Wholeness of Mission: Meeting Donald K. Smith

Donald K. Smith attended our last meeting of the Africa Journey Fellowship, and a whole new world of resources opened up to me. I have much to learn from this man and I’m diving right in!

Don is an expert in cross cultural communication, having served as a missionary and business developer in Africa for more than 30 years, and founder of Daystar University in Kenya, The International Institute for Christian Communication and the WorldView Center.  Don gave quite a few insights on the questions we raised about our Africa partnerships and our plans for missions projects.

Don is working on a revision of a previous book called Make Haste Slowly. In his book he asks questions such as; How do we develop wholeness of mission? How can we learn to communicate in ways that make wholeness of mission possible?

Here is short excerpt from Chapter 2: Chapter Two MAPPING THE JOURNEY

 Introducing fundamental change into another group or society is complex. It is easiest to do only a small part of what needs to be done, and pretend that is all that really matters. So a little part of the need is met by this group of specialists, another part by a band of enthusiasts, new programs are introduced, and still other parts are left untouched. Even when the Christian Message is the central concern, that Message is too often left undemonstrated and thus unheard.

Wholeness in mission is essential. The spiritual must be confirmed by meeting health needs, by encouraging the dignity of self-respect. Fighting famine must not squeeze out the feeding of hearts and minds. All of it must be done together, each part inseparable from all other parts. Wholeness in mission is more than each specialist adding his concerns to the total list of activities, then pasting it together under one administrator. It is very different from aid and advice lavishly dispensed by a skilled and powerful organization of professional development people.

Wholeness in mission only happens when the group itself is a participant in the change process. It doesn’t matter if the change desired is spiritual, social or physical. Without trust and full participation between “helped and helper,” the “best” efforts will result only in superficial change. It is unlikely to be permanent or spread very far in the society. It may, in fact, simply be rejected.

People are not a blackboard on which we draw our designs, but participants in change. They must be involved in determining priorities, choosing personnel, and carrying out programs jointly planned and accepted. How we develop communication that makes possible wholeness in mission is the purpose of this small book.

This book is for the many who are putting their lives into the effort to communicate with very different people. It is useful to the medical worker, the agriculturalist, the teacher, and the Christian evangelist. Whether short term or for a lifetime, following these basic principles will smooth friction at the meeting point of cultures.

 I eagerly await the re-release of this book, Make Haste Slowly and am hungry to glean more from Don’s 30+ years of wisdom.

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Posted by on April 9, 2011 in Uncategorized


Power Pressure

Americans exert power, whether we realize it or not.  Church members go on mission trips to  visit the poor, with a wide open heart to help and give.  I believe that in the process, we unknowingly pressure the people of other cultures with our power.  Jesus was most critical of the powerful, and most merciful to the weak.  Let us examine our approach to helping the poor, and learn to love without applying power pressure.

We have difficulty sensing our power pressure, because we have never lived in a community of severe insecurity.  We have options. We have money to complete a project, or we can figure out where to get it.  We can get a job and rent an apartment.  We feel confident to speak openly.  We criticize with impunity.  We believe in the American dream, where any idea is free to grow.

Our natural self confidence causes us to advocate ideas, to ask direct questions, to take action to provide a solution, such as donating money to complete a critical project.  All of these behaviors feel intuitive to us, and don’t feel the least bit inappropriate.

We have never endured great loss from speaking openly.  We’ve never lost a loved one for not complying.  We’ve never coped with a total lack of options.  We are not self-aware, that we naturally speak and act from a position of personal security and power, and that much of the rest of the world does not.  Other cultures that have suffered under ruthless political regimes, war and extreme poverty, relate from histories of insecurity, and that’s an entirely different paradigm.

After ten years of engaging in African-Western relationships, I am starting to feel great respect for my African brothers and sisters who have learned deeper personal skills of flexibility than me.   They know how to patiently endure power, how to humbly and respectfully go with the flow. They know how to give up for the sake of peace, or win by waiting.  They cope with a lack of options and money.  I have no idea how to do that. 

