I’ve been back for about a week now. Well, at the moment I’m in Florida, but that’s pretty irrelevant.

At first it was incredibly easy. I rejoiced over things like clean water, WASHING MACHINES, showers that came from the ceiling, air conditioning, DIET DR. PEPPER, one language, rest, and consistent power/internet. Obviously, I was glad to be back. And I still am. Life makes sense here- or at least I know what I’m doing a tiny little better.

But contentment never lasts for long. After a few days of rest and reconnecting with people I’d missed, I was ready to go to Togo (hah). The ease of living here is great, but the very challenges of life in Africa grew in appeal as I remembered the problems of life in America. And this was a difficult thing to share. Really all the stories of the time I’d spent in Africa were generally frustratingly hard to tell. The things I had learned so very painfully seemed to pale in comparison to what people expected to hear, or to not translate to fit their expectations at all. As the stories got harder to tell, they seemed less important, much as working for a literature major seemed pretty irrelevant in Togo. So I stopped telling them.

This was a bad idea.

You see, I returned to the same sin struggles that I left behind me. Which isn’t surprising, but, while I knew I had changed in an African context, it was hard to apply these changes in an American context. Keeping a missional mindset is easier when you’re actually on mission. This is a shocking revelation I know, but is harder to keep in mind when you’re actually trying to live it. And I guess it’s not surprising that having returned from the most purpose filled month of my life, I would find it hard to return to a summer where I don’t even have a job. And the more quickly I forgot, the more frustrated I became. I didn’t know why I wasn’t content here, because I wasn’t remembering the profound changes I experienced in Africa.

The only things keeping me from completely and totally assimilating- or returning unchanged to America and my life here- are the stories. All I have are memories of what happened that exist as altars of God’s faithfulness and testaments to His goodness. These are so much more important than any souvenir (THOUGH THE DJEMBE COMES PRETTY CLOSE), picture, or even relationship. Yes, that’s right. The stories of the mission trip are more important than the relationships formed. I cannot talk to 98% of the people I met and loved in Togo without a multi-thousand dollar trip. And as wonderful as my team certainly was/is, many of those relationships are already beginning to fade. So the relationships I formed and the love that I felt for the people there will live on only in the stories I tell about each of them. Isn’t it funny that the first step God gave us to a relationship with Him is a book of stories.

The only thing that will allow us to change is repeated internalization of our own- or others’- stories. Stories change us more profoundly than anything else. That is, if we let them. I fully believe that stories change us even more than experiences do. When we go through something traumatic, I don’t think it’s the event itself that impacts us most. It is the way we live with what happened- the way we make it part of our story. And the way we move on has everything to do with the way we tell the story to ourselves.

This is the power of stories, and the reason they will forever be important. Because there would be no difference between who we were and who we have become were it not for the stories that fall in between the two.

But our memories are short. So I will continue building altars to the one who gives us freedom to write and live out the most beautiful stories of failure and redemption. Preach to yourself from your own life and from the lives you see, hear, read. Continue to remind yourself of the good and the bad that has made you who you are. Keep making stories.

P.S. I have more to say on this- much more. I’m reading The Arabian Nights right now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that monster of a book, it’s the importance of stories. And stories are so integral a part of the Togolese culture that they don’t even recognize it, if that makes sense. They don’t see the purpose of a literature degree, but they share stories every chance they get- in evangelism, forming relationships, or just to fill time.


On “Cultural Imperialism”

A little while ago, my aunt returned from a mission trip to Haiti where her group was followed by a French journalist. This journalist’s article was published in a huge French newspaper and she sent it to me, hoping for a translation. While my French is a little less than fluent, I got the gist. While the article praised the medical aid and the building work the team was doing, it absolutely trashed the spiritual side of their trip. The article called evangelizing “awkward” and equated the team’s mission to colonialism and “cultural imperialism.” Disappointed, I wrote it off as the French being French.
But then I read an article in Time which was called “Tibetans in China targeted by fundamentalist Christians”. I read it expecting something akin to hate crimes, but the worst it mentioned was enthusiastic proselytizing. But both these articles mourned the loss of a traditional way of life in favor of an American way lifestyle.

Last time I checked, the Great Commission was not given to Americans. And I’m only 100% sure there were no white people involved.

