Below is an excerpt from an interview I conducted as part of my literacy research last year in West Africa. (It has been translated from French into English.) As you read Pastor Gary*’s account of learning to read his mother tongue of Serer-Sine, bear in mind that he had been schooled prior to becoming a pastor. He had enough formal education that he knew how to read and write in French, the country’s official language and the only language taught in school.

Kyria: And it was obvious when you read in church on Sunday here that you’re completely comfortable [reading in Serer-Sine] now; how did that happen? Was it after the literacy workshop that you were able to right away? Or was more required than that?

Gary: Well, it was a bit slow in coming, you know? It took some time. Because it’s not easy to distinguish letters that look or sound similar. When you come across two or three letters that are very close to one another in sound, that’s a bit difficult. For example, there’s the [four different Serer-Sine consonants] ‘c,’ there’s the ‘ƈ,’ there’s the ‘d,’ there’s the ‘ɗ’; that’s really not something you can easily master. It’s going to take you time to review, to see and then review to begin to understand the different letters. It really took some time. And it’s thanks to all that that now, even when we gather as pastors for our theological training courses, I preach in Serer-Sine. I’m used to preaching in Serer-sine. Because it was in starting to preach in Serer-Sine that I began to feel free! I can say and also explain all that I need to.

Kyria: So before the literacy workshop you weren’t used to preaching in Serer-Sine?

Gary: Well I would preach in Serer-Sine, but, well in any case I couldn’t read Serer-Sine. And also, I wasn’t able to write all that I needed to say during the message in Serer-Sine. So in that area too I had difficulty.

Kyria: So now, the notes that you write for yourself before preaching, you write those in Serer-Sine?

Gary: Yes! Even the sermon I preached today, I wrote it out in Serer-Sine. I write all my messages in Serer-Sine, yes. 

Kyria: And that wasn’t the case prior to the literacy workshop you attended?  

Gary: Right, it wasn’t the case.

Kyria: So, in terms of Christian ministry… what difference has your Serer-Sine reading and writing ability made in your ministry?

Gary: It has made a big difference! It allows me to share the Bible with people properly. It also allows me to speak as I want to, whenever I want. It also allows me to lead a discussion about the Bible without the least complex or doubt as to whether I’m saying something wrong or whether there’s something negative about the way I’m saying it. This also allows me to steer a conversation well. It also allows me to write things down and save them, to make a schedule for myself in terms of my participation in society as well as in my ministry.

I wish you could have heard the freedom in Pastor Gary’s voice and seen it in his body language as he shared his experience with me! His tone and arm gestures communicated the liberation he’d felt as a minister of the gospel once he could do everything in his mother tongue. And yet, this hadn’t occurred automatically just from speaking his mother tongue of Serer-Sine since birth and then being educated in the country’s official language of French. He had to attend a literacy workshop where he was taught what letters in his language’s orthography correspond with which sounds. Even after the workshop, he had to review over and over again, practice and memorize, before he was able to apply his new skills in his everyday life.

Sometimes people are surprised to hear that the skills people in West Africa learn as they’re taught to read the official language of French don’t automatically transfer to their mother tongue, and don’t automatically allow them to read in their mother tongue also. Isn’t reading reading? But the experience of Pastor Gary shows that it’s not an automatic transfer for at least some adult learners. Part of the reason for this is that French is in a completely different language family, bearing very little similarity in sounds to West African languages. Even when a Serer-Sine speaker might recognize a letter from their French reading experience (since both languages are written in the Roman script), that letter often represents a completely different sound in Serer-Sine than it does in French. And there are many unique sounds in Serer-Sine for which they must learn the visual representation for the first time.

What does mother-tongue literacy have to do with equipping leaders of the local church? For Pastor Gary, mother-tongue literacy has meant the difference between feeling handicapped or impaired, and being able to express himself freely as a preacher of the gospel.

*Not his real name

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What better post-wedding getaway could Dean and I have asked for than a conflict resolution training for missionaries?

The training, called “Peace Pursuit,” was given last month by fellow missionaries after a recent area retreat for MTW workers. Peace Pursuit was developed by a missionary seeking to build on Ken Sande’s peacemaking principles and make them more practical.

Talk about great timing! Not only did Dean and I get to participate along with 25 or so fellow MTW missionaries–gleaning from our collective experience of conflict and peacemaking on the mission field–but we also got to do it just two weeks after making vows to be true to each other in marriage “whether we have good times or bad times.”

We were reminded by the trainers that resolving conflict and pursuing peace “is more like art than mechanics.” And we were reminded that “one can’t avoid conflict; one can only avoid conflict resolution” (especially good for me to hear as a conflict avoider!).

