Sunday, August 9, 2015

taking DC to Ghana 2015: observations and memories

Kurt and I took a team of six (Sarah Boles, Laura Duke, Chris Goodman, and Paul Sheeran) to Northern Ghana, July 25 – August 4, to do five days of discipleship training with 30+ church leaders. Southeast Christian Church sponsored us. We had planned to go in February, but Ebola delayed us. Looking back, we’re happy that we went in July, since that’s the coolest time of the year for them—with highs in the upper 80s and lows in the lower 70s (cooler than Louisville!). Of course, there’s not much A/C, so it’s still tough sledding, but the sledding is probably easiest then!

After flying from Amsterdam into the capital city of Accra, we avoided a 5-8 hour van ride by taking a 45-minute flight to Tamale (a city of about 300K people; the center of Northern Ghana). We stayed in a village north of Tamale—in the compound run by Bob and Bonnie Parker’s Seed Ministries. From there, each morning, we traveled about 45 minutes north by van to a training center in the town of Savelugu.

We had met Francis Bukachi more than a year earlier through Charlie Vittitow in Missions at Southeast. As Charlie hoped and anticipated, the three of us had an immediate connection. Francis left ministry in Kenya with Life in Abundance (LIA) about eight years ago (with their blessing). Continuing LIA’s focus on empowering people, he has built a team on the ground in Northern Ghana—a ministry called Hope Alive Initiatives (HAI). They have a range of efforts to empower: schools, economic development, medical, dentistry, vision, evangelism and discipleship.

Although we discussed a number of topics with the church leaders, our focus was on making disciple-makers and how to implement DC: Thoroughly Equipped or DC for Students: Getting Equipped. Given HAI’s focus on empowering people—and in particular, empowering people to empower others—DC is a natural fit. (We worked with their subset of English-speaking church leaders. They can take DC directly to their English-speaking members. And the translation efforts of Seed Ministries with “DC for Students”, already well underway, will help with the use of DC in other native languages.)

Our primary goal in DC is to make disciple-makers. (The Great Commission calls us to “make disciples”, but if you read between the lines, a “disciple” is someone who can himself make disciples. See: the “multiplication ministry” of II Timothy 2:2 and Joel 1:3.) In the Church, it’s common to give lip service to the importance of discipleship while treating it lightly—as a church and/or as believers. Churches often provide (exceedingly) modest opportunities to be discipled—typically relying on relatively passive absorption of information (through sermons or lecturing in a “teaching” context), calls to serve within the church, and encouragement to reach out to one’s neighbor.

Of course, all of these are good activities. But they aim at some fruit of being a disciple, rather than addressing the roots of discipleship and why it is often so limited. Beyond robust discipleship, it’s rare to find a church that has a vision and a plan to make disciple-makers who can make other disciple-makers. As such, the usual approaches to “discipleship” are neither all that effective nor consistent with the ministry practices of Jesus.

The Work: Training the Trainers
On Monday, Sarah and Laura opened with “our Identity in Christ”. If you don’t understand your identity, then you’re unlikely to get much of what God has for you. Along those lines, Paul spends the first half of Ephesians on this topic, before the pivot verse of 4:1—to live a life worthy of the calling one has received (in those first three chapters). Again, we often focus on the exciting categories and tangible action steps of Ephesians 4-6, without understanding our identity. Putting it another way, Paul starts with our resources in Christ before moving to our responsibilities in Christ. If we don’t do the same, we will not bear much fruit.

Later on Monday, Kurt segued to Spiritual Warfare—in particular, how Satan attacks our identity in Christ. Kurt continued with the broader topic on Tuesday, before handing off to Paul who went through Neil Anderson’s “Freedom Appointment” booklet. Spiritual warfare is probably less prevalent and is certainly underestimated in the U.S. But it’s much more obvious in less-developed countries, particularly where various forms of pagan religion invite more trouble. We heard a number of cool and chilling stories—and saw a few things—when we were in Ghana.

On Wednesday, we divided into three co-led small groups and did a simulation of the “Managing Conflict” week in DC201. Many of the participants had prepared the material already. So we treated it as both an op to illustrate how DC works and to discuss an important topic. In the afternoon, Kurt and I covered our version of Dann Spader’s “Four Chairs” model (e.g., chair 2 is usually a couch; and the big gaps between the first three chairs) and our first DC training session (on the importance of “shoulder-tapping”, the need to “just say no”, the vitality of continued personal growth, the usefulness of goals, the importance of “shepherding” within all small groups, etc.)

