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Dec 06 Reversing the roles (CMS)

Growing numbers of African Christians are rejecting a victim mentality and helping their neighbours do likewise

Thanks to celebrities like Bono, Madonna and Angelina Jolie, it has become increasingly fashionable to care about Africa. Yet, despite the flurry of attention and the millions of pounds in aid being poured into the world’s second-largest continent, poverty is still on the rise.

According to some African Christian leaders, decreasing poverty and the myriad problems associated with it will take more than foreign aid. “It is getting increasingly clear that the root cause of Africa’s problems is inside the minds of the African people,” says Serah Wambua, CMS programme manager based in Nairobi.

Serah, who was born and raised in eastern Kenya, has a passion for transforming lives that extends back several years. “At one point in my life, I prayed that I would marry a blind man because I just wanted to serve people so badly,” she recalls.

Although that particular prayer remained unanswered, (Serah is married to a sighted land surveyor) she has helped a number of organisations cultivate a vision for mission that focuses on ministering to whole persons - spiritually, physically and socially.

And according to Serah, if this kind of ‘holistic’ mission is to take effect, the African Church needs to step up its efforts to love its neighbours and decrease its dependence on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

Sarah is an outspoken proponent of the ‘Samaritan Strategy’, which under a flagship scheme called ‘Hope for Africa’, mobilises and equips African churches to serve their communities' needs using resources they already have.

“The Church is in a unique position to influence change in society. It is indeed God’s primary instrument for social transformation,” says Serah.

“For too long, the African Church has missed an understanding of its role to uplift the rest of society,” says the introduction to the Hope for Africa programme. “It has focused on proclamation of the Word, and Sunday worship, but has largely failed to demonstrate the intentions and love of God outside church walls, throughout the week, in every area of society, by every church member.”

Hope for Africa aims to reverse this trend. At events called ‘Vision Conferences’, pastors and church leaders are challenged to consider what their church can do to transform their own community. Then they are encouraged to put these ideas into action through ‘Seed Projects’. These are projects that churches launch in their community, using their own resources, as a way of demonstrating God’s love to those around them.

The ideas presented at Vision Conferences have been met with fast-growing enthusiasm. At one large church in Uganda, cell groups are now doing nearly 1,200 seed projects a year.

Churches and communities now recognise they have what it takes to do holistic ministry. Says Serah: “Even in the poorest countries, God has provided resources that can be discovered and used”. For instance some seed projects in the slums have consisted of collecting garbage and recycling it into compost, tiles, fuel briquettes and fence posts. The overall quality of life for the community is being improved with these small changes, and participants give the glory to God.
Other seed projects that have taken root include:
  • The Ebenezer Life Centre in Western Kenya, where widows and orphans of AIDS victims can find shelter, food and clothing. Over 500 students attend Ebenezer School and the programme caters for the physical and psychological needs of 75 widows in Nyando district.
  • The Sheepcare Community Centre in the Soweto slum of Nairobi has erected a demonstration garden to show people how to use what little space they have to grow useful crops. Inspired by a Samaritan Strategy conference, local Christians also run a school for close to 400 children.
  • At the 'informal' Shilce school in Dagoreti, Nairobi, people who could not normally afford secondary-school fees can learn life skills such as peer counselling, environmental stewardship, gardening and arts and crafts.
  • In Rwanda, orphans, widows and HIV-positive women left to cope after the genocide still need empowering to rebuild their lives. The Seed of Hope Association is a community initiative that teaches members of child-headed households bread-making skills and provides vocational training and primary education.
These are just a few examples. Since 1998, more than 3,500 church leaders in Africa have attended Vision Conferences in 16 countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mauritania, Egypt, Congo, Namibia, and South Africa.

Because the Samaritan Strategy teaches people to discover and use resources they already have in order to bring change, those who participate are set free from a mindset of dependency. This is giving the African church newfound strength, depth and dignity.

While aid for Africa is still needed and appreciated, Serah and her colleagues at CMS are excited about seeing the African church planting seeds for long-term growth. Serah says, “I see God removing the veil for us in Africa so we can look inward and see the great and hidden things God has for Africa.”

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