Peace Pursuit’s distinctive is that it seeks to equip anyone involved in a conflict to answer the following, practical question:

Who should do what when and how?”

The training prepared us to take concrete steps in implementing biblical answers to that question, depending on the conflict situation and the people involved, and thus tangibly stepping towards making peace. Whether the offended, the offender, or a witness, anyone can start the process of resolving conflict. And indeed, we were challenged by much Scripture which commands all Christians to do so, in order to pursue peace in their relationships.

  • Rom. 14:19 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
  • Heb. 12:14 “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
  • Eph. 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
  • Rom. 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

The trainers reminded us of the big role that expectations play in causing conflict among missionaries (and anyone). They confirmed what probably any missionary suspects after reflecting on his or her first term on the field, that “the vast majority of conflicts are caused by unmet or unequal expectations.” In fact, our trainers even reported what research shows–that 60% of a missionary’s time during his or her first year on the field is spent “expectation-negotiating.”

I certainly found that I’d first gone to the mission field four years ago with expectations that I didn’t even know I had. All of us at the training benefited from being reminded that in our Christian relationships and as missionaries, our expectations should be the following:

  • legitimate
  • clearly understood
  • reasonable
  • loving

The Peace Pursuit training then gives from Scripture the following long list of God’s expectations for all believers:

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These are therefore things we can expect from our fellow Christians and that our fellow Christians can expect from us at all times! Praise God for grace and forgiveness.

Particularly enriching to the training was the experience of other cultures that all the participants brought to the discussions. We also heard from our non-American colleagues. One explained that in his language and culture, the word “forgive” is not used as we English-speakers would. In his culture, “forgive” is only to used to describe what God does for humans; it is never used to describe interactions between humans. He explained that, when he is discipling new believers from his culture, it is a revolutionary thing for them to imagine telling or hearing from another person, “I forgive you.” He said they even have to practice recognizing the difference between excusing a mistake and forgiving an offense.

Dean and I trust that the principles we learned will help us build a strong foundation of pursuing peace both on the mission field and in our marriage.

A reflection on Jesus’ suffering and our own, appropriate for this Good Friday, from C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcom (p. 63-65):

We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. … But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. … It claims to be just, on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked. …

Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. … I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.

Though I’ve been back from the Solomon Islands for almost a month now, there’s still so much to share!

During my visit to Dean to the island of Malaita, part of the Solomon Islands, I learned that Melanesians love feast days. I also learned that they love to honor guests living among them, especially at their departure. As a farewell to Dean, the Airahu campus threw him a feast his last night there.

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Dean arriving for his feast (the shirt was a gift made for him by Melanesians), with his missionary mentors, Jon and Tess Hicks.

Things started around 8pm, though the food preparations had been happening all day.

The tables were covered with banana leaves, and then the food was portioned out onto the leaves. Above you can see rice, cooked meat in various sauces, a cassava “pudding” (made from pounding and boiling it), cooked sweet potatoes and cassava, fresh pineapple and watermelon, pork, cooked fish, and cooked chicken sausage. The attendees would stand at the tables and eat with their hands off the banana leaves. Clean-up was easy! Just pick up the leaves and dump them where the animals are fed.

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They also had a separate table for “honored guests,” with the same food on platters. We formed a line and filled up our plates.

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And then the speeches began.

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Brother Ezekiel, a member of a Melanesian monastic order called the Melanesian Brotherhood who can be recognized by their garb which he is wearing above. He is also a theology student where Dean taught. He shared his appreciation of Dean’s humility and not complaining during his time among them.

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Father Paul, an Anglican priest and principal of the Trinity School of Theology and Ministry, was Dean’s host father as well as colleague. He shared his appreciation of Dean’s hard work, especially in the garden and in supervising the final year students’ theses. He also expressed his family’s enjoyment of having Dean live with them.

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He then presented both Dean and me with gifts.

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Dean was given the chance to address everyone one more time and express his gratitude to them for their hospitality and friendship these last six months.

Dean and I were then given more gifts—a traditional woven bag, made by the Rural Training Center students;

welcome lays and “lavalavas” (dyed cloth) presented to us by students from Isabel Island, symbolically welcoming us to their island since Dean wasn’t able to travel to that island and visit in person during his time in the Solomons.

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They then sang us a song as we listened – the volume and tight harmonies that eight Melanesians can achieve—never formally trained in singing, with little practice, and with no choir director—is astounding!

And before the event ended, everyone formed a line to shake hands with us and say goodbye.

