MIssional Immersion

8 04 2014

Immersion: It’s a process

There are many types of missional approaches a person can take. Immersion as a missional approach has many benefits to offer. It is also very difficult. It is the approach I have chosen or rather felt called to. To be more specific, vulnerable immersion. The vulnerable is added to actually increase the level of immersion. In immersion missions we live, eat, work and serve practically the people we are called to reach. To be vulnerable is to also, NEED, the people we serve. I came with many preconceptions. I was going to live with the locals and serve them directly. I had the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and with that I was going to teach them to obey the commands of Christ. As I began I found I bore little lasting fruit. I learned I needed to seek to understand before I could be understood. Paul did a bit of this in walking around the Greek city of Athens trying to learn how to best relate to the city he was determined to approach with the Gospel. Jesus instructs us to go in vulnerable when He models teaching disciples to go out without purse, extra clothing and food for the mission work. They were intentionally going out needing to find a person of peace to provide housing, food and a segue into the community. While I teach going house to house to share the Gospel, Jesus says to STAY in one place after finding the person of peace, living and eating with them and using them as a connection to the community around them. It is genius. That is what I have succeeded in personally doing in Tanzania.



I am stared at, misunderstood and imposed upon, by Western standards, daily. I cannot avoid it. It is the price I pay. Sometimes I yearn to simply be left alone for a bit and just to regroup. This, too, is not understood. We Americans, in particular,  are an individualistic group. Perhaps me, more than most. By the very nature that a person leaves their homeland to go and reach another person, they are usually very  individualistic. In Africa, the individual is not what is important. Rather it is the network of friends and family that make up the community or tribe that matters most. One’s peers from school, your age group from school, family and the social network one forms in society, is the very foundation of life. There were no reliable banks or institutions to rely on for thousands of years here so this was a matter of survival during hard times. And it works quite well, while it is foreign to Westerners.

By immersing ourselves into the lives of the people we serve we remove walls and barriers. Cultural, stereotypical and practically. We go in poor, since we serve the poor, and remove as much of the stigma of being the rich white person as much as possible. It is never gone, but we better understand each other and have to deal with these preconceptions head on. So many things are baffling to the Western mind and in reverse, so much about us is baffling to the Africans I seek to serve. We are viewed through the lens of popular culture that says we are bright, rich and almost magical. It seems we have all the answers and power. While saying this, we are also a mystery. To a person, even many generations removed from the animist beliefs of their ancestors, the Africans still have many animist beliefs informing their perceptions and forming a worldview very different from a Westerner. In Animism, if a person is more successful and has an advantage over others, as Westerners do, we have “it”. They don’t know what “it” is but we have it. To an Animist mindset, a person can gain this advantage by witchcraft, being in tune with mystical ways or perhaps some even more puzzling way. While an African may be a Christian, these past beliefs greatly influenced their parents and peers for hundreds of years. They are not removed by simply educating them differently.


I recently read a story about a student from India. She was in Med school.  She was going to one of the best universities in England.  On the last day of class she turned in her paper.  She was an excellent student and very confident of her getting a high score.  She turned to her professor and told him as she went out the door that she had now learned what the West had to teach her.  She had seen the bacteria and viruses under the micro scope and knew how to treat disease using Western methods.  However, she told the professor that in her country they KNEW how these killing diseases came to be in a person.  To her professors horror, she announced they came into being as invisible witches bit people on the back. She had heard all he had to teach and all the education he could give but still held to her animist beliefs.  Education will not fix these cultures.


Below I will give a few examples but to truly study some societal situations I recommend a book call, African Friends and Money Matters. Money, time and communication are the areas where we see these conflicts and misunderstandings confront both cultures in their most blatant ways. Family could just as well be included in that list.
Concerning family, let me make an observation. In an African commentary I found a very interesting observation that shed light on family in Africa. In the bible, in Genesis, we are taught that we are to leave our past family and cleave to our wife. The two become one.  In this commentary, African leaders pointed out that this was not part of the African culture and their perspective has helped me understand things I observe much better. In Africa a man may negotiate with the parents of the wife to pay for her. It is sometimes called a bride price, and can look like this. The women is of value to the agrarian lifestyle here as a laborer. Women do the majority of the mundane farming. They weed, plant, cook, raise the children and harvest in many places, with very little help from the men. As such, they are a valuable part of the family’s success and survival. When a man wants to marry a daughter he is asking to take a valued laborer with him to wed and start a new family. She will be missed and her contribution gone. As such, depending on the tribal context, he may “purchase” her with cattle, money, goats or all of these. In fact, he may make payments from time to time to compensate for her loss his entire marriage. He will be called upon during times of difficulty and need for compensation.  She will go to live with him and contribute not only to his home, but to the shamba, or family farm, owned by his parents and or patriarchs. But she is STILL part of her parent’s family in many ways she will stay connected through communication and perhaps never truly be regarded or accepted into his family in an intimate way. The slums I work in are made up mostly of women. They come here due to a common theme. Their husbands died or fell out of favor with the home family,  and then died and they came here to survive. Most were thrown off the shamba of the husband soon after his death since they have no right to the land or home. They all belonged to the husband and with him gone the home can best be used for other family members. This is most prevalent among the poor. Many can’t go home to their parents  as their position has been filled by another by now and since they have perhaps 5-10 mouths to feed, they may be perceived as a liability. So they are not welcome to their parent’s home. They wind up homeless or in the slums.