I speak my mind, and make my case to defend my plans, because I can.  My peers respect me for it.  American culture is a mutual power exerting culture, whereas many other cultures are mutual submissive cultures; a patient wait and see approach.  It’s critical for us to realize that our natural first response is to step forward, whereas in many other cultures, a first natural response is to yield and step back.  We need to realize this difference, so that we don’t incorrectly assume that people agree with us when in fact they don’t.

When I first travelled to Rwanda, all sorts of creative, helpful ideas bubbled up within me.  My solutions to extreme poverty ranged from very grandiose, like building a world class high school, to very small, such as donating chickens to our orphanage home.  My ideas met with enthusiastic affirmation, and I started to believe that I possessed exceptional creativity and even entrepreneurial genius.  Rwanda felt like a magical land where every idea has merit.   But as my projects unfolded, I started to see glimpses that some of my ideas were not that culturally appropriate or actually wanted.  The chicken coop only got half built, and the money invested was lost.  Other projects led to even greater painful results.

My helpful ideas met with initial agreement but not actual consensus. My friends yielded to me out of respect for my position as a visitor and person of wealth.  There is a huge difference between consensus and yielding that is lost on most Westerners.  Lack of consensus will require a great cost to be paid on the back end of a project, and of a relationship.

Jesus’ love is radical.  Jesus’ love does not seek its own way.  How can I release my power pressure, and live in mutual submission with those of other cultures? How do I truly gain consensus?  To start, I will be willing to spend time, without seeking to bring an idea.  I will also let ideas take a very long time to percolate, and gain consensus before moving forward.  I may wait to be asked to help, instead of asking if I can help.   And I will look for opportunities to respectfully go with the flow.

Serena Morones

March 19, 2011

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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Posts from the Group


The Single Story

If you care about Africa, or developing countries, this speech is excellent, and foundational to understanding full relationship.

The speaker talks about the danger of hearing and believing a single kind of story about our African friends. To truly know those you are care about, you must learn several interconnected stories.

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Posted by on March 4, 2011 in Uncategorized



The Myth of the Blank Canvas

Africa inspires me to feel unlimited hope for life change.  When I first met Rwandan orphans who had bright eyes, wide smiles showing perfect white teeth, and surprising plans for the future, I was jolted into a swirling dance of ideas, hope and action.  I’ve lived this energizing journey for more than ten years now.  It’s a thrilling but difficult place.  Along my journey, I’ve come to discover an odd behavior in myself, and others like me.  I call it the myth of the blank canvas. 

We look at the African orphan (or widow, or poor person) as a blank canvas, ready for us to splash brilliantly colored paint that will fill out the emptiness of their life.  By blank canvas, I mean we forget to imagine what or who came before us.  We don’t realize the values, priorities and relationships that constitute the deeply ingrained identity of the person we want to help.

In 2007, I had the good luck of meeting a group of business entrepreneurs at Bourbon Coffee in Kigali.  A friend connected me because he thought I would benefit from collaborating with ambitious American businessmen working in Rwanda.  I sat within the circle of dreamers and thinkers, all of whom had become successful and wealthy in America.  They talked of founding a high quality university in Kigali, with just the right educational programs that would fill the deficit of skills in Rwanda, as well as starting business enterprises to employ the students.  The plan was enormous, and sounded perfect in every way.  They expected their plan to be one of the most pivotal events in Rwanda’s development.  Then, in the midst of the euphoria, one of the guys said, “It’s so exciting to be here in this moment today.  I feel like I am eavesdropping, as the founding fathers discuss the plans that will establish the country.”

Founding fathers?  Who do we think we are?  At least one of these men saw Rwanda as a blank canvas, ready for their big splashes of paint, that would make everything beautiful.   I have come to see this is really how many of us westerners think.   Why do we disregard what is already?  When we want to help someone, why do we not honor and learn about the other relationships in that person’s life?  Is it because we see the past as being too broken to be significant? 

I’ve helped many Rwandans over the years, and looking back I can see that in early days, I did not adequately regard the identities of those I helped.  I viewed the youth of Rwanda as enormous opportunities for growth and life change, and thought they would be open to any idea I had for helping.  In fact, I believed so strongly in the wisdom of my own ideas, I declined to follow advice from older Rwandans.   Of course, pain resulted.

