The first American missionary was black

I only learned about this a few weeks ago. For most people, you’re probably like, “I don’t even know what a missionary is, so what if the first one was black?” But when you’re a missionary kid like me who grew up in church hearing stories of missionaries all the time, the fact that this was unknown to you throughout your childhood is kind of a big deal.


credit: ebay

I grew up hearing stories about Hudson Taylor and the Judsons (I distinctly remember two-tone flashcard pictures to go along with these Sunday school lessons) who were missionaries to Asia. My parents were always good about colouring the flannel-graph Jesus in a little bit darker to be more realistic for the Bible stories, but we didn’t do that with the missionary stories because, duh, they were all from England or America (or Sweden) and all very white.  Continue reading

One of the best short-term trip resources out there

Ok, so if you’ve read this at all, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the book “When Helping Hurts” because it explains a lot of the problems we Christians have when it comes to helping people. We think our good intentions are enough… but the sad truth is sometimes even the best intentions can still cause harm to the people we are trying to help (and to ourselves). One of my roles is to prepare short-term teams who come out to help with iThemba, and I am SO excited because I am hopefully going to be able to do some training with our local church here in Hilton, South Africa, about some of this stuff.

But sometimes you just can’t read a book. Sometimes, you want someone to just tell it to you. I understand. Enter THE BEST 20 MINUTE VIDEO ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT TO HIT THE INTERWEBS! 

To watch it, go here:

Why I love it:

1. The first part succinctly sums up some of the unasked questions we really should be asking about short-term trips: How are we framing these trips to ourselves and others? Are they really helping? Is it ethical to take a trip for 2 weeks that could pay the salary of 7 local people? We don’t have to stop short-term trips, or feel guilty about them, but how can we fit them into a long-term impact model?

2. Then there is an awesome 3 minute info-graphic explaining how to define poverty. (Hint, it’s not about money, it’s about broken relationships).

3. The second part unpacks a Christian view of poverty as broken relationships, and talks about how we need to make sure our “helping” is really addressing problems and not creating dependency or feeding into a “god-complex” that helpers sometimes get.

If you’re working at a church, if you’re on a missions committee, if you’re remotely interested in poverty and want to help, if you’re going on a short-term trip, or have ever been on one… take 20 minutes and watch this. And if your’e super fired up, you can buy the book (Helping without Hurting in short-term missions) and gain access to ALL the video sessions.

Sometimes things are so good, you can’t just keep them to yourself.

APU is here!

Being goofy while waiting to see if our after school Life Group will be canceled due to rain

Being goofy while waiting to see if our after school Life Group will be canceled due to rain

The Azusa Pacific students are here! And they’re great! (Which is why I haven’t been writing–I’ve been back at work 5-6 days per week again. And then there’s that whole clean the house thing, too.) I’ve written before why having 6 APU college students join us for their 4 week Community Engagement pratical course is so great. But I’ll tell you again:

The team joined in with the kids at running club-- lots and lots of laps and the rain. But they did it all with a smile!

The team joined in with the kids at running club– lots and lots of laps and crunches…in the rain. But they did it all with a smile!

1. They are well prepared. I’m a full fledged Baba Francis Njoroge fan. The material he covers with these students, his personal experiences doing community development work all over the continent of Africa, and his humble, caring, loving heart means that if these students don’t go into their “service sites” with humility, grace, and asking amazing questions then… they are probably not breathing human beings.

2. It’s a small group. That means they can fit in really well with what iThemba does on a day-to-day basis, and we don’t have to create some special project for them. They are able to help out with what’s already going on, and through that, they can connect with the other staff at iThemba and be an encouragement to them.

Surviving running club!

Surviving running club!

3. They’re here for at least 3 weeks. Which means they get to form relationships. This group is going to the same creche every morning, and then helping with Life Groups in the afternoons. That means they are spending on average 36 solid hours with the creche teacher and the kids at her creche over their time with us. This is their last week here, and they know all the kids by name, they know their personalities, they know the creche teacher’s life story, what’s happening with her kids, and what her hopes for the creche are. They can pray with her when she has a migrane because they have a relationship with her. Of course, it would be amazing if they could be here for longer, but, you know, as short-term trips go this isn’t bad.

Wrapping tons of presents for the Christmas party this Saturday.

Wrapping tons of presents for the Christmas party this Saturday.

