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arrival in Enampor, the largest Bandial village, for the New Testament dedication Saturday May 16, 2015

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attendees (visitors and Bandial) and chorale, preparing for the start of the ceremony

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a Bandial leader speaking on the importance of the Bandial New Testament for Bandial culture and their language community

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traditional Bandial music and dancing

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Wolfgang and Karine, SIL members who have been involved in Bandial translation and literacy, addressing the attendees in Bandial

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the Bandial New Testament presented, accompanied by dancing and singing in Bandial about God’s Word

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…and the dancing and singing continues

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readings of New Testament passages in Bandial

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Pray for the Bandial as they engage with God’s Word in their language!

Statistics don’t capture everything. But they can offer an interesting, at-a-glance perspective.

I recently heard the following statistics on the West African country where I live. They come from a study called “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa” done by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in April 2010 (to view the whole report click here).

  • 98% of this West African country’s population say religion is very important in their lives (the highest percentage of countries around the world included in the study, ahead of Bangladesh 97% and Kuwait 95%).
  • 58% of this country’s population believe in the protective power of sacrifices and in ancestral spirits (the third highest percentage from the African continent, after Tanzania 60% and Mali 59%).
  • 93% is this country’s level of tolerance towards other religions (the highest from the African continent, ahead of Ghana 92% and Zambia 87%).

These figures highlight the seemingly paradoxical religious landscape of the country where I live and work. Daniel Gomis, the West African who presented this research, concluded that it summarizes the three aspects of life which are essential for him and his fellow countrymen:

  1. faith in God
  2. belief in the spirit realm
  3. openness to the outside world

Gomis went on to explain however that, if one scratches below the surface, one discovers a world that the statistics fail to capture, a world that’s not so neat and tidy, a world that underlies his people’s everyday existence. In his words:

C’est un monde mélangé de réalité, de mythes et de croyances populaires. Il s’agit de l’imaginaire – l’âme même – qui sous-tend la vision du monde [des habitants de ce pays ouest africain].

(It’s a world in which reality, myths, and mainstream beliefs blend together. This is the popular imaginary – the very soul – which underpins the worldview [of this West African country’s people].)

Gomis then borrowed the words of Professor Ibrahima Sow to posit that a comprehension of this underlying layer of his countrymen’s collective soul is what allows us to:

…mettre à nu l’âme magique et angoissée [des peuples de ce pays], dont on découvre avec stupeur combien leur existence est davantage régie par le magique, ce que d’autres nomment le mystique, que par le bon sens et par la foi.

…lay bare the mystical and anxious soul [of this country’s inhabitants], by which one is shocked to discover how much their existence is governed more by magic, what others call mysticism, than by common sense or by faith.

While I’m intrigued, it’s all quite a mystery to me. But hopefully I’m up for some discovering.

Thank you to Daniel Gomis, for the stats and thought-provoking analysis of his country’s worldview.

April 16-22 was the annual conference for the SIL International branch of which I’m a member. This is the once-a-year gathering of all the workers (as many who can make it) from the three countries that make up this branch. It gives us all an opportunity to reconnect, share highlights from the past year, pray for the various projects, take care of organizational business, worship together, and plan for the year ahead. It was my second conference. (I confess though, last year’s conference was a blur as it came two months after my arrival.)

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This year’s theme verse was Ephesians 2:19-22:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The five days brought various discussions and activities; underlying it all was a current of reflection stimulated by these verses. We had some wrestling to do. It’s difficult enough for these verses to become reality in a context where a single culture is represented. But for a group of nationals and expatriates coming from many different countries, trying to work together in a West African context, these verses seem a bit idealistic.

What does it mean for us as an SIL International branch to be built together as a body of believers? Is there place in the edifice for each of the cultures represented (we come from over a dozen countries), let alone each individual personality? Do we truly believe that there are no foreigners in our midst, and that each is an equal member of the household? Are we in the branch fulfilling our purpose of being a believing body where God dwells? Are we willing to be chiseled as individual building blocks so that the Master Builder can fit us into place, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Christ as the cornerstone? What does it take, on both an individual and organizational level, for this to happen?

