 1950s, because they feared the worst and the worst came true. The sons and daughters of those refugees are back seeking to be part of a rebuilt, better Rwanda. Some of these who have returned founded the Lutheran Church of Rwanda. 

 I have seen the bones and the clothes of victims soaked in blood and even a blood stained altar. I have seen an exhibit entitled “Portraits of Reconciliation” and I stared into the eyes of those who have been forgiven and those who have found strength to forgive. Their eyes are haunting. 

I see the evidence of a country being rebuilt. In my first visit I saw Mbingo and Rwmagana now the village of Ndego. This village and neighboring villages was once  Akagera National Park. Now instead of tigers, elephants and buffalo, there are people. The Lutheran World Federation helped to build this settlement for the many who were displaced.  

So, what am I a Western who until watching the movie “Hotel Rwanda” knew nothing of Rwanda. Until then Rwanda held no conscious place in my mind or my heart. I know that the more I know of this country and its people my heart is opened. Yet, what good is an open heart if it is not used to improve oneself or to make the world a better place? My heartbreaks at the thought of what has happened here but not to the point of despair. I  see hope all around, the hope of a people moving toward unity and healing.

My work brings me to Rwanda and now this lush green terraced country has found a place in my mind and my heart. The smiles of the children have warmed me. I am praying that the little I can do with the Lutheran Church in Rwanda might be beneficial. I am praying that twenty one years after the genocide the future for the people of Rwanda is a bright one and I hope to, return again and again to see that bright future unfold. 

I am westafricabound and now Rwanda bound.

If #all lives matter then don’t #black lives matter?

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism

I am struggling with how to express what I am feeling. We are a week or so away from the terrible terror attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This was a horrendous incident. What makes it even more awful is that the two young men who carried out the attack at the magazine office were targeting a specific group of people. They were targeting journalist who pride themselves on being able to exercise free speech. It is hard to believe that in 2015 that there would be anyone that was against free speech, but many are. Because there are those who oppose free speech, violence occurs.

Gathering of LCCN

Gathering of Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria

Now of course the ideal of anyone being affected by violence breaks my heart. But, what bothers me almost as much as violence is injustice, racism, and prejudice.  I am mentioning injustice, racism and prejudice because sometimes it seems to me that our media is suffering from some inherent, maybe unconscious prejudice. Or maybe, it is not actually the prejudice of the media, but the prejudice of our culture. In the US, it seems, we live in a culture that is not ready to be equally concerned about those who are black.

This was brought to mind as my news feed on Facebook between January 4 and 7 began showing me news articles from across the world of a tragedy in Nigeria. There was a massacre in Baga in Northern Nigerian. This massacre was carried out, the reports said, by Boko Haram. My google alerts were blowing up with this news. Yet, there was nothing on ABC, NBC or CBS. Yet, on the morning of January 7 when the attack on Charlie Hebdo began, every major news outlet was covering it. It was not until January 9 that I saw a mention of violence in Nigeria on Good Morning America. Maybe I was not paying attention and missed something, but I don’t think so.

These tragedies were happening almost at the same time. As people in Paris were being held under siege, thousands of Nigerians were being terrorized. Many were killed and it took days for me to see the story from Nigeria in mainstream media. How as a brown person am I supposed to feel?

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Archbishop and bishops of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria and me.

Perhaps the reason that I feel some kind of way about this is that western culture is left in the dark about much of what happens on the continent of Africa. Or should I say, seems to prefer to remain in the dark. The Ebola crisis doesn’t mean anything until westerners are in danger, civil strife is ignored unless westerners are hurt….do not black lives matter? As I work and walk with the people of Madagascar, West and Central Africa I see the image of God in black faces; I see the light of God in brown smiles; I see worth, value, talent and intelligence; I see so many gifts of God, just as I see  the gifts of God in my western friends. All lives matter, all lives are gifts of God. That means that #blacklivesmatter.

I hope you agree as I continue to be westafricabound.

Tribal dress for a celebration in Nigeria

Tribal dress for a celebration in Nigeria

Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity …. Across Continents Part I

Bantoura, Toubob, Pulaar…..

I have been called each of these things in the last few months. Bantoura means white person in Hausa. This is what a group of children yelled as Dana and I visited a school in Nigeria. I thought they were just talking about her, until they ran up to me rubbing my skin.

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

In Senegal, I was referred to as Toubob, that means foreigner and most often is used to talk about those of European ancestry. But not exclusively, it can mean someone from somewhere not Senegal. I didn’t mind this so much once I understood.

In Senegal, I am also sometimes mistaken for someone who is Pulaar. This happens especially when I am dressed in brightly colored African clothes. I was in a fabric market in Dakar with Rebecca and Anne buying cloth and a man came in and began speaking to me in Pulaar. Of course, I didn’t know what he was saying and Anne laughed because she understood him and engaged in a dialogue. I have been given the name Penda Baa, by my Pulaar cousins in Linguere. They have owned me, adopted me and said I belong.

The issues of race and belonging are issues that I struggle with as I do this global work. I believe these are struggles of many of us of the African Diaspora. Am I African? Am I American? Am I both? Can I self define?

Who am I?  What I am? are questions I have been asked while on the continent of Africa. I have shown photos of loved ones and some are surprised, others say of course….because my loved ones come in varying shades from the lightest, light to the deepest brown…..My son and grandson are a perfect pecan brown, while my beloved grandmothers are one a deep coffee color and the other the color of the cream for that coffee.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak to those gathered for the synod meeting of the Lutheran Church of Senegal. As I spoke to them about their strength to overcome the obstacles they faced, to be self reliant. I talked about my experience. I told them about my coffee colored grandmother and the strength of a community descendant from those enslaved.  I told them I was a descendant  of those who were taken from Africa’s shores. I said that those who survived the middle passage, my ancestors, were known for the strength to withstand obstacles.

