Sunday, September 15, 2019

Dear Tanzanian Friends, I'm Sorry for Being a Jerk Sometimes

Dear Tanzanian friends,

You know that feature on Facebook that says, "You have memories to look back on today?" I click on that notification hesitatingly, because more often than not, I wince at what I see. Oh my goodness--I used to write the most ridiculous things on Facebook. I guess everybody did, but many of my old posts reveal the ethnocentric, immature attitudes I had in my early years in Tanzania.

Complaining about electricity. Complaining about bugs. Complaining about dust. (Meanwhile, hoping that my friends back at home would realize what I saint I was for putting up with these "hardships.") Having a "white savior" mentality. Poking fun at the "amusing" things I saw in your country, many times arrogantly implying that, given the circumstances, I could do things so much better. Pointing out a lot that was wrong, and not enough that was right.

Ugh. How did you put up with me? Or, now that I know better, I should ask, How do you put up with me? Since I probably haven't changed as much as I think I have.

I was chatting with a Tanzanian co-worker (and friend) the other day, and we got onto the topic of missionaries and money. Even though this friend grew up around missionaries, she was fascinated to hear about how missionaries receive financial support from churches in their home countries. "I think a lot of the Tanzanians at Haven of Peace Academy have just assumed that you were getting paid more than we are," she told me. My jaw dropped to the ground, because HOPAC doesn't pay missionary teachers at all--we get a housing stipend, but not a salary. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. How many of our Tanzanian friends, for how many years, have assumed that we are getting rich off of their country?

Because here, though we live on support from back home, we are rich. Western missionaries in African countries live in this weird place where in our home countries, we are considered poor (like, churches invite us to use their food pantries which are for poor people), but when we are in Africa, we are incredibly privileged. Just the fact that we own a car and a couple of laptops and have the money available to fly back and forth between countries puts us in the top one percent wealthiest people in the world.

We wrestle with this tension all the time. But the truth is, as much as western missionaries come to Tanzania with this idea that we are "sacrificing" to be here, we really are vastly richer (both in money and opportunity) than almost all of the people who live here. So I can't imagine how annoying and condescending it must feel to you when we gripe about insignificant things that you have contentedly lived with your entire life.

We must seem pretty wimpy.

But that's not all. We came to your country with our own ideas about what you needed, not bothering (for a while, at least), to even ask you what you did need. We assumed that you needed us, without considering that we actually needed you even more. We had strategy meetings where we didn't include you; we wasted time and resources because we didn't ask for your help. While we were still figuring that out, you loved us anyway.

One Sunday at our African church, the pastor preached a message on the importance of missions. We were technically the only "missionaries" in the room, though I understood the message as a call to the whole congregation to be involved in mission work. Nevertheless, after the service, an African woman who I didn't know came up to me with an envelope of money. "God bless you for your service," she told me. I was speechless. It remains one of the most humbling moments of my life.

Then there's the problem that missionaries can be cliquish. Missionaries tend to gravitate towards each other, to friendships that are familiar and easy. A Tanzanian once told me, "The missionary community is hard to break into." I don't blame you for being hurt or offended by that. It shouldn't be that way. And yet, you chose to be my friend anyway.

I'm sure there are some of you reading this who would want to remind me of the good things missionaries have done in your country. You tend to be incredibly gracious. I'm not writing today to make a case for burning down missions. I'm not saying that my time here--or that of my fellow missionaries--is a waste. But there does tend to be an aura of sainthood that surrounds missionaries--both here and in our home countries, and I've had enough of that.

We are weak. Sometimes we are idiots. Sometimes we are downright arrogant and ethnocentric. Coming to that realization is really good for us, and should make us more effective.

We love your country, and we love you. Thanks for loving us, being patient with us while we learn, and gently helping us to see things from your perspective. We are so thankful for God's grace and your grace as we live out the privilege of being missionaries in your country.



P.S. I write for A Life Overseas, which reaches thousands of missionaries and expat workers all around the globe. I would love to write a piece that contains insight and constructive criticism from locals in communities that have received missionaries. If that's you, would you consider writing to me at with answers to these questions? I won't use any names, so feel free to be completely honest.

In what ways have foreign missionaries been the most helpful and harmful to your community? 
What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen missionaries make, and how could they avoid those mistakes? 

Or, if you are a writer and want to submit your own post to A Life Overseas, ask me how to do that too!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Raising Kids Means More Than Just Being a Good Parent

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a most delightful book that our whole family enjoyed, but the best part came here:

"Papa cleared his throat. 'Please, may I give a toast?...I have always believed that raising kids means more than just being a good parent and trying to do the right things,' Papa went on, his voice beginning to wobble. 'It means surrounding your kids with amazing people who can bring science experiments and jam cookies, laughter and joy, and beautiful experiences into their lives. From every part of my being, I want to thank you for giving me and my family the gifts of friendship and love."

My voice started to wobble as I read that part to my kids, because I feel the same way about our Haven of Peace Academy community.

They don't just teach my kids science, math, history, art, literature, and music.

They write them notes for their first day of school and leave cookies on their desks. They encourage them to run for Student Council. They turn our campus into a beautiful garden. They come to their soccer games and cheer them on. They recommend good library books and teach them to swim. They pray with my kids and for them, and passionately live a life of love in front of them. They take them into the community on service projects and into the rainforest. They deal patiently with my children's weaknesses, some of which can be pretty exhausting. They dry tears, and then shed some themselves when they see my children succeed.