On Thursday, Chris opened with a discussion of principles in hermeneutics. And then I led the full group through a thorough discussion of Genesis 3, covering ways to read and teach the Bible more effectively. In the afternoon, we went back to small groups for another simulation (“Intro to Leadership” in DC202).

On Friday morning, we used material from four weeks of DC201-202 to discuss stewardship and marriage in our small groups. In the afternoon, Kurt and I returned to the topic of making disciple-makers; revisited the topic of unity; and closed with a small group exercise where churches made plans to implement DC in some form (to be encouraged and held accountable by Francis’ team).

The daily schedule was 9:00ish until 3:00—with opening comments and a prayer from Pastor Immanuel (who runs the training center, pastors a nearby church, and is a part of the HAI team); Isaak led worship with three or four songs; we trained for an AM session; had lunch; one worship song to bring us back; trained for an afternoon session; and closed with comments, announcements, and prayer. (As an aside, it's interesting that when the group prayed, it was always out loud. Very cool!) 

After the five days of training with the 30+ church leaders, we had a meeting on Saturday afternoon with the HAI team leaders. We talked further about making disciple-makers and learned about their team’s structure. More important, we heard some of their stories—on life, ministry, and how things had changed with the HAI training. It was great to hear about Samson’s work in developing schools and Mordecai’s broad efforts to help the ministry. Zak’s story about being chased out of Mali by gunfire as a missionary—and the long recovery for him and his family—was compelling and encouraging. And Immanuel’s story of transformation in ministry—from mostly a Sunday-only, “spiritual” approach to something much more holistic, including economic development (for him and his people) was impressive.

On Sunday AM, five of the seven of us (including Francis) preached at local churches. From a human perspective, the assignments were random. I was given Yong—a small, largely-Christian village east of Savelugu. They had a light rain that morning, so their usual “Sunday School” was disrupted. People were slow to gather; we arrived about 15 minutes before the service and only one man was there. He showed me their new church building under construction. It was about six times larger. Given the light attendance, I was wondering why they would want that!

But by the time we started, we had 50 in attendance—moving toward crowded—with 47 men and 3 women. (I was thinking that the men were more spiritual, but was told afterwards that the women were still working in the home! More later on the importance and baggage of cultural influences.) Halfway into the worship music, we were at capacity (and beyond) with about 110 adults. (I learned later that two children’s groups of about 50 kids and four adult leaders were meeting elsewhere.) There was no room in there to do more than sit/stand—no dancing, in particular—so one might wonder how that will impact their practices going forward.

It was really warm in there—even on a relatively cool day. Sweat had beaded up on my arms—even before I started to preach! I had a translator. (It’s a bit disruptive, but I also like that it gives me more time to collect my thoughts.) Before the trip, the Lord had given me the message from Revelation 3:7-13—the “open doors” for the church at Philadelphia. Going into it, I was excited to learn that Yong had the most “open doors” of the five sermon ops—given their two schools, dental clinic, and emerging vison clinic—even though they’re only in a small village. I was able to share the Gospel’s salvation message twice. But the best of the good news was probably the opportunity to encourage the believers there about their “open doors”. This led to the most powerful moment of the morning for me—when I broke down at the amazing thought of God sending me on four airplanes to a remote village to deliver this encouraging message! After 30-40 seconds, the translators led them in a song for a few minutes while I got my act back together.

Key Issues
There were a number of interesting small moments/observations. 
--We had four women in the training, including one who breast-fed often. I was sitting next to her the first time it happened and got a surprising eyeful when I turned to my right. After that, it was funny to see the little girl often trying to pull down her mom’s top! 
--We had to deal with the heat; we had ceiling fans, but without A/C, it got tough at times. 
--During small groups, we had some interference from passing children, wandering goats, and the brays of an occasional donkey. 
--One of the Elisha’s had such a beautiful smile. Thomas was quite a character—and it was fun to see him (and Zak) dance. 
--The handshakes varied widely—from straight up to the fancy stuff I learned from a North African 25 years ago. It was difficult to predict/remember what each person wanted to do! 
--Some of them traveled 3-6 hours to get to Savelugu (and stayed with friends locally). And given the roads, everyone had to travel 10-45 minutes daily. 
--The worship was fun and inspirational. And at the end, we were surprised to get “some shine” from Zak—everybody rubbing his hands together vigorously before shooting one hand off the other, away from their body.