That said, I have witnessed cultural imperialism and it is something to be very upset about. I went to Hawaii last summer to study biology, botany, and geology, but the scientific knowledge I gained affected me much less deeply than the understanding I came to of the Hawaiian culture. At the National Tropical Botanical Gardens especially my group saw a unique Hawaii. Our guide was not necessarily unamerican but he was definitely Hawaiian before he was American. And not in the same way I am a Texan first. I think he would seriously rather Hawaii be its own country. He had interesting insights into the plants, but everything he said was centered around a Hawaiian identity which displayed to my group how muvh we were outsiders. And we truly were. He described a cohesive and separate culture, which we knew nothing about and which imperialists had significantly impacted for both better and worse.
But the remarks he made about the missionaries are the ones which have stayed with me. Apparently it is a common saying in Hawaii that “the missionaries came to do good, and they did very well for themselves”. This refers to the way they directly exploited the Hawaiian culture and grew rich off of it. The missionaries changed the natives’ way of life by creating prosperous plantations where there was subsistence farming while growing wealthy off the work of the natives. The missionaries flourished while the natives suffered. Now I’m not saying the missionaries were the only culprits here. I’m sure there were other leeches in the area, and I’m sure not all the missionaries were corrupt. But missionaries should never be counted among the exploiters.

Anyways, no one could selectively praise my trip as this trip cannot even hide behind humanitarian ideals- I am only bringing Jesus. And I think going into it, that’s not what I had really wanted. I wanted to help people. But I am bringing nothing. I don’t have medicine, clean water, or knowledge to give anyone here. I am here really to do nothing more than talk about Christ and work for His glory. How could that affect the lives of innocent villagers?

Honestly, when I got to orientation and realized this, it distressed me. I worried about the loss of traditions that might occur as a consequence of Christianity. I frantically prayed that I
wanted to help poor people, not preach at them.


Let’s just think about that for a second…
If I value Christ for all he is worth, I will count Him greater than anything. God is greater than Togolese culture, American culture, and anything else at all. Nevertheless, the idea of importing American values in the name of Christianity distressed me, and it still does. I think it does often happen that we leave our problems and not our God in places we try to change for the better.

I would love to be able to let everyone believe what they want to believe and be happy about that, but I can’t. However, I do think Gandhi is generally right when he says in his speech “Swadeshi” that “a conversion leaves a sore behind it which, I venture to think, is avoidable.” Now Gandhi’s solution is for they missionaries to stop their spiritual work but continue their charity work. I’m sure that didn’t go over too well when he gave this speech to the Missionaries Conference in India, but I do applaud his guts.

His way would be nice. We give people things they need, they go home satisfied, and we go home feeling good about ourselves. But Christianity is so much more than that. And I think it is good that we don’t “bribe” people with material care, as one friend cautioned me when he heard about my trip. Under the African missionaries I work with, traditional ways of life are not lost to an Americanized Jesus. Yes, Christianity asks that some people give up the idols and spiritual rituals in which they participate. Which is sad, because the dancing these rituals sometimes include is incredible. But they are literally placing themselves under the power of evil spirits to do this. Christ does not want to change their lives to destroy tradition, He wants to free them from very real bondage to demons. Yes, the church here recognizes that many of the citizens of Togo are praying to demons. If that’s not a sign they need Jesus, I don’t know what is.

So yes, I choose Christ over Togolese culture the same way I try to choose Him over American culture. But I am never making this choice for anyone. Relativism would be easier and more pleasant, but it doesn’t make sense and it leaves people in bondage to darkness. And nowhere in this process am I incentivizing anyone to pick Christ. Real, lasting conversion is a result of Christ’s calling in their hearts. I would be evil to tell them to return to the demons of their pasts.

In the end, I still worry about bringing America to Togo. But the fact that we don’t have any new technology or food, no way to say “here do this our way is better” is comforting, though it often times leaves me wishing I could help the physical situation of the people. And the fact that 8 college kids are the only Americans on the team is comforting- everyone else is Togolese. And if the Togolese pastors and missionaries we are working with, many of whom grew up in villages similar to the ones we visit, don’t understand how Jesus and African culture are to interact, no one does. And finally, the fact that God’s word and Christ’s message by their nature transcend culture (Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth much?) is the most comforting of all. But I do still think missions are far more complicated than I used to believe. I think we need to be careful to make sure we do not throw our own culture, problems, and desires into the message of Christ.

