The Allender Center is Going to Africa

African landscape

The date is set, funding has been secured, and our preparations are intensifying for our trip to Ethiopia.  My wife Becky, Jan Meyers Proet, Abby Wong-Heffter, and I will travel to Addis Ababa to work with Ellilta International from October 18-30. On behalf of our team, thank you for your prayers and financial gifts. It was truly humbling to receive such an outpouring of support. God’s people are generous and faithful!

Cherry, the director and founder of Ellilta invited us to partner with them to develop culturally sensitive ways of addressing the trauma that impacts their community as a result of sexual abuse.  Their ministry is primarily to women and children who have been forced into prostitution and/or human trafficking.  It is an immense honor and daunting task to join them. We will conduct interviews with 20 indigenous leaders who are working with trauma and abuse victims.  Our goal is to learn what they are doing well and to identify their areas of need.

Our partnership with Ellilta actually dates back to January of 2008 when Becky, Jan and I taught an initial course on abuse and trauma for them.  Jan returned in December of 2010 to teach and care for a number of those who were with us in the first offering.  In the years following, Samaritan’s Purse Canada has supported Cherry and her team to develop a training outpost that would help other African leaders develop greater comprehension of theology, counseling, leadership development, and fundraising.

The invitation to teach on abuse and trauma is a natural fit for The Allender Center and entirely in accord with our vision and passion.  The only problem is that even the primary task of this trip is utterly beyond our ability, skill, experience, or comprehension.

Initially, we said that we needed more data about what the participants learned from our past trips.  When we talked about abuse and trauma, the assault on the human heart, body, and mind—what remained? What was helpful?  What was culturally relevant and what simply missed being helpful by a continent?  It seemed both prudent and simple to get the data.  We created a protocol of questions that we intended to ask of the participants and off we charged.

Thankfully a gifted Ethnologist, Forrest Inslee was invited to teach at The Seattle School Faculty retreat this year.  At a break I ran up to him like a parched man and asked if he would consider meeting with us to review our protocol and offer his assistance.  He graciously agreed and after a kind, honest, and wise conversation we realized we were truly culturally Western and Academic.  Our protocol sizzled with the smells of our culture; it would fail to do the work we wanted to accomplish.

In addition, he asked us to consider questions that would almost never be on the mind of a Western psychologist.  How does each culture represented at your gathering bring back into the family/tribe those who have been ostracized?  What are traditional ceremonies for reconciliation?  What are the rites and passages for a person to gain a new name or enter a new realm of maturity?

Becky, Abby, and I were speechless.  We came away from our time with Forrest with both a clearer focus and a sense of the vast difficulty of translating trauma concepts from one world to another.  Far more, we realized how easy it would be to presume we are helping and in fact adding additional burdens our African friends are not meant to carry. It is clearer why it is easier to do nothing; or to do something and presume one is helping—one is the course of cowardice and the other arrogance. We are caught in failure if we move and if we don’t.  We have the potential to do good if we go and simply avoid harm if we don’t.

All this has been rolling in my head until I read a section of a book Forrest recommended we read.  The author says,

Translating dynamic talk into linear written language, then, is never easy or straightforward (it is also time consuming, requiring three to four hours for every hour of interview).  Some mistakenly think the task is technical, and delegate it.  However, transcription is deeply interpretive as the process is inseparable from language theory.  (Catherine Kohler Riessman, Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences, Sage Publications, 2009; p. 29,)

This paragraph may not move you, but I sat looking at it, staring in disbelief for minutes.  I read it again and again.  Each time it said the same thing clearer and clearer.

You have gotten yourself into a big, vast, huge, overwhelming pit of complexity and you haven’t even left home.

I assumed our interviews could be transcribed and then sent off cleanly to the computer for a qualitative analysis that returned the smudged shirt pristine, starched, and useful.   Am I going to spend 3-4 hours per interview when we are likely to have 10-15 hours of interviews with maybe 20 people?  The goal is not to publish this work in a journal; it is to gain wisdom to proceed on this calling.  But already, the weight of Babel, the radical difference of culture, the overwhelming importance of the task, lack of ethnological sophistication, and the sheer weight of the work felt like a millstone around my neck.

Despite all this, we are stumbling forward as our departure date approaches.  In preparation I scheduled a phone call with Vicki Owens, a trauma specialist and educator at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  Before the conversation I read an article describing how she ended up serving the people of Uganda in this way (she initially went to Uganda for a brief trip to help missionaries start a primary school). The following is a section of the article:

Owens, who admits she was naïve to the culture, dangers, and challenges of living in a place like Uganda, had arrived two months after one military coup and about 10 weeks before the next. She didn’t know that all nonessential U.S. government employees had been evacuated from the country. But it didn’t take her long to assess the great poverty and needs of this country. Gunfire in the streets was a regular occurrence. Some nights she and the missionaries she lived with would sleep in the central hallway of their home to be safe from bullets. “It was a great prayer time for me,” she says.

Eventually, the government put in place by the coup stabilized, and the situation for Ugandans seemed to improve. Owens was able to help organize the school, and at the end of her contract started planning a return to the states. That’s when a conversation with a young woman in the community led her to realize there was no good system in Uganda for training counselors. Keep in mind, this was the place of the most recent Ebola outbreak, says Owens. It is also where the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnaps children from their schools and uses them as soldiers and sex slaves. “Rape has become almost an accepted way of life,” she says. It’s where AIDS and HIV are part of every family. There is a great need for counselors of every kind.

Owens followed her instincts to the campus of Makerere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She asked someone to direct her to the school of education. There she sought out the dean, to whom she pitched her idea of creating a master’s program for training counselors. “I’ll never forget it. He just said, ‘I can virtually assure you of an appointment,'” she says.

I read the words:  “It was a great prayer time for me”, and I nearly spit my coffee on my computer.  Are you nuts?  How can that be the fruit of huddling in the hallway hiding from gunfire?

And then comforting tears rose and again I had to say, let me be a fool with other fools who simply know enough about grace to name how ignorant or arrogant we are and then follow the instincts we are privileged to carry.

Pray for us.