by John C.Kerr
The idea surfaced while we listened to one of our Zambian students preach in chapel: maybe poverty is one strange way in which this part of the world is blessed.
The idea surfaced while we listened to one of our Zambian students preach in chapel: maybe poverty is one strange way in which this part of the world is blessed. Of course, this is not popular fare. Most sermons, like the one in question, assure us that poverty is a curse. And one look around Kitwe and its compounds provides some convincing evidence. The toll taken by poverty on human life and potential is incalculable. And even if it should turn out to be a blessing, who wants it? As the patriarch of Fiddler on the Roof puts it, “If money is a curse, may God smite me with it and may I never recover.”
No, Luke may quote Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you poor” and James may write that the poor are especially chosen to be “rich in faith,” but our understanding of blessing runs along rather different lines. According to our chapel speaker, the twenty-first century believer can claim essentially the blessings of Deuteronomy 28, “blessing on baskets and kneading bowls… storehouses and livestock…. lending to many, borrowing from none… the head and not the tail—this is our blessing as the people of God.”
At least one hearer was unconvinced. I left chapel thinking, if that’s all there is to blessing, mere prosperity in your barns, bread basket and bank accounts, we can forget about much of Africa for awhile—maybe a long while. But isn’t there a different kind of blessing resting upon the people of Africa?
There is the blessing of detachment, for example, from the feverish, compulsive activity of the Western world. Compare the stately, early morning walk of one of Zambia’s women, to the frenetic dash across Seattle of another woman her age. The one comes out of the shadows wrapped in a shawl, a baby on her back, a basket of vegetables on her head, making her way to the morning market. The other wears a business suit, fights her way through traffic jams in her Suzuki Swift, and has two- tiered breakfast meetings before hitting the office at eight.
Clearly, a different kind of progress is involved here. It is as though Africa is moving towards a unique destiny, something more in touch with the natural order and rhythms of life. It is as though our Western fetishes—the compulsion to make it, the unquestioned allegiance to efficiency and upward mobility, the worship of technology—have finally met some resistance.
The blessings of joy could be seen on the face of Evelyn Chitenti as she led worship for the college chapel. This is in a student body of eighty enthusiastic candidates for ministry, delighted to be in college, to have a part in an aggressive young Zambian church—especially to have raised the necessary two hundred dollars per-term it takes to register. Some are mature men like Patrick Mubanga, who had to sell a small business to come. Evelyn led a Fanny Crosby hymn and a Bemba chorus. We sang with great effervescent gusto, as though these songs had never been sung before. At such times I get the feeling that joy is so alive in Africa, the rest of the world seems sad by comparison.
And related to joy is ebullient praise, sustaining these people of faith through bad times. Pastor Samuel Mwamba, one of our recent graduates, told us about praise in Congo-Zaire during the years of oppression under the thoroughly askew Mobuto Sese Seko. The country was in ruins. People were suffering terribly on the basis of their tribe or their views, or the yet more heinous crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the people of the vibrant church in Likasi would sing “this chorus,” said Samuel,—and he would break into syncopated Swahili complete with dance. What dictator could repress such a church?
Praise is related to prayer. I’ve been in prayer times when an entire Harare church, dirt-poor, in a old building, cracked and bare and borrowed from the Seventh Day Adventists, with a few sticks of furnishings, becomes a marching army. The saints stride up and down the aisles and across the front, using prayer as their weapon, everyone united in a great volume of aggressive, directed intercession. Little children, barely waist-high, join this militant march.
They command sin, sickness and Satan to be gone on the authority of Jesus’ mighty name—behind a stubby, little, pointed finger. We, the privileged visitors, are so humbled. This dirt floor turns out to be holy ground. Sometimes we feel like falling on our knees and crying out like the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
There is the freedom of simplicity which Richard Foster describes as one of life’s greatest blessings. I helped a married student with one daughter move off campus. He loaded one box, then another, in the back of my truck. Then came a piece of foam. Then he stood and looked at me. Was that it? Sure enough, he was ready to move into the world of church-planting and evangelism. No wonder the Zambians tell us that they can evangelize Botswana a lot easier and quicker than us, their esteemed Western brethren. They may reach the entire nation before we have our crates unpacked.