Wait, one of our team is on the front porch teaching African children Bieber songs right now. I take back everything I said about not polluting African culture with America.

Happy 4th America!

I’ve liked to criticize America for a while now. I still do. Freedom of speech is a great thing, and should be used toward growth as often as possible. And growth doesn’t always mean change, but that’s a whole different discussion.

I expected my time in Africa would make me more bitter about the things this country doesn’t have vs the those we take for granted. And yeah, I gained perspective on what it is to live in and among poverty. It’s often so hopeless. But spending time in Togo has helped surprisingly reconcile me to my country. I certainly understand what it is now simply to have access to everything from clean air to roads that are actually flat. I learned that having money in America is different even than having money here, because there is simply more possibility for service, business, and class mobility. We have so much.

But one thing I did not expect to like more after time spent here was American politics. Yep. This is about politics. I usually don’t care to follow politics because they tire me (but i do cuz its important! vote!). And though our power over our leaders is limited, they do eventually have to listen to us. I mean to an extent anyways.

There is technically a president here. His father was president before him, and no one really believes he’ll step down in a few days at the end of his legally appointed term of a decade. Our translator isn’t voting, but its not because he’s uninterested. He refuses to give any of the candidates a vote since they are all corrupt. Oops. These politicians will answer to no one unless the people follow the Egyptian model and make him. Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen. No one complains. Corrupt and godless politicians are a fact of life like malaria and uneven roads in this country. Stability was only reached in 2005, and I don’t think anyone is ready to mess that up.

The police are similarly corrupt. They don’t make enough to live on, so they can get bribes with impunity. No one can do anything, since the law enforcement are the perpetrators.

There is a reason so many people want to get to America.

I’m not terribly educated on Togolese politics, though I want to know more before I leave. But I am grateful for what I’ve learned here. It has blessed my thinking and my whole conception of American politics. So HAPPY AMERRICA DAY!

Internet again!

I just spent a week out in the wilderness, and it was fun/difficult! The first village we stayed in was called Kevé, where we taught at a tiny private school. They showed us their dancing, but it was difficult to watch as they wouldn’t let us sit long enough to see anything. They insisted we join the dance every single time. We were great comedic relief I suppose. Many of the dances look like they’re imitating chickens? I really don’t know what’s going on at all. But it gets real intense.
The second village was so cool! We hiked Agu, the tallest mountain in Togo, and we stayed in a tiny town halfway up the mountain. The road stopped EXACTLY 183 steps away from the house we stayed in. Luckily we had a fan club of African children who wouldn’t allow us to carry our own bags. They carried our suitcases all the way up the uneven stone steps on their heads. I am amazed at the balance seemingly all people have developed here. I mean I could probably carry 50+ lbs on my head too if I’d been practicing my entire life. But as I haven’t, it’s amazing. And smart.
I think it’s the little differences like this that I’ve really loved learning the most. Carrying things on your head is an entirely new endeavor for me. And oh they do laugh to see me try. But there are so many things that are small and subtle but so incredibly different. They’re little things, such as the fact that girls may wear pants or shorts that hit their knees sometimes, but if you’re a girl and you don’t have earrings “you’re compared to a boy.” Ice cream is ubiquitously sold in small plastic bags which you bite open. You may never cross your legs, especially not in front of a chief. You don’t ever reach out to shake a chief’s hand. You always wait for him/her to initiate. Twerking (Mom, that means dancing- more or less) is an acceptable form of worship in all churches. Church is loud. It’s full of conga lines and yelling in French. I really can’t wait until Africa sends missionaries back to America. They will bring the drumbeat of a heartfelt passion and wake up many tired churches with their joyful noise. Anyways, the small differences are often the most shocking, because you don’t expect them to be different. I was ready for the heat, the lack of consistent electricity, and the constant language barriers. I just really didn’t realize I’d need to be prepared for pink toilet paper and a society that doesn’t recognize personal space…