4. They’re American Christian college students. I know I  can sometimes be negetive about that group of individuals (since I was just one of them) but the good thing about that group is they’re usually…  enthusiastic, energetic, care about intentional community, a little goofy, up for an adventure, big-hearted, asking questions about The Meaning Of Life (and what God wants them to do with theirs)…. and those are all great things to be when you’re working with kids in Sweetwaters on a short-term trip. We definitly need all the energy and enthusiasm we can get– and it translates very well across the cultural and language barriers. We Sweetwater-ites like laughing and singing and dancing and having fun, too!

Just one more week until they head off to Cape Town, but take a minute and pray with me that God will use their time here with iThemba and in South Africa to challege them, speak to them, and prepare them for what he wants to do through them.

We still need 17 teens sponsored for teens camp! If you’re interested in donating, email samw(at)

On Being Needy


Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. :)

Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. 🙂

I’ve been reading Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”. One of the things I’ve been struck with again and again is how humble Jesus is. Not just the whole incarnation God humbling himself to become a man thing. That was amazing. 

But even the kind of man that Jesus was is amazing. He was incredibly humble. 

 In the gospels we see again and again how Jesus puts himself in the position where he needs other people. He doesn’t barge in and fix everything (which, as God, he has the right and the power to do). He doesn’t snap his fingers and heal everyone. He asks the blind man, “What can I do for you?” He asks the crippled man, “Do you want to be healed?” He doesn’t impose his will on others (his good, pleasing and perfect will, I might add). 

He asks. 

 He also puts himself in positions where he genuinely needs other people. By doing so, he affirms their dignity. He asks Peter, “Can I borrow your boat to preach from? And can you keep it close to shore for me while I speak?” He asks the woman at the well  “Can you give me something to drink?” He’s tired and thirsty.  And he doesn’t have a bucket. He needs her help. It’s not some artificial ruse to get her to listen to his message. He’s actually tired and thirsty and he actually needs some water. 

Bailey quotes Daniel T. Niles, a great Sri Lankan theologian who says Jesus was “a true servant, because he was at the mercy of those he came to serve…This weakness of Jesus, we his disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.”

This is a bit uncomfortable for someone like me who loves fixing things. I like being smart. I love having the answer. I love sharing my opinions. I hate needing help from people. I like doing things myself. Even when I’m in positions where I would genuinely need other people, I’d rather try it myself than have to ask someone for help–which basically is another way of saying I’m proud. 

It’s scary to think about in terms of missions, and community development. In both cases, we tend to think that the whole reason we are here is because we have something that other people don’t have. We have something they need (skills, education, the gospel, technology). We tell ourselves, “Oh, we’re learning things from the people in the community every day!” 

But… really? Do we really, truly think that way? Or do we just say that? Do we really, truly think that the people we’ve come to serve have something that we really need? And do we put ourselves in positions where we really need that from them?

Niles goes on to talk about how Christian missionaries and development workers have often gone “in strength”– with medicines, or new technology, or education– and in doing have stripped the gospel of it’s greatest power– it’s weakness and foolishness. (Not to “cultural-type”, but I think this is one example of why we need to hear the voices of the global body of Christ, since the point this Sri Lankan theologian makes is one I don’t often hear Western theologians making.)

As community development workers and missionaries, we’re pretty confident the things we’re offering will help people (otherwise I don’t think we’d be offering them). But if Jesus, who certainly had the best thing in the world on offer, could come in a position of weakness and service, could ask for real help from other people– we certainly should do the same.

So this is what I’m thinking about this week: 

  • What does the community of Sweetwaters have to offer me that I need to put myself in a position to receive? 
  • What can my friends offer me, that I have been too proud to place myself in need of? 
  • In what ways am I (or my mission’s agency, or my organization) insulating ourselves from needing the people we’ve come to work with? How are we supplying all our own needs rather than depending on the community?
  • What do my friends who don’t know Jesus have that I need? How am I unconsciously being proud in my emphasis on their “lostness” or “sinfulness” instead of humbly receiving from them? 

Linking Communities

The volunteers at one of the Holiday clubs

The volunteers at one of the Holiday clubs

One of the things that gets me excited is seeing the community of Hilton intersted in partnering with their neighbours in Sweetwaters to reach this community. This time last year we ran a holiday club –a little like a vacation Bible school, for you Americans 🙂 — and we had three volunteers from Pietermaritzburg who helped us. They were AMAZING.

This year, we ran TWO holiday clubs simultaneously, on different sides of the community so we could reach more kids. We split the iThemba staff in half, and hoped (prayed!) we would get enough volunteers to make these clubs happen! And God answered our prayers!