All of those were a smile, but I want to focus on some larger details from the training time. First, to the primary point of our trip/training: to make disciple-makers requires vision, a viable plan, and reasonable execution of the plan. In the U.S., most church leaders will give at least lip service to “discipleship”. But only some have a vision for any sort of robust discipleship—or more to the point, a vision for making disciple-makers and training up competent lay-leaders. Of those with a vision, few have a viable plan. But then the good news: For those with a vision and a plan, execution of the plan presents challenges, but is usually accomplished in some substantive form.

In Ghana, they might be better on the first two steps. (I’m not sure; my sample size is too small to say!) But the last step is more difficult, culturally, for them. “Getting things done” is (far) more American than Ghanaian. Thankfully, HAI focuses on that challenge through various forms of exhortation, encouragement, and accountability/follow-up.

Second, when we arrived, we learned that some of the HAI-trained churches are wrestling with a significant organizational issue which has threatened their unity. It was providential that we were there at this time—and to talk about “managing conflict” during our time together. We saw many reasons for hope—from the general dialogue we had with them to the character and faith of those with whom we worked. We trust that the Lord will continue to work in this matter. And we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ that they would practice humility, patience, “bearing with one another”, and mutual submission as they work through the details.

Third, the intersection with Islam in Northern Ghana is an important feature of life there. The population is about 80% Muslim (although many of them are “cultural” Muslims). There are small mosques sprinkled every half-mile or so in villages, towns and the city. One of the team leaders is a former Muslim (with some fascinating stories). That said, (most?) everyone seems to get along well. Everybody was at least neutral and generally friendly; kids and especially women often waved at us and started/returned smiles and waves; Muslim children go to Christian schools; and so on. Occasionally, we heard about tension. For example, we were told not to walk as a group to a nearby village, because a group of white people would be assumed to be Christians actively evangelizing. And the Christian leaders are concerned about Boko Haram coming into Ghana.

Fourth, empowerment is a big issue for HAI—not just lip service or run-of-the-mill empowerment, but empowering people to empower others. In their language, they have “training of trainers” (TOT) to that end. In DC language, we want to move beyond making disciples to making disciple-makers. Or in popular language, we want to move beyond giving a man a fish—and even, teaching a man to fish—to teaching him how to teach others to fish. This focus on empowerment extends to all aspects of their ministry, including economic development.

For example, it’s common for Ghanaians outside the city to be productive in the six-month wet season—and to save resources to survive the six-month hot, dry season. They often settle into a cycle: six months of work and six months of sitting under a tree. It’s a challenge to get them to think longer-term—say, to save more than what they need for the six dry months. Ideally, they would try to save and accumulate productive capital—say, a goat or two.

Pastor Yuba has done this, accumulating some goats and a few sheep—and most recently, his first pig (which gave birth recently to eight piglets!). Pastors are prone to want to depend on their congregation for support, but that’s really difficult in a less-developed country. (I don’t think anyone gave even the smallest currency [5 ceti] in the church offering at Yong—what would be less than $1.50 for us.) Instead, HAI encourages the pastors to provide for themselves, avoiding dependency and modeling a better life for their “flock”. (As an aside, it was interesting that one of our review memory verses for our DC simulations happened to be I Thessalonians 4:11-12!)

Fifth, the cultural influences were noteworthy; and some were quite obvious. (I’m sure ours are noteworthy as well, but since we’re immersed in them, can we see them?!) One of the obvious “surface” effects was “tribal markings”—various marks carved into the faces of the people, particularly the men. More important, tribe, culture, and family had an important impact on thoughts about work, marriage and family dynamics, etc. Geographic constraints, legal institutions, and economic (dis)incentives added to the mix. In that context, the church leaders definitely saw the vital need for Christian/biblical discipleship to combat the cultural errors—particularly in marriage and stewardship.

Life for us in Ghana: The Small Things
During the training, our daily routine was a light breakfast at 7, the van ride to the training center, the training from 9-3, the ride back, a debrief and whatever we needed to do to tweak our plans for the next day, an early dinner at 5—and then walk, study, and/or play games (Splendor, Dominion, and Bridge) until bedtime.