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Dean and I with the Hicks family, my hosts for the weeks I was in Airahu and missionaries based there, with their friend Josephine, after she’d presented me with the gift of the shell necklace I’m wearing.

Until next time, Airahu. We won’t forget you!

A huge answer to prayer during Dean’s missionary assignment in the Solomon Islands was multiple opportunities to preach and to teach theology cross-culturally. These are areas that Dean has wanted to explore, and he was given the chance to do just that. It was a privilege for me to get to see him teach and preach in the several weeks I was with him at Airahu at the campus of Trinity School for Theology and Ministry, which also houses a Rural Training Center.

First, he spoke at the school’s student retreat which happens at the start of each new trimester. It was the last time he’d address them as a visiting lecturer. He spoke on the theme for the trimester, chosen by the principal—“Faithful to the end.” Considering Dean was wrapping up his 6-month missions assignment there in Airahu, it was fitting that he would speak on it!

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Rural Training Center students

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Students and staff of Trinity School for Theology and Ministry

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The view of the Airahu campus from the steps of the chapel

And then, Dean was given the opportunity to preach for the morning service his last Sunday at Airahu.

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After only hearing about his previous preaching experiences, it was a huge privilege for me to get to hear him in person for the first time. Both times, he was speaking entirely in Melanesian pijin! (There are enough words that are the same as English that I could generally follow the gist of what he was saying!)

That Sunday, along with the other Sundays I was at Airahu, also gave me the chance to experience Melanesian worship services. At the Airahu campus, the Anglican liturgy is followed, though students come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. A lot of the liturgy is in English, the official language of the Solomon Islands. For those of you interested in hearing what some of the worship sounds like and following along in the prayer book, click on the following links for a few clips:

Dean and I arrived back in the US a few days ago. It’s good, albeit cold, to be back.

Since I left the US last July from the East coast, traveling east to West Africa; and then traveled east from there to the Solomon Islands; and then traveled east from there back to the East coast of the US… I guess that means I went around the world in 237 days!

That’s a lot of protection and faithfulness to praise God for. Here’s hoping for a bit more stability in 2018!

Little did I know that visiting Dean in his missionary assignment in the Solomon Islands would involve my symbolic “purchase” as his future bride by a local Melanesian family that had grown to see Dean as their son.

In the Solomon Islands, it is customary for a bride price to be given to the family of the wife-to-be by the family of the husband-to-be. The currency they use is “red money” or shell money. At one time, this currency made of shells collected from the floors of lagoons was the only currency. Now that paper money has been introduced, the shells continue to be used as currency almost solely for bride price negotiations.

The shells are collected from the ocean, then sanded down into small disks that can be strung, and then the long strings tied by ten into heavy lengths of the stuff. One long length of ten strands of shells is “one shell money.” One costs from 800 to 1200 Solomon Island dollars (roughly $115-170). The craft is a slowly-dying one; fewer and fewer people know the intricate process of sanding and stringing. The value of shells varies depending on how deep people have to dive to collect that particular color of shell. The red shells are found the deepest and therefore are the most valuable, hence the name “red money” for the shell currency.

A bride price negotiation is an extended family and friend affair. In the exchange, family members and friends are called on to add their shell money to the man’s parents’ stock of shell money, which will make official the intended union of the man and woman. In the social networks of Melanesians, people keep track of who contributed to their own or their son’s bride price gift, because they know they will need to, in turn, contribute to their and their sons’ bride price negotiations. Different Melanesian ethnic groups have different standards of an appropriate number of “red money” for a bride price. For the Kwara’ae people in the area near where Dean worked on the island of Malaita, it is 5-10 (again, each one costs $115-170). For the Lao people in the north part of Malaita, it is common to exchange 30 or more!

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Father Mike is a Melanesian Anglican priest and on staff at Trinity School of Theology and Ministry at Airahu Training Center on the island of Malaita. This is where Dean has been on staff since last August as a visiting lecturer. Mike and his wife Connie befriended Dean from the start of his time in Airahu.

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What a privilege for me to meet Mike and Connie! And what an unexpected honor for them to present Dean with one shell money, to symbolically participate in his “buying” of me as his wife.

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After joining them for dinner, Mike explained to Dean that his family had grown to love him as a son and would miss him and that before we left, he wanted to contribute to “buying” me as Dean’s wife.

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Father Mike holding one shell money. You can see the 10 long strands of shells that make up one shell money.

He expressed that he knew shell money meant nothing in the US, where we were going back to, but that this was how Melanesians showed the bond that connects people. And so, he explained, he still wanted to give Dean a shell money to symbolize the connection between them. He then draped it around Dean’s neck.

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What a humbling gift to receive, and so meaningful!