An American in Tanzania: Thoughts on National Leadership

I was 23, fresh off the plane, fresh out of language school and fresh with naivete when she approached my office in the upstairs portion of the orphanage. My director came up and told me that the following day, she and the other senior missionary were going to Arusha and would be there the whole day. I was new at the orphanage and was pretty novice about missions in general, but my response was chalk full of implication.

“So I’m in charge then while you’re gone?”

The question mark there is how I said it, but it was more of statement than a honest question. I was ready, or so I thought, to be in charge.

She, smirked and replied, “well you, and Eli, and Baba Pendo.” Meaning, “not really, that’s not needed and there are Tanzanian staff who have been here much longer, are more informed and more invested.”

Despite being the youngest staff, despite having a tenure of weeks, not months or years, despite the integrity and knowledge of local staff, I assumed that I would be in charge. I assumed that authority based on two truths, I was the American missionary at an American-run orphanage. I’m grateful for my director slowing me down. At best, I would say that was a starting point for me on this journey in partnership with national Tanzanian leaders, but at worst it was blatant paternalism.

Who should be in charge? There is a lot of nuance within this subject, but it’s one that we must be willing to look at and engage. You have to take into account the calling of missionaries, that there was something that drove them to be wherever they are serving. You have to take into account equally the locals that have an equal calling on their lives. You have to take into account the authority and insight that locals have over their own culture. You have to take into account the resources (and not only material resources) that westerners might bring to the table. How do we determine who the boss is?

One of the difficult things that I’ve run into with the format of Kingdom Families is this question, how are you going to get parents to adopt children and make that huge sacrifice? How would they do it of their own volition with the best of intentions? How do you know that they’ll treat the kid well? From a western mindset, it’s a lot easier to just do all the work yourself and establish an orphanage of your own or just adopt however many kids you’re able to. This is seen as safer, because then you don’t have to worry about how solid the people are that you work with or you can gloss over that which you don’t understand culturally.

However, the more that I live and work in Tanzania, the more I realize that some of the best people I know are Tanzanian pastors and church goers. They’re just as human as you and me, but they’re good people and worthy of trust. As a now 30 year old missionary, my view of many of the leaders within our network has increased, I’ve realized that they are the heroes that this country needs.

I’ve of course voiced my frustration over the common institutionalization of impoverished kids in Tanzania and other countries. A lot of this is based out of an understanding of what’s the best situation for a kid to grow up in. But a whole other element is that the Tanzanian authority, the Social Welfare office, is opposed to institutionalization. One of the assistant commissioners in Dar-es-Salaam told me face to face that “family based care is the direction we want to go” and the the regional director here in Kilimanjaro told me that the government “wants to abolish the orphanage system.” Now, it is nonetheless common here, the government itself doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure and man power to implement the family-based care that they desire. Orphanages are the system in Tanzania although all but one are privately owned and operated (there’s a government orphanage in Dar-es-Salaam, I hear).

Part of the paternalism comes into play when westerners come over and open orphanages without consulting or submitting to the social welfare office. The idea is that they aren’t coming to the government and the churches and saying “how can we serve you?” Instead they are coming with an idea that is contrary to best practices, contrary to what the government wants and instituting whatever they want completely aside from government oversight. The government is then forced to either try and shut down the orphanage after the fact which can be tough when they’ve already taken in kids, or forced to try and monitor something that they never asked for in the first place. Do you see the problem in this?

In Moshi there was recently several orphanages shut down and only five remain. Does that inform us about the governments desire? Part of Kingdom Families’ positive relationship with social welfare is because we’re able to engage them and just say we want to support their initiatives from the NGO sector. That’s called honoring national leadership and it’s a lot more comfortable than trying to accomplish something against the flow of their office.

There is this other element to the story where we talk about the churches that we partner with. Our view often concerns how do we raise national leaders. I learned something though about leadership, in my view, leaders aren’t raised, they’re recognized. If someone is a leader, that means others will naturally follow. You’ll see their following, their demeanor and talent and recognize that they are a leader.

When I think about a couple like my friends Clint and Esther, who are bravely adopting from Tanzania currently, I see leaders. They aren’t pastors, they don’t work for my ministry or any other, but their character and drive causes me to recognize that they are leaders. Undoubtedly, there have been people that have fed into them over the years, just as with anyone else, but God puts that flame in them. For those others, we just sit and recognize the leadership anointing on them. I could say this about a lot of Tanzanians that I know, within the clergy, within the congregation and within the government.

When it comes down to it, if Tanzania or any nation is going to change for the better, there’s only one entity that can cause that change: the local church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our role as immigrants to this country is to support the leaders within this movement that God has anointed. Just as Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses, that’s what we need to be doing as guests in our nations.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11

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Honored to serve the leaders of Tanzania
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“Go run an orphanage in Africa” :: Revisited

I live inside a paradox.