Two tigers give a roar. The kids loved the facepainting... yet another thing we couldn't have done if we didn't have enough volunteers

Two tigers give a roar. The kids loved the facepainting… yet another thing we couldn’t have done if we didn’t have enough volunteers

One of our teen volunteers from Sweetwaters "takes one for the team". Kids got to throw wet sponges at their leaders, and if they got a hit, they recieved one word of the memory verse. Once all the pieces of the verse were collected, the first team to memorize it won.

One of our teen volunteers from Sweetwaters “takes one for the team”. Kids got to throw wet sponges at their leaders, and if they got a hit, they recieved one word of the memory verse. Once all the pieces of the verse were collected, the first team to memorize it won.

At each club we had at least eight volunteers on any given day. Some of these volunteers were from schools in Pietermaritzburg, and some were from Trinty Church in Hilton, where David and I attend. We also had volunteers from Sweetwaters– teenagers who help out with our Saturday Kids Club and Life Groups came to lend a hand as well. And we certainly needed all the volunteers–we had over two hundred children at one club, and about one hundred at the other. Needless to say,we would not have coped with two hundred kids if it was just four of us iThemba staff trying to run the club!

Volunteer Sarah, from Trinity, in the sea of children during song time. :)

Volunteer Sarah, from Trinity, in the sea of children during song time. 🙂

It is so amazing for me to see how God is working and moving in both Sweetwaters and Hilton/Pietermaritzburg, bringing people together to accomplish his work. Our theme this year was “Wipeout” and we looked at stories of forgiveness in the Bible– Joseph, Jesus, and Simon the Pharisee. Join us in praying these kids not only had a fun time with crafts, games, and songs, but learned something about Jesus, too.


Of course, me and my buddy Aphile. 🙂


The Hewitt family who lived in the township of Mamelodi for a month, on the same wages as those in the township.

Here is a really good article to read about how to listen from a position of privilege, from Christena Cleveland’s blog. I challenge you to read it and think about how you are privileged either because you belong to the dominant culture, race, religion, or gender in society, and how you can be a better listener.  I was really challenged by her advice on listening well before jumping in to fix things. I’d say that advice applies to me in most contexts–marriage, the work-place–but most especially when I’m in a position of privilege.

Here’s an excerpt:

“In the two years that I’ve lived in my predominantly black, low income neighborhood in Minneapolis, I’ve seen dozens of teams of privileged folks come in and try to fix a glaring problem without taking the time to build solidarity with the great people in my neighborhood.  Typically, within months the good-intentioned privileged folks retreat back to their privileged spaces, leaving behind a devastating trail of benevolent classism and racism.[i] Last summer, a few kids on my block told me that they don’t trust the white people who come into our neighborhood because they “don’t understand us and they always leave soon anyway.”

If Christian privileged people aren’t careful, their problem-solving heroics can easily dishonor the image of God in oppressed people. Most obviously, this occurs when privileged people bypass the crucial stage of “weep with those who weep” listening. This type of listening requires the privileged people to stand in paradigm-shifting, time-consuming and uncomfortable solidarity with oppressed people. Instead, they go straight to the “Let me solve your problem for you” type of non-listening.

For the rest of the article, click here.

Recently I read an article about a white family here in South Africa who visited the township where their “domestic worker” lived. They stayed there (with their two children, under the age of 5)  for a month, living in a small one-room house in her neighborhood. Many people criticized what they did, saying it was just poverty tourism. But others (including many in the community) expressed appreciation that a white person  was coming to understand how they lived, and to live with them. Apparently one day when visiting a tavern to watch a soccer match, one man started quoting Nelson Mandela’s “from the dock” speech (“ I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”)

I still don’t know what I think about it. On the one hand, their actions increased their empathy, their sense of solidarity and their understanding of the kind of life their domestic worker (and many, many other South Africans) live. And they were there for a whole month, which isn’t just a vacation. But on the other hand, after a month they went back to their nice house with a swimming pool, and their domestic worker stayed in the township. It reminds me of all the pros and cons of short-term missions, but on a local scale.

But I think it was a good thing. I think it was a good thing because unlike short-term missions (which are glamorous, and international and cost lots of money) this family was going somewhere where they had an established relationship already, and they were going with the intention to listen and learn. Most white people here have the privilege of living in places where they are in the majority (weird, huh, when we are only 10% of the population in this country??)–but our money and our social networks mean that this slice of the “rainbow nation” can live separately. Some people have never even set foot in a township. And while some may have driven through, not very many have spent any significant amount of time there. And if they have, it’s usually been in the “let’s fix and save everything” capacity, not the listen and learn capacity. I think especially in our country, we need more people doing this kind of thing–really learning, really listening–from people who are privileged.