"Write down what you think it takes for us to be built up together."

“Write down what you think it takes for us to be built up together.”

We at SIL International are a multicultural building being constructed by God’s grace. God is the Master Builder and He will have His way with us, and yet we must actively participate in the building process. We as individuals cannot passively, stubbornly wait for God to force us into place alongside our colleagues. God’s Spirit calls us to action in seeking to be joined together. Being joined together takes intentional, persistent, daily work.

We spent several sessions comparing “Kingdom Culture” to our respective cultures. We were in four separate groups – Francophone Africa, Francophone Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America (and these groups didn’t even cover all the cultures in the branch!). In our groups we discussed ways our cultures reflect values of God’s Kingdom and the ways in which they fall short. And then we spent time as a branch, listening to each group share its reflections. It was so helpful to be reminded of why colleagues act, speak, and behave in certain ways – often because of the culture from which they come. It was helpful to laugh about each other’s cultural quirks. It was helpful to listen to each other, to affirm each culture while acknowledging that all cultures (and we humans who comprise them) need to be redeemed in order to embrace Kingdom values.

Culture Exercise

our branch in our four culture groups

Our multicultural edifice at SIL is of course only one tiny part of the much larger, world-wide Church that God is building. So we as an organization also need to yield to the Master Builder in where He wants us as a group to fit into His larger construction.

During one worship session, we were encouraged to consider the following words of C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity – quite a timely thought in the midst of our reflections:

I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. … The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.

Oh, how we need grace for this miracle of transformation to occur! As individuals, as organizations, as the Church – we need grace as God builds us into His palace.

I’ve once again moved and taken up residence in a new home and a new town. A new Wolof host family – the Mangane family – has taken me in. This is important as I continue to learn language and culture. My new town is about an hour and a half’s commute from the capital, where I will need to report regularly for my work on SIL’s Basic Wolof team. I think it’s a good fit to live close enough to the capital to be there when needed, but outside the capital where there is more space, less stress, and more pronounced Wolof culture. Though I know better than to make concrete plans, I’m hoping that this living situation could become a long-term solution. I pray that God has led me here and that I can finally, sort of (despite the back-and-forth-ing to the capital) settle down.

sama neeg ci ker Mangane

The Mangane family is large in number and in heart. I’m getting to know them, and hopefully they’re getting to know me. It will be a process. Their house is comfortable, and my room in their home feels restful. My window looks out on some wonderful trees (anything green is a source of joy!), including a glorious neem tree that’s in bloom this time of year. Its branches reach towards my window, delicately tossing at me the delicious scent of its tiny white flowers, reminding me that beauty exists in this country (though sometimes in different and less pronounced forms than what I’m used to). The smell of the neem flower is the sort of gift that often moves me to tears here – rare and small yet tangible and so very precious.

garab neem

On my first day as a member of the Mangane household, I discovered a great irony in the meaning behind their family name and in my living among them. Mangane comes from the Wolof word màngaan, which means “nomadic herding to find pastures for the herd.” My time in West Africa since arriving last February has certainly felt nomadic! Who knows, maybe now that I’m living with a family named “nomadic,” I will stop moving around so much!

As I consider this new Wolof word, looking back at the moves I’ve made since arriving in this country and breathing in the smell of the neem flower outside my new room, I find myself considering green pastures. The nomadic herder moves himself and his herd in order to find them greener pastures. I admit that the moving around that I’ve done here has been tiring. In each case, though, I was brought to something that I needed, a “greener pasture” in my learning and adjustment and search for my place here. My room with the neem tree outside is the “greener pasture” to which I’ve most recently come.

But the fatigue has been palpable at times. I remember one night in particular at the Ndiaye home, where I so enjoyed living, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to stay and would have to keep looking for a long-term place to live. Dreading the thought as I lay there before drifting off to sleep, I sighed one of those deep-soul sighs to God, praying, “Lord, I know you’re preparing a place for me and that the place you promise me is in heaven, not here on earth. And I know you’re coming back for me, to take me to that place… but in the meantime, would a little corner here below be too much to ask for?”