Earlier this week, Melissa and I met with a lady that is visiting from California. In a nutshell, her job is to help organizations focus their mission, deliver their message and be an organization that is, well, organized. I went into the meeting fairly confident in where Kingdom Families stood and I was prepared to blow her away with our vision and current operations. Nine o’clock came and I walked into the meeting with sheer confidence.

Six hours later, as the meeting concluded, I had anything but confidence. Not by anyone’s doing other than my own. Among the proceedings, our foremost exercise was writing down our operations on a big white board. In blue, our current operations and in green, future operations. As I took in the white board, I realized that the blue was the overwhelming minority and apparently I moved here nearly seven years ago and have yet to accomplish anything meaningful from a vocational standpoint.

This was all supposed to be different somehow.

On Father’s Day 2007, I was 21 and felt a very clear message from God during worship at my church in Orange County. That Sunday was a culmination of three consecutive Sundays where I felt God say “Go run an orphanage in Africa.” That word became my guiding light for the next five years as I entered adulthood. I eventually did a short trip to an orphanage in 2008, revisited it as an intern in 2009 and was hired and began work there in January 2010. All was moving forward on the path God gave me to “go run an orphanage in Africa.”

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Yes, I have these types of photos too. 23 years old and working full-time at an orphanage.

As I write this, I confess, that I don’t understand the mind of God or how all of this works when we feel God say something and give us direction. Without that word of God, I would not be sitting in my office in Moshi right now writing this. Nonetheless, the whole “go run an orphanage in Africa” calling got a bit derailed on it’s way to the station. In May 2012, with my newlywed wife pregnant with Promise we left the orphanage.

During that time in the states, something began to change in me. I had wrapped my identity around this call that I felt from God and all of a sudden I was out of work and trying to make a living for my family in California. Not Africa. Not an orphanage.

The biggest change came on September 21st, not even five months after having left the orphanage in Moshi. On that day, I became a father. As I held my daughter in my arms, I realized that life would never be the same and that no one could take away from me my role as a father. I had romanticized about being a father to the kids at the orphanage, but now I actually understood the difference.

When we returned to Moshi in 2014, thereafter got Kingdom Families going, I had evolved a different mindset towards orphan care. The tone and content of my message changed, and I often wonder if it’s for better or worse. I could no longer pretend that running an orphanage, even with the heart of a father, is the same as actually being a father. I’ve since remembered that the confirming word that the preacher spoke on Father’s Day 2007 was “the AIDS epidemic in Africa is huge, but it’s led to an even worse epidemic and that’s children growing up without fathers.”

Fathers.

What’s the best solution for the fatherless? Fathers.
What’s the best solution for the motherless? Mothers.
What’s the best solution for orphans? Families.

I caught up with a friend last night that had been on a team working to get the railroad back up and running in Tanzania. Their venture had recently disbanded and she is looking for new work. She shared a little about her boss who had invested years, finances and heart into this venture. He had received prophetic words concerning the railroad and was working on what I assume to be the crown jewel of his vocation. When they were essentially stonewalled by the new Tanzanian administration, they were forced to disband and she said it’s been pretty tough on him. Then she shared something that I’m claiming in my own life.

“It’s never about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

My marching orders at age 21 may not be something that I ever fulfill. Is that disobedience? Perhaps. I have come to grips with my shortcomings. Without those words though, I would not be where I am right now. Devoting myself to a work that is slower than molasses and leads to seven years in and not much to show for it in a lot of ways. Yet, I believe in family-based care.

It’s about the journey. Yes, I trust even still that that was God’s Spirit beckoning in 2007. I did what I could to pursue that in my journey and Tanzania got threaded into my life and family in the process. Pursuing that calling led me to marrying Melissa, having Promise and Shepherd join through birth and Moses through adoption. That journey even led to me not pursuing orphanage work even when it was available, because I believe there’s a lot of work to be done to help kids get into families. The only destination I’m assured of is Heaven and the journey could take me anywhere in the meantime.

Let us not get so caught up with where we think we’re going or where we think God is taking us, that we forget who God is. God didn’t not leave us as orphans, God is a Father.

Father.

The difference between an orphan slave and a child of a king

This past Sunday I preached at a little red church in Los Osos, California. A few days prior, as I was preparing the sermon on Romans 8:12-17, a passage I’ve preached on many times, I realized that a lot of what I gather and teach on is self-evident. A simple text that is so profound.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

I asked the congregants at the church what the difference is between an orphan slave and a son or daughter of a king. Their answers put flesh and bone on what Paul was describing in the text.

Freedom. Acceptance. Family. Unconditional Love. Joy. Self-worth. Authority. Belonging. Hope. Safety. Privilege. Inheritance. Grace.

