I have talked a fair amount about my experiences in Uganda and Rwanda last month, most notably in my reflections (along with Caitlin Kelley) on Sunday, May 20th and in my sermon on Pentecost, Sunday, May 27th. Both of these talks are available on the KC website. My focus, in much of what I've shared verbally about my trip, has been on my experience of the Holy Spirit in Africa, and the question that has been on my heart since my return: How can I open my life--and my ministry--up to the healing, reconciling and renewing power of the Holy Spirit?
But the Amahoro conference itself--a gathering of almost 200 Christian leaders from East Africa and beyond--was focused on other questions, primarily, "What are the most important features of the post-colonial church in Africa today?" A group of us from the West came to listen to this conversation and to learn from it. We were especially interested in considering how the conversation about post-colonialism connects to a conversation in the West about "post-modernism". Do these cultural shifts present similar challenges to followers of Jesus?
In advance of the conference, we were assigned four books and a number of articles which were meant to provide us with some background for the conversation. I read these books (all of them!) while in conversation with four other people who were also on the trip. We had some great conversations with each other, and became really engaged in understanding the key questions, looking at various sides of the issue, placing the conversation into the historical and cultural context...in short, we had a LOT to say on the topic.
And then came the instructions from Claude, the organizer of the conference. We were to be listeners and learners, and NOT really participants in the conversation. We were not to speak first, and we were not to ask the first question after a speaker. We weren't there to teach, to advise, to interrogate, to interview.
It might surprise you--it certainly surprised me--that the 40 Westerners took this advice to heart. We got to know a lot of the Africans one-on-one over meals and at coffee breaks, but during the large group sessions and the small groups, we mostly were quiet and listened.
During a de-briefing session towards the end of the trip, a South African man named Trevor gave the Westerners in a small group discussion a strong complement. He said he had never before been around Americans who listened to Africans to the degree to which we had.
His heartfelt words of appreciation reinforced for me something that I had been realizing, bit by bit, throughout my two weeks in Africa. Paying attention matters. This is something I've realized before--as a parent, as a pastor. But now I realize it as an American. Many of the Africans I interacted with, including the ones who were doing truly heroic things, felt unrecognized and unappreciated by the world. They had a sense that noone outside of their immediate context knew what they were doing or cared.
When an American--any American, it seemed--came to Africa, met them and appreciated their work or their ideas or their person, it matter a great deal.
I didn't want to accept that, at first. I wanted to quickly explain that my opinion should be irrelevant to them, and that America wasn't as important as they made it out to be. But then I paid attention just a little bit more, and decided to take them at their word. My attention, as an American, matters. It's one of the gifts I can give to an African.
So, how do I--how do we--bring that knowledge into our spiritual practices? How can I continue to pay attention?