Advent 2020 Mission Update

Mark Rich and Cynthia Holder Rich, teaching at Tumaini University Makumira Arusha, Tanzania

…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sward against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.     Isaiah 2:4

We are reading Walter Brueggemann’s thought-provoking devotions in his Celebrating Abundance this Advent season. One day, the scripture above provided the theme on which Dr. Brueggemann reflects, saying that in the vision laid out in this text, people are “decontaminating bombs and defusing the great weapons systems. The fear is dissipating. The hate is collapsing. The anxiety is lessening. The buildup of competitive threat is being reversed…”

“Let us beat swords into plowshares” by
Evgeniy Vuchitech. Part of the United Nations collection

It occurs to us that the prophet, and Brueggemann with him, must have seen and be seeing something different than what the world has on offer—something different than what the world sees. The vision seems to have little resonance with the world in which we live, where violence, fear, hate, anxiety, and competition seem to reign supreme. Even conversations about the global health crisis that has consumed this year and carried over a million souls away to date have been politicized and weaponized. The way the world sees—and what the world sees when it looks around—bear little resemblance to the prophet’s vision.

Brueggemann’s reflections brought our graduate students to mind—budding scholars with whom It is a joy to work. One student is writing about elder abuse and the gender implications therein—how many older people, and particularly older women, are at great risk of abuse within their homes and families—and how the responsibility for caring for older people, the majority of whom are women, falls on the next generations of women. The stories this student tells of the plight of older women and the younger women whom the community expects to take care of the elderly are often heartbreaking. The student argues that care for the elderly among us, and those who care for them, must become more centrally located in the mission of the church—and that an increase in equity between men and women is God’s desire.

Another student is researching deforestation in his home area and the ways in which deforestation—driven mainly by the actions of large, wealthy companies—increases the growth of economic inequity and poverty in Tanzania. It also drives climate change, and the impacts of climate change fall mainly on those who have less, while the wealthy are able to move if/when changes in conditions make living in a place less comfortable or more difficult. This student is convinced that these are issues that are related to the Missio Dei, the mission of God, and as such are issues the church must confront and work to mend and to heal.

A third student is writing about a major conflict that occurred within a diocese (equivalent to our synods) of the ELCT, which actually ended only with the splitting of the diocese. These kinds of conflicts, whether they happen within whole denominations, dioceses, congregations, or even families, are deeply wounding and scarring to the body of Christ. This student is looking into how the apostle Paul dealt with a similar conflict within the church at Corinth, in Second Corinthians. How does the gospel of Christ face, diagnose, and resolve such conflicts that, at bottom, deny the gospel?

As we work with our students, we often marvel at their ability to persist in ministry in contexts of great injustice and deep suffering. How do they keep preaching the Good News? How do they keep hammering away at horrid and heinous situations that inspire grief and anger—situations that can and do lead many to despair? For our students, we have come to realize that they persist because they see something that some cannot. They see a vision that some cannot. They see a future that some cannot.

Emmanuel Katangole, a Ugandan scholar and theologian who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, speaks of the ways in which Africa is viewed by many as a hope-less continent, and its people as hope-less people. In his 2017 book Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, he quotes Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, an epic work about the civil wars in Congo. While Katangole sees much to commend Stearns’ work, he ends his book on a note of despair, because, as he sees it, Congo and its people lack vision and leadership. Dr. Katangole takes issue with Stearns’ conclusion, as it does not square with his own experience of people in Africa. It doesn’t square with ours, either.

Our students and colleagues share at least one characteristic—they all have the same ability to see. They see the future—not the future that analysts and international commentators see—not what Jason Stearns sees—not whatever paltry news coming out of Africa that appears in the US would suggest to you about the future of this continent and its millions of amazingly diverse peoples. Our students and colleagues see a future that is not made up of war, disease, famine, drought, locusts and disasters, natural and human created. Katangole narrates stories of many faithful Africans, who share in the lament that emerges from profound suffering—and moves beyond that lament to hope. He argues that lament energizes resistance, leading then to hope’s realization in a future where God’s will is made manifest over all the earth. Hope in the midst of suffering is birthed at the intersection of not knowing what the future might hold, and believing that Jesus is in that future, empowering us to resist, to innovate, to call upon church and society to build a future different than the past, and to find ways to resolutely move toward that hopeful future through challenging what is and seeing what God sees. Our students and colleagues see what Isaiah saw—a vision that is different than the past and diverging from the present. To research suffering in the present and to call church and society to move toward a future free from tribulation, despair, and grief requires the ability to see the vision prophets see, the vision God sees, the seeing and imagination that grounds the Incarnation.

UNIVERSITY GRADUATION 2020!

Bachelor of Divinity students line up to receive their diplomas.
Pastor Mariam Charity, Cynthia’s supervisee, receives her Master of Theology degree

We celebrated graduation this past weekend. It is a joy to see the future unfolding in front of one’s eyes! By far the biggest single set of programs at Tumaini University Makumira are the education programs. We graduated 576 bachelor students to become primary and secondary teachers, and 21 master students to become school administrators. These numbers are by far the majority of our graduates!! Tanzania is making immense efforts to improve its educational system, and our university is a major part of that effort. The country’s efforts only took serious practical shape in the 2000s, and they are still a fight. As of 2018, the public schools still had on average one teacher for every 51 students, and only one textbook for every 10 students. The country has made immense improvements since the colonial period, during which no efforts were made toward universal public education. Our graduates are so proud, and so are we! To all our supporters, your support is directly contributing toward this very good work—thank you all!!!

ADVENT BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL

We pray with and for you that God might grant us all vision to see as God sees, the divine imagination that moved God to send Jesus, the vision that Isaiah shared of a world without war, the very same vision that animates our students in their research and ministries. May we all be so blessed! May our Advent preparations open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts, that we may see Jesus and be moved to follow him more nearly. As this strange and difficult year comes to a close, we count you all among our blessings.

A favorite Tanzanian folk art wood carving. We think of this as the heavenly host over Bethelehem, singing Utukufu kwa Mungu! Glory to God!

Grace and peace to you all in this holy season! Cynthia and Mark

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