We had a number of inside jokes. Paul became “P-Diddy” after wearing his baseball hat sideways. Laura “looked refreshed” once—and then frequently after that. Eric and especially Kurt had trouble at the airport with giving tips to some of the people trying to “help” us at the airport with our luggage. In the trainings, all of us had trouble in avoiding idioms. I don’t know if Kurt struggled more or we just gave him more of a hard time. But I think our favorite was his use of “throwing them a curveball”.

We were well-fed. At Seed Ministries, we ate in a lovely gazebo and the meals were brought on a wagon constructed from a large tray on top of two large bike wheels with two long handles. For breakfast, we had some combination of eggs, oatmeal, bread & jelly, biscuits & gravy, and fruit. They packed us a lunch each day: a delicious egg sandwich on toast one day and a chicken pastry another day. But usually, it was PB or cheese sandwiches. For dinner, we had fruit and/or veggies and a starch, with a main dish of ground nut soup (twice; excellent!), spaghetti, veggie soup, chicken & dumplings, or roast chicken. The little bananas were good. But the mangoes were awesome; I couldn’t get enough. To drink, we had fruit juice, lime-aid, tea and coffee. And always, we had access to bags of water. I think we only had dessert one night, but it was special: pineapple and home-made ice cream served inside the pineapple’s core.

The compound was surprisingly nice—maybe a half-notch below my in-laws’ lake house. It had AC and every two people shared a small but complete bathroom. We took cool showers, but their staff even did our laundry! Kurt had to deal with a roof leak the first night with a heavy rain, but otherwise, it was far nicer than we had expected. (And although very impressive to build such a great facility in that setting, it was relatively inexpensive in terms of money.) The compound was home to many of the birds we saw; it was one place where they were safe. (They’re often hunted for food; no property rights can be exerted! And they’re seen as a nuisance, since they eat the rice heads.) There was a baobab (?) tree with pods that yielded a sweet-tasting substance. The Parker’s ministry is called Seed Ministries and they do many things, the largest of which is equivalent to our “Bible Bowl”, with thousands of kids. They have been implementing “DC for Students” over the past six months, working to translate it into eight different languages.

Given the nice facilities, we slept well. Early AM, our sleep was often disrupted by the Muslim calls to prayer and a few roosters. But usually, we went back to sleep easily enough. I don’t think we experienced jet lag per se. The trip over there jacked up our sleep pretty well. We were four hours “ahead”, but we got tired a few hours after their early sunset (6:30ish)—when it was mid-afternoon back home. Since I’ve gotten home, I’ve been more tired than normal. But our family went to two drive-in movies on Friday night before a Saturday AM DC training session, so maybe that explains my fatigue!

Sunday afternoon, we got to see an Assemblies of God ministry baptize about 25 young adults in the baptistery at Seed Ministries. Very cool! It was interesting to think that many of them were being submerged in water for the first time in their lives!

The Ghanaians were very well and brightly dressed. We only saw a handful of men and women with Western dress and hair—and as a result, they stood out quite a bit.

The animals: tons of goats; some sheep and cows; a handful of donkeys; many chickens and guineas; in some place, many bats but few birds; only a few horses, cats or dogs. Insects? We were worried about mosquitoes, but they weren’t much of a problem (at least vs. all of our defenses and God’s protection!). There were tons of flies. The termite mounds were impressive, but there were only a few wasps. (I don’t remember any bees.)

The roads ranged in quality. We had some rough dirt roads for assorted short drives, including the last mile getting to the compound. We generally had decent paved roads, but there were many and varied vehicles on the road (from bikes, mopeds and motorcycles to buses and trucks) and lots of people and animals on the shoulder. The varying speeds led to Puerto-Rico-like driving conditions—with a number of pulse-enhancing efforts to pass other vehicles. There were also potholes, speed bumps, numerous villages, and checkpoints to slow you down as well. By far, the easiest drive we had was on the new roads toward Yong (another one of their open doors). There was “nothing out that way”. So we were able to get above 60 MPH for the only time on the trip! One last thing: few people bother learning how to drive in Ghana, since few of them will have the opportunity to drive a car anytime soon—aside from the few wealthy people or those who drive professionally (taxis or drivers like ours).