Lost. Rejected. Bondage. Withdrawal. Insecurity. Oppression. Anger. Fear.

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The chasm between these two realities is vast. The beautiful thing about the gospel is that God takes us from one extreme to the other in an instant. It’s passages like this that capture my heart and imagination for the spirit of adoption.

In any journey, whether it takes an instant or a lifetime, it has to start at the beginning. Our beginning was as orphans. I often reflect on Jesus’ words in John 14 when He says that he will not leave us as orphans. Jesus knew that the life of an orphan is dire. He knew the realities and the feelings that such a slave endures. He wasn’t content to leave people in this state.

In our redemption, we go from death to life. Enemy to friend. Slave to free. Orphan to son. Orphan to daughter. Yet, as much as that’s our reality, our discipleship takes a bit longer to turn into Christ likeness.

Discipleship, is monkey say, monkey do. It’s follow the leader. Discipleship is we love, because He first loved us. It’s be holy, just as the Lord your God is holy.

Discipleship is we adopt, because He first adopted us. >>tweet this<<

From my experience as a family-man, I’ve learned that the relationships that God’s given me play the most critical role in my discipleship. I’ve led street evangelism in Newport Beach, I’ve worked at churches and non-profits, I’ve preached in English and Swahili and yet all of these play such a truly minuscule role in my discipleship. I learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by being a husband and father.

It’s not merely understanding the theological parallels to being the bride of Christ, God being our Father, God adopting us. Much more, it’s the fact that the people in my family bring out the best and worst in me. For me to become like Christ, the worst and deepest sin of mine is going to have to come out if it’s going to be changed. Adopting my son has brought out the worst in me at times. That’s just being honest. His insecurity has scratched, clawed, beat and pulled out my own insecurity. His trauma has traumatized me. His orphan spirit has brought out all the areas in my life where I still feel like an orphan. Somehow, Melissa and I stepped out in adopting an orphan and in the process feel like we’re worse people because of it. There are many times when we feel we have ruined ourselves and wrecked our lives.

The craziest things is that through Kingdom Families, we’re trying to lead people down this same path. What would drive us to do such a thing?

As I preached Sunday, the passion for the fatherless stirred up in me and the understanding of the difference between an orphan slave and a son or daughter shed light on why we keep going. Thank God for hope. I have hope for my entire family that God will bring us forward.

As difficult and traumatizing as the adoption process has been, we know that our son is better off for it. One of my favorite bloggers, Jason Johnson, says it well when discussing the difficulties. “Let’s not talk about what it will cost us if we do foster or adopt without also considering what it will cost these kids if we don’t.”

The truth is that at this point, my love for my son Moses only drives me so far in pursuing orphan care. Because Moses isn’t an orphan anymore. My drive is motored by my love for the orphans still back at the orphanage or on the street. I’m thinking about Justice, I’m thinking about Maria, I’m thinking about Awadhi. These orphans with faces, stories and personalities. Faces that are blurred, stories that are untold and personalities that are suppressed. Orphans that up to this point have been left as orphans. Children that are waiting for

Freedom. Acceptance. Family. Unconditional Love. Joy. Self-worth. Authority. Belonging. Hope. Safety. Privilege. Inheritance. Grace.

 

Keep building.


I’ve been putting together our website for Kingdom Families over the last month. I’m nearly done and I’d love for you to check it out. Just follow the link – www.kingdomfamiliestanzania.org

Kingdom Families Conference – Majengo, Moshi

The goal of our Kingdom Families Conferences is to empower the Tanzanian church to be the godly spouses and parents the Lord has called them to be. At the same time, we are advocating for the needs of orphans within our midst in Kilimanjaro, foremost by encouraging the church to adopt and foster children in their own homes. For this conference we partnered with Pastor Zacharia Olo in Majengo district in Moshi at the church Yesu Anaweza Center. Grateful for the Kingdom Families team that jumped in for the conference. Ryan helped teach, Peter helped with some translation and Patrick and Leah took the photos.

“If you build it, they will come.”

My director Ryan and I were meeting at a local restaurant recently just talking and catching up on life. As we sat there, a guy that Ryan knows approached us. He asked if we would be there for a little while as he wanted to go get his boss to come speak with Ryan. The boss was visiting Moshi and was staying in one of the rooms in the adjoining hotel. We weren’t going anywhere just yet, so ten minutes later the man came up with his American boss. He was eager to speak with Ryan about a plot of land Global-Effect owns in a village about a hour away. He asked Ryan about title deeds, working with government offices and the like. He asked what Global-Effect is going to use the land for and so on. He’s interested because he has also bought land in the same village. Ryan, in turn, asked them what they plan to do with their land.

“We’re going to build an orphanage.”

