Several weeks ago, I wrote about a large local church youth group going to South Africa for a short-term mission trip. Although I purposely did not name them, they were subsequently identified by a member in a recently published letter to the editor as from St. John United Methodist Church. They and other local churches have participated in a number of such missions the last few years, sending groups to Africa despite widespread information such trips usually do more for the participant than those on the other end. In fact, most of such trips, according to the Africans, do more damage than help.
A popular definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There has to be a better way to conduct missions and this column describes it.
Recently, I had an opportunity to interview a knowledgeable spokesman from Africa representing a network of churches and nongovernmental organizations that understand the limitations of well-intentioned individuals. That person, Dayo Obaweya, is regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism covering an area equivalent to the Lower 48, comprised of 17 countries in which more than 300 million people have a per capita income of $1 to $2 dollars a day.
I was intrigued by a talk he gave at Faith Christian Community’s Sunday service last month in which he said WACHE’s goal was “to bring people out of poverty into the love of Christ.” Contrast that with the goal of so many short-term mission trips we know of. My interview with Dayo was the next day.
WACHE is an affiliate of Community Health Evangelism a Christ-centered educational program used by hundreds of churches and organizations across the globe. Obaweya was visiting U.S. members. Faith Christian Community is a CHE member and has trained over 100 individuals in CHE methods.
CHE’s core strength is in training. The organization describes itself as “a plan for individual and community development through physical and spiritual teaching.” Trained CHE members don’t do development but “teach CHE to local trainers, who teach CHE to their own people in some of the poorest places in the world. These people do development for themselves.”
The CHE website describes how this all happens: “Local people do it for themselves by: Choosing their own people to be in charge; Choosing their own priorities of what to change; Choosing their own people to be trained to teach house to house; Finding their own resources; and accomplishing their own goals when and where they choose. Local people own and manage their CHE plans. We just train their teachers. CHE is big on ownership!” That’s empowerment at its best.
Obaweya described one such venture in West Africa where a village was asking for a multipurpose community center and school. Indigenous CHE trainers went to this village and did a simplified planning process. They asked if the village had sand, stones, gravel, land and water? They were told yes. Would they supply labor to build it? Yes! Wood for the roof? Yes, we’ll cut locally.
Asked if they had concrete, they said they had 10 of the 100 bags needed. The village was encouraged to pool bits of money to buy more concrete, acquiring 10 more bags. CHE asked government officials in to see the progress. Astounded by their initiative, and finding them the 80 bags the project required, they immediately authorized delivery of the needed shortfall. Local financial pooling raised funds for the tin to cover the roof.
The project turned out to be an unqualified success, using the CHE strategy to achieve community transformation, a major goal of CHE leadership. Obaweya said the building is now used as a meeting hall, church and clinic when government medical workers come to give children medical examinations, etc. Obaweya, who visited it recently, said other surrounding villages had asked this village for help planning needed projects.
Health work is an essential part of what CHE does. CHE trainers go into people’s homes and villages teaching proper sanitation and hygiene principles. They address family size issues by training through Women’s Circle of Life and Men’s Matters groups. Larger families in impoverished parts of West Africa sometimes struggle to survive. Individual couples receive training and instruction in family planning.
Another CHE program trains children in practical matters of hygiene, nutrition, gardening and Christianity. Children bring these life-saving principles home, sharing them with their parents.
CHE affiliates also support initiatives that include microfinance and group savings programs.
WACHE tackles water projects but shuns Western technology for drilling and water extraction, instead choosing low-tech approaches that can be made and maintained locally, when repairs are needed. Too many water projects fail when well-meaning groups from developed countries go in and overengineer projects with little local buy-in, and without the knowledge and ability to maintain them.
CHE’s process is holistic, empowering individuals to help themselves, tending to their mind, body, and spiritual needs. It’s transformative. It resurrects people’s lives which have often been destroyed by Western do-gooders with handout methods destroying personal initiative and depersonalizing individuals and families.
When I asked Obaweya his view of short-term mission trips, he responded by saying, “We don’t want to call it short-term missions. We’d rather call them evangelists. I see them as evangelists across the border. The word short-term mission can become a hindrance,” noting that people coming with this label are not thinking of something that is going to last. Rather WACHE involves them in initiating a process such as child or community health screening, an entry exercise. The ongoing process can then be initiated by the local community.
WACHE’s model weans people away from a culture of dependence by teaching people to organize, plan, build, grow food and learn about God’s love.