Now we are back in Lomé and teaching in a church. Yesterday we went to speak in a village that had the most intricate idols we’ve seen yet. The idols themselves are crafted cement heads, often with shells or feathers pressed in to form faces. We saw maybe a dozen of them scattered around the village. Worshipers have built thatched roof shelters over many of these stone figures and filled their little open air houses with offerings and gifts.
The group of people we met were mainly new Christians, who are facing persecution within their village because of their new beliefs. But their faith is strong. Their pastor was walking around with us and showed us their church. It’s a small unfinished house with a drum or two hidden in the corners. Pray for them! It was really incredible to get to know them, and I wish we could stay and build relationships with everyone we’ve met! But as our translator laughingly told me yesterday: white people a really just a way in for the missionaries. American visitors get people interested and people allow the missionaries to come talk to them when they see us (I’ve honestly seen maybe 10 other white people in the month we’ve been here). But I don’t mind missing out on getting to know people, because the missionaries are staying. We are here to help them start relationships, and they stay for discipleship. In each village we’ve visited there is at least one family of missionaries dedicated to building a church for the people and discipline them in their faith. These missionaries are incredible. I’ve met some who make less than $10 a month. They could be successful and relatively rich in Lomé or Kara, but they choose to live in poverty in order to disciple their villages. Pray for them too!

And pray for our team! We have only a few days left in Africa before we head back to Orlando for debrief. I’ll definitely keep posting more though! I have so many pictures that I want y’all to see, but our internet here can barely handle text posts. I’ll post them during debrief! I also have so many more things to talk about than just the basic facts of what we did. And I know everyone is simply dying to hear them. Can’t wait to be back in the homeland where there is chick-fil-a and salad!

Shelbi with an “e”

I have become Shelbi with an E. Now this isn’t me trying to make up for the one time month in 2nd grade when I decided to stop putting the e in my name. I promise I do know how to spell my name.

No this E stands for extrovert.

The entire rest of my team are introverts. Which is cool…

I started writing this at orientation, planning on saying things like “but they’re really understanding which is neat, so the whole world should all listen to each other more and everything will be wonderful.” Which is a little bit true, but pretty beside the point. Yes, my team is very understanding of the fact that I like having people around most of the time. And I’ve learned to be understanding of the fact that they sometimes don’t like it. But our differences extend beyond the way we are energized, often times very drastically. However, we have grown together in an amazing way. It’s really become a team. Sure, we still annoy each other at times, but the way we can all step in whenever someone needs rest or prayer is something that doesn’t develop this quickly without God. See, we’re returning from nearly two weeks spent in villages that could each be entirely and comfortably housed in a single small apartment building, where we’ve had no internet and barely anyone else who speaks our language. Complete and total isolation is a little terrifying, but God has used the time to bind us together in a crazy way. I can’t believe I met these people at the beginning of this month. That isn’t normally a sufficient amount of time for 8 people to become this close. But we have! That said, I miss everyone at home immensely and sometimes too much. Continue to pray that we stay united and focused!

The Halfway Point!

Well. I can’t believe that I have 2 weeks left as of today. Today, the team and I got back to internet for the first time in 12 days. We also returned to semi working showers that don’t require a bucket, toilets that don’t give us nightmares, and air conditioning in our bedrooms.

The trip was honestly quite hard. We spent 8 hours the first day in a 15ish passenger van barreling down rock trails that might have had enough dirt on them at one time to be called roads. Some of the way was paved, but that doesn’t really mean it’s actually flat in Togo. Our first hotel was a lonely building far in the north part of the country that boasted 8 whole rooms, 3 of which had a/c. Aaron got his own room as a perk of being the only white guy on the team. The pastors, translator, cook, and drivers who travel with us shared the top 4 rooms between themselves. So that left 7 girls and 2 rooms, only one of which had a/c (I realize I haven’t quite introduced the team, but this will be long enough without that. Keep up.) Rachelle, Emily, and Ruthanne shared the room without a/c. They thought it’d be an adventure, and I was quite happy to let them think that. Megan, Shelby, Rebecca, and I took the other room. And every time we turned on that cold air I experienced a feeling of gratitude similar to what the Israelites must have felt when manna came raining down from heaven.

We spent the next 3 days taking our bus an hour out into the bush over “roads” that were clearly never designed for anything more than a motorbike to the tiny town of Mbombiam.