“Just a place to lay my head, where I feel at home and can be myself,” I’ve sometimes thought. And yet, that thought always leads me to the well-known words of the Master, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” A couple months ago, I heard a devotional given on these words of Jesus by one of my Serer-Sine brothers. He challenged his fellow pastors to remember whom they follow. He said that we sometimes want security and financial guarantees before committing to ministry, and yet why should we expect these things when the Master whose path we follow did not have them? I was challenged by his words, especially considering their context here, where the role of pastor rarely brings with it a salary.

Jesus never promised His disciples that we’d feel at home here on earth, that we’d always have a physical place to call our own and lay our head. He never even promised that it would be financially easy, as my pastor friend reminded me. Any of these tangible or intangible discomforts that we experience as His disciples simply disappear when we consider His incomparable sacrifice on our behalf. And He calls us to follow.

His promise to me is that He will be my Shepherd. “I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” As I journey towards my yet unseen home, my Shepherd finds green pastures for me to lie down in, even where it feels like I have no place to lay my head. I may not always understand why He calls me out of one place to be led to another, but He knows me and the pasturelands better than I do. And He promises to restore my soul.

Since my arrival in this country last year, the Shepherd has led me, and I have not been in want. Instead of feeling the culminating fatigue of the moves I’ve made, I can look back at each “green pasture” to which He led me and the ways He restored my soul. And I know He has more green pastures in store, just as I know that my soul will continue to need restoration from the fatigue. May He give me the grace to continue following His voice and going where He leads.

As my new favorite singer Audrey Assad puts it so well in “Lead Me On”:

Your rod and Your staff are a strange mercy
In a world where I’m not yet home.

This past month, I’ve had the privilege to attend and participate in a couple different gatherings of Christian wolophones. “Wolophone” refers to people who speak the Wolof language as a main language of communication; this designation includes both people who are ethnically Wolof, as well as people of other ethnicities who speak Wolof. It is estimated that perhaps as much as 80% of this country’s population would fall into the category of “wolophone.”

The Basic Wolof Phase 1 team, my SIL team, is very interested in this group of people — not only the ethnic Wolof group but others who speak Wolof as their primary language. We are especially interested in wolophone Christians; we want to know what the church looks like among wolophones, when which language is used, which language most facilitates their spiritual growth, and if the current translation of Scriptures in Wolof is sufficient for their needs.

Our team will be in this phase of research for at least the next 12-18 months. For now, we are mainly observing and listening. I’m putting my cultural anthropology training to use; we are essentially conducting participant observation, listening, taking notes, and brainstorming about which research questions to ask in order to get the necessary information.

Consultation Wolof (March 18-20)

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For the 22nd year, Wolof believers and missionaries (both national and expatriate) who work among the Wolof all over the country came together to pray and exchange ideas. We from SIL were invited to present our desire to do research. What a great opportunity to meet people and listen!

Personal highlights: singing God’s praises in Wolof, hearing prayers in Wolof, hearing stories of believers who compose such a tiny minority of their respective ethnic groups.

I was especially intrigued by conversations revolving around the challenges facing the church as it tries to establish itself, both among the Wolof people group specifically and in this country generally (where many other people groups speak the Wolof language). Especially in the capital city, where churches are largely filled with African Christians from other countries, and where services are therefore more likely to be conducted in French, the church has a very foreign image. In this atmosphere are national believers, and especially Wolof believers, able to find a church home that feels culturally authentic? I was blown away by the statistics I heard from a church-planter among the Wolof: in a people group of 6 million 100 believers, 30% of whom are in a church body.

Another interesting conversation topic was the effects of urbanization on the church in this country. A missionary shared with me a trend that they’ve noticed in their denomination as young people all over the country move to the capital for studies or to look for work. According to him, 50% of village-born believers who go to the capital return to the village with no faith.