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

As they looked at my light skin, this puzzled them; so I told them that my ancestors were also Europeans, those  who owned the boats and traded in people from the African Continent. This is the truth of our lives, those of us who are called African America.

I would like to explore some of these realities. Please walk with me as I discuss some of the issues of race and belonging from across continents.

I am westafricabound.

The Joys of SMC

Last week I attended my very first Global Mission Summer Missionary Conference (SMC). It is the time when global personnel from all over the world are on their bi-annual home assignment stay. That means that every year half of the global personnel that are sent by the ELCA out into the world to accompany Lutheran Churches and other institutions are gathered. The SMC which takes place at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin offers fellowship, formation and fun. There were about one hundred and twenty-eight people in attendance which includes most of the Global Mission staff that work at the Lutheran Center in Chicago.thCAE8E71C

Carthage is a beautiful setting; it is right on Lake Michigan. It provides an opportunity to sit on the beach, watch the moon rise and have pleasant walks in the morning. During the conference there is time for worship and reflections. In the college chapel, worship with preaching and eucharist begins the conference and a remembrance of baptism and anointing ends the SMC. Every other day of the SMC devotions are offered as we gather for plenary.

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There is also a chance to hear engaging Lutheran Theologians. This year Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos and Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing talked to us about origin and destination narratives. Dr. Santos told us that as a person from Puerto Rico his history included Africans, Indians and Europeans. As he showed us a statue that represented this history, he said that parts of his origin narrative, part of his story is one of violence and oppression. This is the part that no one sees or makes explicit. Thus portions of his history, part of his origin narrative is unspoken.  So the popular story that we hear of the beautiful people on the island of Puerto Rico is an invented story. Because of this Dr. Santos let us know that stories of origin are invented and his origin narrative is broken. He also assured us that being invented does not mean these stories are not true, but if invented these stories can be re-invented. He also told us that a broken narrative can be mended.

The other meaningful part of SMC is simply being with old friends and meeting new people. I welcomed a new long-term missionary that is going to Sierra Leone, Rev. Morsal Collier. I got to hang out with Rev. Dr. James Thomas a professor from Southern Lutheran Theological Seminary. He is going on sabbatical; Dr. Thomas will be teaching for a semester at Good News Theological College and Seminary in Ghana. Other members of the West Africa team, Joe and Deb Troester who serve in the Central African Republic were also there.

Part of the job of Area Program Directors is to meet with global personnel for consultations and debriefing. During this time I had the pleasure of having conversations with global personnel serving in West Africa that I have never met: Mary Beth and Bayo Oyebade and Sarah and Dirk Stadtlander.  The Oyebades serve in Nigeria at Mashiah Foundation and the Stadtlanders have completed service in Linguere Senegal.IMG_2159

At every SMC  there is recognition and celebration at a formal banquet. This year there was recognition of Mashiah Foundation and the supporters of that ministry the Upper River Iowa Conference of the Northeastern Iowa Synod. Also, there was recognition of long-term global personnel completing service through videos and certificates. Although just getting to know the Stadtlanders, I was able to thank them for their service and tell the gathered community of their deep and abiding banquet SMC Stadtlanderlove for the people, the culture and country of Senegal.

It was an intense but good week. I look forward to many SMCs and getting to meet wonderful people who serve all over the world.

I am westafricabound.

Grace Three: More than a Coincidence

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“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

I was almost finished writing my blog about plane rides. Yes, these three blog posts started out as one, but because of the way I write, you get three. You see I write in fits and starts. I write a little and then put away the writing for another time maybe a few hours, maybe a few days. I edit, rewrite and write some more in different sittings. This is how I also prepare sermons.

I put the final line on the blog post . . . “I am westafricabound.” Then, I met another Grace. Grace sat down with me and Dorothea from Canada as we sat under a tree taking a break from workshops and crowds. A lively conversation ensued.

This Grace is a beautiful 33-year-old married mother of a three-year old from Kenya. She is here at the All Africa Conference of Churches as a delegate for her church–the Coptic Church. She is married to a Coptic priest and works for the Coptic Hope Center in Kenya as a human resource person. As Dorothea left, we continued talking.

We had just come out of the workshop about “Gender Based Violence;” so, we started talking about that topic. In the workshop, the issue of the churches’ perpetuation of gender based violence came up, but of course that is a topic no one wants to talk about. We very readily talk about the huge, overwhelming acts of gender based violence that we see in war-torn countries and in news worthy catastrophic acts.

Yet, Grace and I talked about the everyday incidences of gender based violence. We talked about those incidences that occur in the home, in the work place and yes, even in the church. We shared stories of the incidence that we had read about and witnessed of unhealthy ways that the church deals with gender based violence and inappropriate behavior. It happens in the Coptic Church and in the Lutheran Church.

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We talked and I told her “thank you” for sitting down with me. She had been a sort of answer to my prayers. I had asked God to give me a clearer picture and understanding of my new role as I travel the continent of Africa. I did not get that, but it cannot be a coincidence that doing this job I have already met three Graces.

It is as though God is telling me, “don’t worry, follow me and everything you do. No matter what you do it will be full of grace.”

All I can say is thank you God and look for other grace filled moments as I am westafricabound.

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