I would go further and say, though, that after listening well, action does need to be taken. Not necessarily action that is a quick fix for superficial problems that let us go back to our comfy lives  (as mentioned in the Cleveland article). But hopefully action that is birthed out of solidarity and understanding and that means our lives are changing and getting uncomfortable, too. Hopefully after listening in solidarity, privileged people’s actions will result in choices that can change systems of injustice, even if it comes at personal cost. (Like this family who pay their domestic worker a living wage, even though it means they are cutting back on their spending to do so). The cool thing is that the Hewitts don’t seem like they are just going to go back and live their lives the same way. And I think that’s why they’ve received so much back-lash from others…because people don’t want to really listen because they are afraid of what they might learn.

In what contexts can you listen better in this week?

  • Praise God for a wonderful and productive time with Rachel and David. They were both so encouraging, and produce great work!
  • Pray for our holiday club– training day for our 9 Hilton highschoolers who are helping is on Saturday, and the club is next Weds to Friday.



Rachel and David are coming to help iThemba. If you want to contribute to their fundraising, you can go to:

Rachel and David are coming to help iThemba. If you want to contribute to their fundraising, you can go to:

So, I want to tell you about some volunteers that are coming to iThemba that I am super excited about! Firstly, I’m excited because I know them– Rachel and David are two friends from Taylor University where I attended. Secondly, I’m excited because they are volunteering their awesome photography and video skills to iThemba. For two weeks they will shadow our staff, capturing images that we can use in the future.

Sometimes I think in the Christian community there is this idea that if you are going to go on a short-term missions trip the  purpose should be some form of evangelism so you can go back and tell your church how many souls you saved. (Maybe the same goes for long-term missionaries as well?) And while I think that evangelism is so, so important and I don’t want to undermine that, God has not given everyone that spiritual gift. Besides that, evangelism in a cross-cultural context is quite tricky, especially if you’re just there for two weeks. But that’s okay, because the whole world belongs to God and there are so many gifts and talents that God can use all over the world to share his good news. 

Rachel and David are only here for two weeks, but their contribution to the long-term sustainability of iThemba will be huge. By donating their time and their photography/video skills, they are going to leave behind images and videos that we can use in the coming years as we try to share the story of what God is doing through iThemba. These professional-looking images will be used in donor reports, in presentations to corporate funders, churches, individuals, on the website… and all of that will hopefully raise funds for more staff to join iThemba and more children can be reached.

Let’s be honest. If Rachel and David were just coming for two weeks to play with kids in Sweetwaters and tell them about Jesus, the biggest impact would probably be… on themselves. Your impact working cross-cultrually increases with the amount of time spent learning a culture and a language. You can’t learn enough to be super-effective in two weeks. So, you might have a life-changing experience seeing a foreign country for two weeks, but the actual impact made on the community would be quite small. But because Rachel and David are bringing their mad photography skills for these two weeks, the impact they are going to make on this community will continue on for years.

So I want to challenge you… do you have some skills you think aren’t “spiritual” enough to be used by God overseas (or in your own community)? Maybe you do finances (uh, I know plenty of organisations that need good bookkeepers), maybe you’re a graphic designer (ever consider volunteering your skills to put out a quarterly newsletter for a nonprofit?), maybe you work with computers (soooo much you could do for others with that skill)…. maybe you’re like my awesome mother-in-law who has the gift of organizing things, and you’re able to help missionaries overseas with basic admin tasks like sending out prayer letters.

“There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” – Abraham B. Kuyper

How about offering up your skills to God and seeing where he leads you? 

The Real Customers

Here’s a really great, really short video about how good intentions are not enough when it comes to assisting those in need. The gap between the kind intentions of the US and the actual needs in Africa is very large. A lot of times someone in the West comes up with a GREAT idea that everyone in the majority world needs (cynically, let me say also without consulting anyone in the majority world), gets lots of rich people really excited about it, mass produces it and ships it over…. then wonders why these needy people aren’t so excited by it.

(One of ) the problem(s) in this little transaction is the donor is dictating what and how and when to give—they are the “real” customer– and the person receiving the goods has no say. I am not convinced that the alternative suggested in the video (matching grants) is the perfect answer, but at least it seems to be going in the right direction. I also  like the comparison of a Martian giving marriage advice. What do you think?

ps: the Chalmers center also has some other interesting videos on similar topics.

Guest Post: Have I made a difference?


549580_10200916508659537_542936612_nWe’ve loved having Anna with us! Here’s her reflection on her time with us.