There is the lovely blessing of touch, of friendship. Sometimes you shake hands and do not get the hand back. This is a group culture, and very affectionate. They believe in extending the right hand, and extending fellowship. It makes you happy to be here, to feel the bonds of our common humanity, the acceptance and affection of a gentle people. Seldom do you see a child so abandoned, so alone, that they do not have a fraternal hand to hold.
Related to this is the blessing of family. Shun your relatives in Africa and your basic humanity is in question. And everyone seems to be “my brother” or “my aunt.” The song, We are Family, We are One rings somewhat hollow in the individualistic West. But here, it is life.
There is the blessing of acceptance about the African which is also rare in a world of “pulling your own strings.” If the mechanic could not finish the job because of “parts,” this is life. If it takes a while to locate the parts, there is an air of resignation about it. To be sure, many Africans rail against such resignation in all its forms. But do they realize how many people fill counseling offices in upscale Houston, Texas, because they can’t accept life?
Among the things these people accept is the brevity of life: they are blessed with a sense of their mortality. If life expectancy hovers around forty-four, it is a reminder that we should not delay in enjoying the “riches” of each day and preparing for eternity. Zambia is a nation that is burying a lot of people every day: AIDS will infect over thirty percent of the population this year; malaria is bad; malnutrition is bad. The trends are exactly the reverse of the developed West, where the graying of the population is the overriding concern. But many a Zambian draws the Christian conclusion that applies all over the world: we should not delay in setting our lives in order before God and getting on with doing his will. With the life-expectancy statistics of the African sub-Sahara, “now” is definitely the day of salvation.
These people are in touch with nature. Our Copperbelt District office is “under the tree in front of the bank” downtown. If you want to see the superintendent, he’s liable to say, “Meet me under the tree.” You can find him there almost any time on Mondays, accessible, affable, doing the work of God in the best executive office in the world, under the shade of a flowering jacaran-dah on a California morning, in downtown Kitwe.
Then there is the blessing of a child-like freedom from care. Although they are burdened as much as any people on earth, these Bembas and Lundas of Zambia know how to play, laugh and lose themselves in another world. They seem to understand that we were not designed to bear all the burdens of life. They are able to absorb the great comfort that there is in the meeting of basic necessities. One of the poorest men I know writes me the most delightful letters, filled with charm and good humor: “Come and see how old Paul is cracking the soil,” he says. “Here we are all well, except for hunger.” “Except for hunger?” How can you be “well, except for hunger?”
Maybe you need Western eyes to see the priceless worth of the treasure that Africa already has. In his book Creative Suffering, Paul Tournier says it is really the “undeveloped” nations that are “developed” and the “developed” nations that are impoverished. Of his native Switzerland, he says,
What we have developed is only society, the collectivity, the organization, regimentation, planning, bureaucracy, … and anonymous impersonal technology. As for man’s need to be treated not as a machine for production but as a person, to assert his personal identity, and to have genuine relationships with other people… we are incontestably underdeveloped, not even developing, but regressing. Everything is sacrificed to profit and to material prosperity…. Even our pleasures have become mass movements, media-controlled… and exploited by commercial enterprises.
Is it possible, as Tournier says, that suffering itself is a blessing wherewith people are immeasurably enriched? Can adversity actually be a gift from God? Did our Lord really mean “Blessed are you poor?” Was James Michener perhaps right when he wrote, “Man is essentially a desert creature, and life is meant to be harsh?” Can it be that escaping discomfort is really not what Christianity is about?
These are some of the questions that Africa puts before your face. Occasionally you find an answer in the affirmative. A Paul Tournier. A Samuel Mwamba. Or an out-of-print commentary on Luke which says, “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament: adversity the blessing of the New.”
John Kerr and his wife Ruth have given leadership to Trans-Africa Theological College, Kitwe, Zambia for seven years. Prior to Zambia, John and Ruth pastored in Canada for twenty-five years; they have two grown sons and five grandchildren. John is the author of In the Cleft of the Rock (Thomas Nelson).
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 212-215. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.