Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Translating between American and African Contexts

By Valerie Hurwitz

Pentecostal Church in Ghana
What does it mean to do ministry in Africa? Are western educational and religious materials appropriate for an African context? How can people of faith in the US empower their denominational brothers and sisters in Africa to be leaders and to re-interpret the Christian stories and the work God is doing in this world in that setting? We have looked at these questions from a Quaker standpoint (see, for example, past blog posts). This is, however, not a question unique among Friends. ESR student Brent Walsh returned in late January from a month spent in South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana, and spoke to us on Tuesday, March 6th about his experience there.

Before I tell you about Brent’s thoughts on Christianity in Africa, I want to mention two organizations he visited. In South Africa he and his wife Julie went to Rehoboth Children’s Village, which cares for children who have HIV/AIDS. The children live in houses, with a house mother, and attend school within the village. Brent sent me a wonderful picture of the cartoon images that the teachers use to educate the children about what HIV medication does in their bodies. In Kenya, Brent and Julie visited a child they have been sponsoring through ChildFund International, Mary Mwende. They visited the school ChildFund runs in the Mukuru slums and saw some of the projects to provide clean water and other necessities to the children there. Brent would want me to mention that both are doing wonderful work and (as with every non-profit) are always looking for donations.

In Kenya and South Africa Brent visited churches that are part of the Metropolitan Community Churches. He defined their greatest needs as leadership training and non-westernized resources. Brent comically described the first issue by saying, “In the US you have to get a Master of Divinity degree and go through this whole process to become a pastor. There they just say, ‘oh, there’s a church that needs a pastor. Anyone want to be the pastor? Anyone? Would you like to be the pastor? Oh, OK! Problem solved!’” Additionally, although there is a push to translate GLBT resources like The Children Are Free (which discusses biblical passage related to same-sex relationships) into Swahili, this plays into the concept of homosexuality as a western problem. Brent explained further in an email to me later:
“Homosexuality is seen in Kenya as a western problem that has bled over into their country. So when a western book defending homosexuality is offered to people there, it means nothing to them. It doesn't change anything in their minds about God's view on homosexuality. ‘Of course people in the west are going to defend their abominable behavior and then try to spread those lies in Kenya.’ But if the book was changed to introduce African characters in African cities/towns, and if the book was reviewed by reputable African allies, it would mean that homosexuality is not just a western concept.”

Brent and Julie bring Mary Mwende a gift
Brent spoke to an organization called Other Sheep, which does transgender education and advocacy in Kenya. They also visited a church that ministers to sex workers in Nairobi, People of Substance MCC, which does not intend to get sex workers out of their industry, but to bring God into it and to encourage these women to find alternate means of making a living. (“Do they talk about Rahab?” was Nancy Bowen’s first question.)

Finally, Brent and Julie spent two weeks in Ghana at a cultural arts program run by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. There, Brent told us, he discovered that he is “not a dancer.” Instead, he spent his time weaving baskets and speaking with Ghanaians about their religious beliefs. Brent visited a shrine and learned about the five gods in Ewe Brekete, a local religion. Brent also visited a Pentecostal church and learned about how Christians in Ghana view their non-Christian neighbors. Brent told me about this visit:

“ . . . during an interview with an elder in the church, I discovered that their African context makes Christianity look much different than mine. I live in a society where the commandment against worshipping  other gods means things like money, power, work, or sex. To them, other gods take the form of actual fetish idols – gods that are carried around in positions of honor for all to see and bow down to. The Christians in Kopeyia read the Bible much differently than I do.

"I asked the church elder how much interaction they have with people of the Brekete shrine. Does religion come between Christians and non-Christians? His initial response was that people respect each others’ religions, but digging a little deeper in the conversation, it was clear that fear was the foundation upon which their relationships were built. I was warned not to have a meal with anyone who practices the Brekete religion. After all, you don’t know whether the meat they serve you had been first offered to Kunde or Bangle or any other of the fetish gods.

“'What would happen,’ I asked, ‘if I knew that the meat had been offered to the idols, but I was hungry and it smelled good? What if I decided to take the meat anyway? Would there be any repercussions with God or the church?’ The elder looked at me solemnly, hesitating for a moment. I wondered if my question had offended him. Was it too disrespectful to insinuate that I might willingly eat food offered to idols?

“‘You will be on your own then,’ the elder finally said. ‘God will not protect you.’ I was curious at this statement. He explained that when a person is right with God, if they get into a car accident or if a scorpion stings them, God will protect them from harm. But if a person willingly eats meat offered to other gods, God will turn His back on them until that person repents and asks for deliverance from the evil spirits that entered their body with the meat.”

Julie and Mary Mwende in a slum outside Nairobi
Brent is a wonderful writer, and you can read more of his work at his blog and at Be Still and Know, the daily devotional published on the Life Journey MCC website.

I believe that Brent’s experience with MCC congregations can teach Friends something about working with African Quaker meetings. As Nancy Bowen would say, “Context is Everything.”

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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