Mbombiam is my favorite village so far. It has about 500 people living deeply isolated from the rest of the population. We spent our mornings teaching the villagers english and computer skills. I taught the children in this village, which was harder than I expected. The kids here have a different status in the community than they do in America. They are just as loved, but the parents have so much to do that they are more or less ignored until they make too much noise (oh wait that could totally be some families in america). once disturbed, the adults will yell and brandish sticks to quiet the kids down. Now I wasn’t used to this, so for two out of the three days the kids ran wild and talked over me. It wasn’t that they were bad kids necessarily, they just weren’t used to a more (semi) patient, gentler discipline. At one point, some of my more concerned students actually went and got me sticks to hit them with. Wait what? Nope. You best believe I plan on spanking my children, but I am not going to hit these children that I don’t know with sticks! So I compromised by banging on the tin roof of the (3 room, dark, cramped, stable-smelling) schoolhouse. The school was a wooden frame with thatch laid against the sides for walls and a tin roof. The blackboards were painted on, the floors were dirt, and branches served as the makeshift desks and benches. So that was all new. As difficult as the kids were though, I loved them. It was challenging, and I think they deserved a teacher with more of a plan/training, but we had fun. I taught them colors, numbers, some action verbs, body parts, shapes, and the alphabet in English. The difficulty of this was only exacerbated by the fact that they spoke mainly Bassar with some French, and our French knowledge didn’t always overlap. Megan helped me, and the rest of the team worked with adults. Everyone was eager to learn. Even the kids were excited to an extent. So the first hour to hour and a half of our day was english, then a short break where we played with the kids and they yelled any English words they might have retained as loudly as they could (jump and yellow were particular favorites for some reason), and then computer. Having a nursing mother practice typing on my laptop was a bit new. (Modesty is absolutely relative (to a point) by the way. Showing anything between a woman’s knees and hips is taboo, but they don’t necessarily see a need for shirts here. I still do.) Everyone wanted to learn email and facebook, but we were hours away from any connection, so we made them practice typing verses.
Then came a lunch break where we ate too heavy food in too hot shade, journaled, and read the bible. This 2-3 hour break is common to most African villages and incredibly wonderful. The entire time, most of the children stood a safe 10 feet away and watched us. Silently. They seriously stood and stared at us for a solid 2-3 hours. Slightly disconcerting. Usually we broke down and ended up spending most of our break playing with them. It was fun, despite the language barriers.
After break, we went and evangelized the first day with crazy encouraging results. Our team of 8 American college students is led by Togolese pastors, so we split into groups and walked around talking to people, with the pastors serving as translators and cultural interpreters. Christophe and Eliphas are our main pastors and they are hilarious. I went with Christophe and Rachelle for evangelizing the first day, and we’ve been a team ever since. We got to work with women shelling nuts, which I loved, and tell them parables that led into the gospel. “We are glad you come bring us this good news. When no one comes to visit, you begin to think you are animals” was one of my favorite responses. The villagers usually have really good and insightful questions, which is encouraging as it points to a thoughtful understanding of the gospel. The second afternoon they treated us to a display of their dances, which was INCREDIBLE. Christophe told us that many of the dances are done on fire or broken glass to prove the spiritual power of the dancer. And because the dances follow spiritual ceremonies involving idols and their powers, the dancers are not harmed if they have enough spiritual power. But we just had fun. Several times they pulled us into the dances only to (rightfully) laugh at our struggles. It was so much fun. We felt so loved and welcomed. We taught in Mbombiam for 3 days and spent 2 afternoons there. The last one we went to a different village where we weren’t as well received, but I didn’t mind. When people don’t wasn’t to listen to the gospel, it throws into relief those whose hearts are hungry. It really encourages one as to the seriousness of some.
So that was a lot of writing. Wow. Way longer than I thought it’d be, since this is only the first 4 days of the trip.

But the second two villages of Napimbo and Siou were much like this. The second hotel only had power 3-5 hours a day, and the bathrooms in our rooms didn’t work. The third hotel was clean and cool and beautiful after the second one. We taught and evangelized with mixed results in both these villages, but overall God’s presence is evident. We went to church in the village of Napimbo which was an awesome experience! Probably post about that one later. Anyways.

This first 12 day trip took us up through the far north part of the country, through mountains and jungles too beautiful to describe. We spent 10 hours in that same bus today to get back to the capitol city of Lomé at the very southern edge of Togo. It’s nice to be back where I can feel a little bit connected, but we leave again on Monday! I think this trip will only be 6 or so days. however, this last trip was only supposed to be 10 days, and this is the culture of “we’ll leave at 9, 9:30, no later than 12” so we shall see!

I’ll be super impressed with anyone who has enough patience with my ramblings to actually read all of this! Please keep me updated with what’s going on back in your lives as well! Love and miss you all! “Grace be with all of you” Hebrews 13:25