At Haven of Peace Academy, my kids are surrounded by amazing people who bring beautiful experiences into their lives. And from every part of my being, I want to thank this staff for giving me and my family the gifts of friendship and love.

Haven of Peace Academy Staff, 2019-2020 

Yes, it really is this beautiful.

Ricky (interim director), me, Grace (middle school principal, who delivered her baby four days after this picture was taken (!), and Matt (high school principal)

First day!

Johnny, second grade

Taking his job seriously to show the new girl around

Lily, fifth grade

They're actually not supposed to run on the sidewalk, but it was the first day. Still working on that.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Why I'm Still an Evangelical

Sometimes I sit inside my head and contemplate how miraculous it is that I exist.

My own consciousness is the most real thing in the universe to me. How utterly extraordinary. I, Amy Medina, didn't exist before the spring of 1976, and then suddenly, I existed. Inside this assortment of blood and bones is a consciousness, an individual person who can think and feel and evaluate.

The more I marvel at my own soul's existence, the more certain I am of God's existence. Something as astonishing as my own consciousness could not have just happened by raw chance. It would only be possible if there was a larger, more powerful, more all-knowing consciousness who existed long before me and separately from me: God.

That's settled for me. But.....who is this God? Can we know him?  Some say no, and are content to live with the unknowing. That's never been me.

Since I was a teenager, I've had an insatiable desire to know. Not just feel, not just assume, but to know. I've never been able to ignore the hard questions, no matter how much they scare me or shake me or make me uncomfortable. Why do you believe what you believe? Is it just because you were raised this way? Is it just because you want to please people? Is is just because you've made a name for yourself in this belief system and you would lose too much to leave it?

Sometimes I wish I didn't think so much, that my mind would just let me rest. Yet I must have answers. And those questions aren't the kind that I answer once and then move on with life. I'm friends with some who are convinced of very different belief systems, and that's unsettling. I hear about leaders abandoning the faith that I have held fast to. I see those who claim to share my beliefs but also are capable of despicable things. I encounter unspeakable evil and suffering. And once again, I question. Who is this God? Can I know him? Does he care?

An evangelical, by common definition, is a Christian who reads the Bible as if it's actually true. This doesn't mean that all evangelicals agree on everything the Bible says, but it does mean that we use it as our foundation of Truth. It's a way of seeing and understanding the world: A worldview.

Unfortunately the term "evangelical" in America has been covered with the muck of politics, which is, actually, unbiblical, since Jesus made it clear that Christians' first allegiance is to the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of man. Also unfortunately, there are always a number of very public "evangelicals" who drag the name through the mud with repulsive acts. (Which, actually, shouldn't surprise us, since as evangelicals, we understand the heinousness of sin.) As a result, many who once called themselves evangelical are abandoning the description. Sometimes they are just dropping the name; sometimes they're dropping the entire belief system.

But I'm sticking with it. Because for now, there's no better way to describe what I believe.

Back to my question: Can we know this God? The Bible says Yes. This doesn't mean, of course, that the Bible is without complications. Some parts of it are really hard to understand. Some parts are downright disturbing. But when taken as a big picture, the Bible is a comprehensive narrative of the history of the universe. The story of reality. It answers all of life's biggest questions, the ones we all must grapple with: Where did we come from? Why is everything so broken? And what hope is there of fixing it?

The longer I live, the more I experience of life, the more I study this extraordinary book, the more it makes sense. The more it resonates with what I actually see in the world. That doesn't mean that I don't still have doubts. It doesn't mean that I'm still not disturbed by some of what I read or see. But if this life is a jigsaw puzzle of disjointed and often contradictory pieces of information, the Bible has helped me to sort them out, lay them in lines, and fit them together. And the further I walk down this road, the more pieces snap into place.

There is no real beauty, joy, or love if there is no Creator.
There is no inherent value in human life if we were not created in the image of God.
There is no moral system that governs our lives--no right or wrong--if there is no authority of Scripture.
There is no purpose of existence without the overarching story of a sovereign God.
There is no hope of redemption without the cross of Christ.

In the book of John, chapter 6, there's a turning point in Jesus' ministry. He talked about how following him meant a complete, wholehearted, dependence on him for life and salvation--as dependent as we are on food. Many of his followers were offended. "On hearing this, many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"

And then: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 'You do not want to leave too, do you?' Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

I see myself there, grumbling: Why should I trust you, God? Why should I submit myself to Christ's authority? I can't comprehend why you let that happen, why you put that passage in the Bible, why you allow so much suffering, why you won't answer this prayer, why that person walked away.

Yet over and over again, I come back to Peter's response. Where else would I go? And it's not because this was how I was raised, or I am afraid of what people will think, or this is what is comfortable. I believe because there is no where else to go. Again and again, I explore other belief systems. Again and again, I ask myself the hard questions. And again I am convinced: This is the Truth. What the Bible teaches is Truer Truth than any other belief system I have encountered.

I don't say this arrogantly, because my faith has wavered more times than I care to admit. I'm like the father who cried, "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" while begging God to show up. But I say it as one whose life has been transformed by the truth found in the Bible, and I encourage others to consider it. I am simply a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.*

*Originally attributed to D.T. Niles