The African leaders in the commentary made this curious situation clear to me. I saw it everywhere but did not understand the dynamics. We can quote the bible verses and teach all we want on things being otherwise. But only true discipleship and the embracing of new Kingdom values can replace these old values. I seriously doubt that outside the Kingdom of God and the influence of the Church, this situation will not change, if at all, for many, many generations. Africans don’t embrace change like the West does. The teachers in this commentary were admitting this was a very alien biblical teaching that needed to be addressed. I agree.
Personal space and possessions are another area of great adjustment for me. It is not uncommon to get on the small buses in Tanzania called matatu’s that are designed to carry 11 people in a very crowded environment and have as many as 27 people on the bus when we try to disembark. This is normal here and viewed as acceptable. I have even been in a restaurant eating alone and have people come in and sit at my table to eat. They can’t imagine my wanting to be alone. Besides, it is very interesting to meet new people here and white people, wazungus, have “it” so meeting one and befriending them is viewed as potentially very beneficial. I chose to be immersed but of course no one prepares you for these types of things. Complete strangers, some with noble, curious and good intentions approach me everyday wanting to greet me and become my friend. I simply can’t befriend everyone here. And of course there are those that have less than noble intentions in meeting me. They just see me as an ATM machine of sorts and perhaps may even want to lure me away and rob me. Though this is very rare in Tanzania. Robbing whites I mean, in an obvious, put a knife to your throat kind of way. It is more common in other countries like Kenya and the Congo.

I have had my personal belongings given away to perfect strangers when I was gone out of town. I had three pairs of sandals. A man visited a family member and his sandal broke. So my host family just took one of my extra pairs and gave them to the man. Without asking or really telling me. I had a very nice pair come up missing. The next day I see a stranger with some on just like mine. I asked about it and it was explained to me that he had a need and I had three pairs so they gave them mine. OK. I could have reacted like a good Westerner and told them that I had a reason for those sandals and that I would be happy to help but that it was only polite to be given the opportunity to chose to help. One pair of sandals  was to be a gift for a friend coming to Africa and was a special type used only by the Masai.  Instead I said, great, now I understand. When you have two cloaks and your neighbor none give them a cloak. Even if you don’t get to make that call. I had to laugh to myself on that one.

Money is perhaps the most baffling to us in the West. When we want money we go to the bank, we take a second job, or pull out our debit or credit card. Here, a person goes to their friends. It is actually considered selfish to save money. If a person is seen by a friend in a bank here they will frequently tell others “you did not see me here”. They smile at each other knowingly. You see there is always such need and friends and family are so financially connected, that there is always a need to be met in your circle of connections. Everyone has borrowed and loaned to their friends. So everyone owes someone something all the time. To save is to selfishly hoard here. When a person has a windfall, of sorts, they frequently and quickly start building a home. Even if they only have money for a foundation or a wall they will quickly pay someone to build it. Even if they may take many years to complete it in this piece meal manner they proceed. It is the only way to keep any of one’s earnings honorably. African is full of partially built houses. They are literally everywhere.

I frequently, and that means almost daily, have people I know and strangers come to my door asking for money. This is very frustrating for Westerners. At least until you understand how community works. An example was a widow down the road. She came to my house and explained where she lived. Her son was going to have a formal engagement ceremony. There would be a feast, requiring food, rented chairs and perhaps entertainment. I did not know this lady. But here it was a normal request for a neighbor to make, even if you don’t really know them. By contributing you are, in effect, joining the community. You are deciding to connect with this other human being. To turn them away is risky. It is always best to give something. If you can’t you simply must, let them know that you can’t now, but that you sincerely hope that they will come back the next time they are in need. You must press the issue. It is vital for your position in the community. I gave about eight dollars. A solid gift in this community.

I was at first very taken back by this. As a Westerner, we are taught to never beg or if possible to never even ask close friends for help unless we are desperate. And this desperation is very humbling or even humiliating to us. Here it is expected and of great value in defining relationships. I had a lady down the road needing to pay a huge medical bill. Had she come the first several months I was here I would have felt very burdened and in fact, put upon, to help her. She needed about 2000 US dollars for a huge medical bill for a treatment that had saved her son. She had borrowed, somehow, about half of the money and now if she did not pay it back she would lose everything. She had raised half of it through her network connections but still needed a thousand. She came to me. I now understood she was giving me another opportunity to connect with the community. I now realized that, while I was welcome to pay it all, I was also welcome to simply do what I thought was appropriate giving my financial circumstances and my desired relationship. I told her that I had no money that day for her, but that I would certainly help her. I thanked her for asking me. She was very happy and a few days later I took her the equivalent of 50 dollars. This amount would signify that I wanted a significant relationship with her and was comparative to a gift of a caring uncle, but not the equivalence of a father, close friend of means or adult child.


It has been a struggle to understand my place here in ministry, relationships individually and in the community as a whole. Learning the language is increasingly giving me a better connection to these people. I live in a mud and homemade brick home just like them. I have no running water and no electric power is allowed on the park reserve I live on near Mt. Meru, adjacent to the Arusha National Park in Tanzania. In Nairobi I live in an area that you would call a slum. But I know it to be lower middle class. I may someday really be one of these people. For now it is a process that has a long way to go. It is my desire to become a true African. I want to first, of course, be a loyal Kingdom Citizen. The Western mindset is strong in me, as it is in all, raised in the West. But I find myself thinking less like a Westerner and at least very understanding of the African mindset. I am a bit of a hybrid right now. But I stay vulnerable. Needing the help of my neighbors and to contribute to them as a good neighbor and friend would. I bring my Kingdom values into every situation and use them all to teach the love of Jesus and strive to model Kingdom principles. I refuse to participate in all actions deemed counter to the Kingdom Culture and have succeeded in the area. Obviously, I don’t participate in anything remotely animist or festivals and observances contrary to good judgment.

Please pray for me to learn to love and honor these people as I extend Jesus and the Kingdom of God into their lives. They are worth all my efforts, as Jesus counted them worthy to die for them. Who am I to do less than lay my life down for them as well.