While I left feeling more inspired and encouraged, I also learned how much prayer is needed against the spiritual strongholds around the Wolof people group and the Wolof language.

Wolof Women’s Commission Prayer Weekend (March 27-29)

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Usually once a year, a small committee of Christian women (nationals and missionaries) organize a weekend retreat for national women who could especially use fellowship and teaching with other Christian women. The majority of the weekend takes place in Wolof. I was invited to attend to see the work of the committee and to help as I could. What a great opportunity for participant observation among wolophone believers gathering around God’s Word!

Highlights: seeing national women believers encourage one another, hearing some of the women’s challenges in how far apart and isolated they are, seeing the women get some much-needed Christian fellowship.

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And of course it was great practice for my Wolof!

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And perhaps the best moment of the weekend for me was when I spontaneously started the “dance-then-toss-a-clothing-object-of-yours-at-someone-as-a-way-of-making-them-get-up-and-dance-before-they-can-toss-the-chosen-object-to-someone-else-and-so-on” ritual. I think my shawl got held by every woman in attendance as each took their turn dancing!

I had my first SIL annual review yesterday. I’d had these before with my “regular” job back in the US. My annual review with SIL was much the same – a chance for a check-up, to give feedback, to assess roles and achievements, to express what is needed to more successfully reach goals. This annual review was more comprehensive than just my work, though. We also touched on my physical, spiritual and emotional wellness, balance of “work” and “home life,” my relationships and support network.

I was so grateful to feel SIL’s support through this process, and to have encouraging people above and around me in the organization.

It struck me to go through a process with which I’d become familiar in a “regular” job setting in the current setting in which I find myself. In previous annual reviews, my job title drove the assessment. In previous jobs, what I did at work stemmed from this job title. However, the last year was a world with no job title, at least not in the sense that guided my day-to-day work. It’s a world where having a clearly-defined role is mostly a myth. I knew this coming into it. I expected nothing else. What I didn’t expect was how purposeless it would make me feel, how long it would last, and what I’d learn thanks to the lack of definition.

Oh, I did my best to create purpose and definition. I tried on plenty of roles that I saw others filling, plenty of visions for work here that others offered me. I looked for someone more experienced that I could shadow. I visited several places where the point to it all seemed obvious; “maybe I could just come here where something good is happening and a role would eventually find me,” I’d think to myself. But each of these ideas just turned out to be a false lead, a trail that would dead end. It would become clear that I didn’t belong there.

Our means of drawing self-worth and enjoyment are so often tied to our culture, our home country, and the people who create our support network. When these things are stripped away, we are that much more tempted to draw our self-worth from what we do. But when that is nothing but a big question mark – that is when one’s calling is truly refined, sifted. Looking back, I think the Lord was at each dead end, saying “No, not here. I don’t want you to latch on to this; I don’t want you to find your worth and calling here. I want you to find it in Me alone.”

In doing the annual review and looking back over my “job performance” of the past year, I can say that I’m grateful for a year with no clearly-defined role and a year of what felt like false leads. How can I be grateful for the purposelessness?

Because of what I can honestly say I found in the midst of it: joy and peace.

Since I had no job title and little idea of what I was doing here, I decided to throw myself into the only thing that I could confidently say would not be a waste of time: learning Wolof. My motivation was in large part pragmatic; Wolof has helped me get around this country confidently (something that arguably is a necessity if I hope to “accomplish” anything here!). I found peace in this growing confidence. But I also rediscovered the innate joy which I find in learning and speaking a new language. It is part of how God made me; it is part of the purposes He has for me. Feeling this as I’ve learned Wolof, in the midst of the larger purposelessness, has brought me joy.

Learning Wolof then led me to live with a local family. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to live in an environment where I couldn’t resort to my French. Again, I was largely driven by pragmatics – living with a family in order to learn their language. In the process I experinced the joy of being part of a family with whom one has little in common yet where one feels comfortable. This added to my joy and peace in the purposelessness.