The landscape was similar to rural Alabama, at least in the wet season—lots of rich greens and deep red clays. Along the roads, there were expansive gas stations, lots of fields (many with walls to mark their [largely unimproved] territory), modest fences (but sufficient to keep the goats out). We saw some amazing feats of transport, including four couches and a guy on the back of a motorized cart. Women and girls (and some younger men) often carried impressive loads on their heads. Small children carried smaller children. There were tons of little shops, selling everything from food to water, from doors to bricks, from spare tires to furniture and clothing.

As for travel, Delta had a hilarious safety video. (I watched it twice. Can you imagine it would need to be?!) But we had some trouble getting our boarding passes. There had been a severe weather incident in Amsterdam the day before our arrival that disrupted flights. This prevented us from getting boarding passes without standing in the slowest (four-hour) line in the history of the world! (Fortunately, they brought us food and water while we waited in line!) The airport in Accra was tumultuous, leading to some difficulties with locals “helping” us and wanting “tips”. At the much smaller airport in Tamale, things were much easier. The entertainment options on the planes were many and diverse. Among the 100+ movies available, I watched Argo again and caught “The China Syndrome” (a classic and really good) for the first time.

We visited the market in Tamale on Saturday AM. It was crowded and crazy—the sort of thing you see in the movies. There was food everywhere—from fresh veggies and clothing to sun-dried fish and sides of beef with flies all over. We were advised to wait until we got to the “cultural center” to make our purchases. It was much calmer there with a lot more room to move. We were told that we would get to haggle a lot, but there was a lot less than advertised. Still, the prices were good. So, I bought two backpacks, three shirts, and a duffel bag (all beautiful/colorful), an over-the-shoulder leather satchel for Daniel’s bike-riding, and a popular wooden carving of the Trinity (three interlocked persons in one piece of wood). 

In Accra on Monday, there wasn’t a full-blown market, but lots of street-level vendors in front of established stores. I’d spent most of the money I had allotted and had already bought gifts for everybody, so I was still looking but implicitly driving harder bargains. For $5 each, I picked up a “Jesus Saves” soccer ball with the Ghanaian flag’s colors and a rectangular painting on some sort of vinyl (its reference to fisher-men and its exhortation against “laziness” will remind me of the trip). We also went into a really nice, American-style grocery store and hung out on the beach for a few hours (at a resort in-town where our driver knew the people).

One last thing: when we were there, I was focused on the trip. At one point, I felt bad for not missing Tonia and the boys. To some extent, I knew that I needed to focus on the trip. But the larger issue is that if I indulged many thoughts about home, I would inevitably start thinking about all of the things I would need to do when I got home—and that wouldn’t be helpful to my state of mind there or the nourishment I would receive by fasting from American things while I was there. Once the trip was over and I turned my thoughts toward home, I missed them badly and was so thankful to see them again.

Thanks to Francis for his vision and leadership; it was a pleasure to work with such a wise and humble man. Thanks to his team on the ground in Ghana for their support and their ministry. Thanks to Bob and Bonnie Parker for their hospitality and their ministry in Ghana. Thanks to everyone who provided financial and prayer support. Thanks to Southeast which underwrote a significant part of the trip's expense. Thanks to the Missions Dept at Southeast for their wisdom and support. And thanks to the terrific team of DC'ers we took to Ghana!To God be the glory for this trip. We had a great time and we think we made an impact. But only time will tell—and only God will know the extent. We know that we were faithful to our calling/mission and we have high hopes for disciple-making in Ghana. May they have the vision for disciple-making, may they have a viable plan, and may they persevere in executing it—for the glory of God and the growth of His Kingdom.  


At August 10, 2015 at 11:43 AM , Blogger Rachel7Loy said...

What a wonderful trip! Thanks so much for taking the time to share the details. How amazing that God gave you a specific message to share with the Yong village church that was especially relevant. As for the mangos, they are in season here, and while it may not be quite the same, they are so delicious! I've been eating them like crazy!!

At August 19, 2015 at 12:04 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Wow! What a trip! Besides the fruit you enjoyed you must realize the "Fruit" you left behind to be consumed and devoured in God's good timing. Thank you for your sacrifices. The team was kept in prayer, especially you, Eric, knowing that you experience migraines from time to time. As a whole, sounds like the fruit will bud and flourish. Many blessings, Sandy

At August 19, 2015 at 12:05 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

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