It is almost time for me to go home, which means I have been a volunteer at iThemba Projects for about four months. My biggest fear these days relates to trying to answer the question, “Anna, did you make a difference?”

I left my home, my family, my boyfriend, my friends, and my country to go to a place where I didn’t know anyone and had never been before. As I packed up and traveled all the way from Denmark, I had one goal: I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t know for whom, and didn’t really know how, but I wanted to make some kind of difference. I just finished High school in Denmark, and remember sitting with some of my friends talking about the following year. Almost everyone wanted to travel, and we were excited about experiencing the world after many years of school. The others wanted to go back-packing and to see a lot of different countries – the more the better. When I told them I wanted to stay one place to get “under the skin of a culture” and make a change, a lot of them thought it was a bit naïve. But I stuck to my plan and went to South Africa with the hope of making a change. So have I made a difference?

Anna's art club

Anna’s art club

Only time will tell if I made a lasting difference, and certainly I wasn’t a part of any huge changes. Even though four months sounded long to my friends, in the big picture, it is just a short time. But here are some things that give me hope that in this short time I have made some kind of difference:

  •  When I come to the schools every week to teach, and see the smiles on the children’s faces.
  • When I talk to the teacher about next week’s lesson, and she replies “Thank you so much. I’m learning so much”.
  • When the students at After-School-Art-Club stopped laughing at their art and started looking at it with pride.
  • How the student’s eyes’ shined when I told them I would make an art-exhibition with their artwork.
  • When I do warm-up-finger-gymnastic with the fourth grade students at Mountain Home, and they all ecstatically raise their hands to be chosen to lead the exercises.
  • How they hug me when I leave.
  • When the teacher at Nobanda excitedly tells me about an art course she went to but already knew a lot of the material because of our lesson planning/couching sessions together.
  • And afterwards when she says “I’m actually starting to like teaching art.”
  • When the teachers gave us a juice and snack break at St. Raphael’s crèche while we were painting a mural there.
  • When I do all the hard work of my preparation with a smile and commitment.
  • When I give Thulani ideas for crafts to do in his Life Group.
  • When they call me Anna-Banana at the office – followed by a giggle.

Yes, when I reflect on all these little things I’ve been privileged to be a part of, I believe maybe God has used me to make a difference .

We’ll miss you Anna! Thank you for serving with us with thoughtfulness, cheerfulness, and SO much creativity and love!!

A World Where Short Term Trips Aren’t Needed

“But when we are honest, too much of the time our service projects cover up the reality that our way of life is what makes the service project necessary to begin with. In that way service projects don’t function to change the status quo, or even push against it, they actually function to maintain it. They are what makes it possible for us to continue to live in consumptive patterns that are destroying the ecology, social fabric and other people’s lives while at the same time telling ourselves that we are good, generous, compassionate Christians.

The best service projects tell the unvarnished truth. They don’t manipulate folks out of guilt. They don’t sugar-coat the root causes of poverty. They let people experience the impact of their way of life on others. And they provide hope for a way forward. That way forward doesn’t involve more projects, it involves new ways of living! It involves people with power and wealth laying it down on behalf of the poor and marginalized. As followers of Jesus, we should be about making a world where the Mother Theresa’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s have nothing to do. To the degree that our service projects can help do that, I’m all for it. To the degree that they help to obscure reality and maintain the status quo, they aren’t helpful.

This is where we, in the church, could learn a thing or two about community development. Often times church leaders, and youth guys who lead these churches, have absolutely no training in what it takes to transform a community from the ground up. We do service projects without thinking more deeply about how time, energy and money could be best used to help solve grass-roots problems. Too often, youth pastors unwittingly play the role of facilitator in covering up the ways we maintain the status quo. We aren’t asking enough hard questions about the root causes of poverty, both locally and globally. Until we do, we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

(Quote from Michael Danner’s blog post “no saint’s needed” on Provoke+Love.   Thanks Sam for passing it along!)

This quote is really challenging to me, as someone who helps bring teams on “service project trips”. iThemba, as a development organization, is always trying to think about how we can “work ourselves out of a job”. How can we help create a world where our job is not needed? So I wonder… can we apply that to teams? How can we structure our trips and outreaches with local and overseas volunteers in such a way that they are challenged to change their lifestyles so much that their outreach trip will no longer be needed? A major part of that has to come from the sending organization itself (church, school, or organization). But I am sure there are things we can do from our side to help people start a journey of re-thinking how they live.

Maybe you can challenge the groups you work with to start thinking about how they do outreach?