It was sometime during purposeless month #10 that I began making a realization: the joy and peace I was experiencing in learning Wolof and living with a local family gave me a sense of purpose. Yet, nothing had changed! I still had no job title or clearly-defined role. I was seeing that I could put up with less-than-ideal “work responsibilities” if I still had time to devote to progressing in Wolof and if I was going home to a local family that I enjoyed. By this time, I’d also seen many colleagues whose role or job title changed, evolved, sometimes disappeared altogether. I was learning what a trap it can be to draw one’s purpose from the role one fills.

And so, not long after, when SIL leadership asked me to join the “Basic Wolof Phase 1” team, admitting that they couldn’t tell me what my role or the team’s goals would be, I could honestly respond that it was okay (our first order of business as a new team is in fact to explore and negotiate what the team’s goals and individual team member’s roles should be… but this is a process). I accepted. Now, a couple months later, I can still say that it’s okay, despite the continuing lack of definition. I’ve learned that a clearly-defined role is a myth and that waiting for one is a trap.

Yet I feel a sense of purpose, I should say of God’s purposes here for me, as I continue to learn and use Wolof, as I search for another local family among whom I can be both myself and a member of their family. My work with the Basic Wolof Phase 1 team is not what gets me out of bed each morning, but I’m hopefully filling a need that my leadership has asked me to fill, doing it with joy and peace and purpose.

I’m grateful for “check-ups” like annual reviews; they give us cause to reflect and look back at what we’ve learned. And this annual review was more significant than ones I’ve done with past jobs, because it offered important perspective over the past year, often muddled and foggy for me. I would sometimes say to myself, “Just take one day at a time. And one day, maybe the fog will lift a bit and you’ll see the reason, the purpose.”

There are still plenty of foggy days, when my purpose for being here isn’t obvious. But I can say that the God who has purposes for me has drawn me closer to Himself, which is better than any job title achieved.

Samay waajur ñëwnañu! (“My parents came!”)

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What a joy to have my parents in country for a week! Sharing life and work here with them was a blessing to me (and hopefully to them!). I got to introduce them to many of my friends and colleagues, which was the highlight for me. Often, when I presented my mother to someone, saying, “Kii mooy sama yaay” (This is my mother), the response was a smiling, “Ah kii mooy sunu yaay!” (This is our mother). Family in this part of the world is elastic, and the most respectful way to refer to someone is often to use a close, family title like “mother” or “aunt.” I was more than thrilled to share my mother and father with my friends here!

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As my dad taught a Biblical studies course on the Psalms, a course he’d been preparing over the past 12+ months…

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…my mom and I traveled out to the villages to visit pastors’ wives, encourage them, and follow up on their use of audio Scripture materials in their mother-tongue. Along with being adopted as “mother” by several of the wives, my mom was also adopted as “grandmother” by several babies!

In Wolof, the term for one’s mother and father is waajur which literally means “birth people.” So as I announced that my parents had arrived, I was saying, “My birth people are here!” Having my “birth people” here was a huge encouragement. In a culture where networks are so important and where people relate to you based on who and where you come from, I can’t help but think that it was incredibly helpful for me to be seen with the people who birthed and raised me.

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My parents’ visit was also incredibly educational. Though I knew that respect for one’s elders was an extremely high value in West Africa, I discovered that an even higher place of respect is reserved for one’s “birth people.” I experienced this respect first-hand as we traveled around throughout the week. Even taxi drivers (not often known for their respect) who were complete strangers, upon hearing that these were my “birth people,” lit up, expressed their thanks to my mother and father simply for the honor of meeting them (again, calling them “Maman” and “Papa” out of respect), and then went on to talk passionately about the importance of revering and taking care of one’s parents.

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Coming from “birth people” who raised me to know and love Jesus, and who have been a model for me in work overseas, I agree with those taxi drivers! I have much reason to praise God and honor the parents with whom He blessed me.

The company of one’s “birth people” along life’s sojourn: what a priceless gift!

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