TUBUNGU, Swaziland — The poor and the rich are God’s people — and God has good plans for all of us.
Daniel Chesebe, a man of few words, shared that thought as he reflected on a Community Development course at African Christian College. He was one of seven students in this tiny, southern African kingdom who spent two weeks exploring questions vital to the continent’s future leaders:
What is holistic ministry?
How can we help motivate people who feel powerless?
Is foreign assistance required?
Brad Carter, the college’s president, asked me to teach the students, who have served as preachers, educators and missionaries in countries including Burundi, Kenya, Swaziland and Zambia. Since 1967, the college, associated with Churches of Christ, has prepared Christian men and women for lives of service across the continent.
I pulled a lot from my experience as a social worker for faith-based, community-based and non-governmental organizations that serve refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture and trafficking.
This was my first teaching experience and, despite the long hours, I looked forward to our discussions.
I really enjoyed seeing the students connect the reading material and lectures to their own experiences. They were passionate, engaged and — as ministers and community leaders — eager to ask questions and share about their lives and work.
It’s one thing to read high-profile economists debating the pros and cons of foreign assistance to Africa (which we did), but it’s another to hear from students who have experienced the good and bad of this assistance firsthand.
Salomon Ntibaharire, for example, had lived as a refugee and saw NGOs at work. They made a lot of mistakes, he said, especially when they made decisions on behalf of the community without getting input.
African Christians can make the same mistakes, said Chesebe, who encourages dropouts to return to school as part of his ministry. For years he had little success with this effort, finally realizing that he was not adequately convincing other members of the students’ families of the necessity of education.
Dependency was a theme that came up throughout the class. The students all knew of projects that thrived while the benefactors were present but came trampling down as soon as they left.
Students at African Christian College. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
We talked about ways that community developers can work alongside church members instead of making decisions for them. We recognized that development projects need to help communities grow in a variety of ways — socially, economically, politically, physically, mentally, culturally and spiritually — without creating dependence on outside supporters.
It is possible. Patience and humility are required. Practitioners must be prepared to help the community identify its own needs, let the community choose who should represent its interests at all stages of decision-making, remain open to feedback and criticism from the community, and maintain full transparency regarding the project’s vision and details.
As Christians, we believe that people made in God’s image make up each community — and that God has gifted all people with intellectual, emotional and physical abilities that can be used for the benefit of our neighbors. When people employ their gifts, they achieve a sense of ownership.
We also trust that community development bears witness to the Good News by radically transforming community members’ relationships with themselves, each other, their environment and, most importantly, with God. Addressing the physical, economic, relational and environmental situations a person faces — in the name of Jesus — communicates that God cares about the whole person and that we, as his followers, should do the same.
One student, Roberts Kirui, said his takeaway from the class was that we all should use “gifts of the hand, head and heart” as we serve developing communities.
Another student, Ntokozo Samuels said that, when we use these gifts, those we serve will “see practical evidences of what God is doing through us as we touch people’s lives, giving them hope, water and food.”
KELLY BARNECHE, the daughter of missionaries to Brazil, earned a master’s in social work from Columbia University in New York. She and her husband live in Lausanne, Switzerland. She wrote this piece with contributions from Daniel Chesebe, Roberts Kirui, Salomon Ntibaharire and Ntokozo Samuels.