As time passed, I realized that my simplistic view was a myth, especially when I saw other Americans behaving as if nothing and no one had come before them.

My husband and I brought a group of Rwandan singers on music tours for three years in row.  As we toured around the West Coast, we noticed that host families seemed very intent on imparting their knowledge and interests onto the guys.  They treated the guys like molds ready to be imprinted.  One person gave a violin and insisted that the Rwandan youth learn it.  People gave them books, CDs, art, gadgets and hobby tools,  and insisted that they adopt it all.  The guys would hear all sorts of strong advice that was wholly  impractical for their situations. This pattern was ridiculously common to the extent that my husband and I joked about it.   But the jokes pricked me into awareness of my own self-absorbed perspective.   

One of the most emotional moments of realizing the myth came a few years back when I asked my friend Angie if she would open her home to host Eric, one of the young musicians I had helped for many years, to be able to attend school in America.   Angie had been to Rwanda and had started to think about adoption, so her heart was ready and open to welcome a Rwandan youth into her home.   Several months after Eric joined her family, Angie wrote a wonderful, heartfelt blog about her adoption of Eric, and what it meant to her to have Eric like a son in her family.  Angie is a great friend (and gave me permission to tell this story), but her blog struck me oddly and made me feel empty.  The blog made me feel as if Angie wasn’t considering  the long journey Eric had travelled to get to her home, or  the other families, including my own, who had sacrificed to bring him that far. 

When we don’t know what is already there, or who has come before, we are not learning the identity of the person we are trying to love.  We are loving our ideas of how to change a person, more than loving  the person. 

There was certainly nothing negative about Angie’s high commitment to parent Eric, just as there is nothing negative about our desires to help the poor, orphaned and widowed.  Angie and her family remain one of the most important, life giving relationships to Eric.   But this kind of parenting is very different, because while Eric is an orphan, he came to her home with a huge world of relationships, experiences and identity; a beautiful and complex picture.    The best outcome for Angie, me and others like us will come after a long time of patient listening and learning how to best fit into a complex story.

Many short-term mission and humanitarian projects fail.  I believe failure is partly due to the speed at which the idea came together.  We don’t take time to listen and learn how to best fit into what is  already there.  Jean Hatzfield, author of the “The Antelope Strategy,” translated the word Muzungu as “usurper.”  I felt shocked to read such strongly negative translation of the word for white person.  But as I reflect, I realize that it’s true that our ambitious world changing plans often  usurp what was already in process, either in one person’s life or in a community.   Wouldn’t it be better to weave our efforts to help into what already is in process, than to launch a whole new initiative?[1] 

Why do we try to make people into copies of ourselves, instead of first understanding the person we are trying to help?  I don’t think it’s because we are bad people.  I believe it’s because we all deeply yearn for significance.  We want to imprint our identity on needy people, because we want to feel valuable, smart and capable of changing the world.  But our desire for significance cannot be gratified by helping others.  Our need for significance will only be filled when we live in eternity in the presence of God.

By Serena Morones

February, 2011

[1] A major thesis of the book, When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, is that poverty alleviation projects should build upon the existing assets in a community.  Start with the strengths of a community and slowly build from there.  Bringing in outside technology and resources doesn’t have long term impact.


Posted by on February 14, 2011 in Posts from the Group


Welcome to Africajourney!

Africajourney will be a discussion site for people who want to share about their relationship journeys in Africa.

This site sprang up from a group of people in Portland, Oregon who are all somehow involved in various African countries.  We meet a couple times per year to share wisdom about our Africa journey, and talk and pray about how to find and deepen genuine “partnerships” or relationships.  We wrestle with the issues of cross-cultural relationships an we contfront our tendancies to want to quickly fix the “problems” in Africa.

We are followers of Jesus who seek to engage in long term committed relationships with our friends in Africa.

Welcome to our site, and we hope you find our posts helpful to your Africa journey.

Serena Morones

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Posted by on November 11, 2010 in Posts from the Group