My heart sank. Ryan swallowed deep and smiled at him then gave me a concerning look. In an area where Global-Effect has begun empowering the community and an orphanage-less village can quickly capture a biblical model for orphan care, another American wants to establish another orphanage in another African village.

You want to hear something offensive? Kids shouldn’t grow up in orphanages. >>tweet this<<

Does that offend you? One of the hardest things for me to bear in my ministry is living out that statement alongside SO MANY people, friends of mine, that have started or run orphanages in Kilimanjaro. It can be very uncomfortable at times. I am not writing this to put anyone on blast, because these are great people, people that I look up to. As I followed up and emailed that American gentleman, I made sure he knew that I appreciate his heart in wanting to help. I really do.

The difficult thing is that we’ve run out of imagination. We’ve been establishing orphanages for so long, we don’t know what else to do. I’ve spoken with government officials in Tanzania that have told me placing children in families instead of orphanages is a new approach. Granted, it’s not actually new, kids have been raised in families since the dawn of time. But as a response to the modern poverty and AIDS-induced orphan crisis, this is a new approach.

I’d be lying if I said that paternalism doesn’t plays a role in all of this. Tanzania was previously a German, then a British colony. Over the last 55 years since independence, Tanzanians have been sovereign, but many of the perspectives between Tanzanians and westerners have changed very little. We have westerners that say, “oh, I should take care of that child” and Tanzanians that say “oh, they should take care of my child.” That happens. That happens often.

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Remember that movie, Field of Dreams? It has that classic line “If you build it, he will come.”Kevin Costner gets this divine calling and knows that he must begin the irrational task of building a baseball field in a cornfield. In so doing, ‘he’ will come. Thereafter Shoeless Joe Jackson, a bunch of Hall of Famers and ultimately his dad show up as ghosts and play on the field. I think of that line, when it comes to orphanages.

If you build an orphanage, you will be able to fill it up with children. You can get that institution up to capacity in no time. I’m not saying the kids should be there, I’m just saying they would come. The welfare office might send some, the community will send some, relatives of a child will send some. You’ll fill it up in no time.

Let me share a story that’s close to home for me. It’s about Moses.

My son was fatherless at birth. Whoever his biological father was, he never stood up. Tragically, Moses’ biological mother passed away from meningitis when he was only a month old. His family of origin, three days after his mother’s passing, brought Moses to the social welfare department. The social welfare department signed off and boom, he was in an orphanage. The relatives signed that they would come and take Moses on his third birthday to return to his family. But eight years after he was dropped off, Moses remained at the orphanage and experienced all the heartbreak of being an orphan left in an institution.

All of a sudden, God puts it on Melissa’s heart and subsequently mine that Moses is to be our son. He should no longer be an orphan. We got the process started with the orphanage directors who had faithfully prayed that Moses would get into a family. We’re so thankful for them. After that, we contacted a lawyer and we were on our way. One of the important pieces we needed was the consent of the family of origin. I thank God that we have a good relationship with the majority of Moses’ biological family, but that part of the process was the most maddening.

In the process of adopting Moses, we visited with various family members in four different homes in the area. Of those homes and the people that resided in each, I would say that three of those homes would have been more than suitable for an elementary boy to be raised. In fact, there were already kids there, relatives of Moses.

It was Moses’ destiny to be a part of our family and I would never have it any other way. But on a systemic level, this is very upsetting. Moses is not the only one either. I know other children that live in orphanages that have biological family that are able to care for them. And yet it doesn’t happen. That sin, unless confessed and repented of, is on those families. But it comes back to us as well, if we are feeding into a system that exacerbates fatherlessness.

From an American standpoint, this orphanage building is rather mind-blowing. Don’t you find it ironic that we go overseas and build and run orphanages, when in our own country we don’t allow them anymore? There was a time in our country’s history when there were American orphanages, but people realized it wasn’t a good system and did away with it. Wouldn’t it, then, make more sense to promote fostering and adoption in the majority world?

In wrapping up a blog like this, I feel as though I’m obligated to give some sort of disclaimer or caveat about all this, but it’s my unapologetic view that no child should grow up in an orphanage. There is foster care, adoption, kinship care and other alternatives that are not only more natural, but they are better in every way. Instead, of celebrating every time an orphanage is built, we should celebrate when an orphanage is shut down because all the kids got into families.*

Keep building.

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*Further reading: I highly, highly recommend Orphan Justice by Johnny Carr, specifically his chapter on orphanages. I definitely pulled from his work in this post, specifically the last line and the final two paragraphs. It is my favorite book on orphan care and will alter unbiblical and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors we have concerning orphans.

Kingdom Families Conference – Bonite Village

A big part of what we do is advocating for orphans in our communities and strengthening the families of the local churches. This past Saturday I led a Kingdom Families conference at our friend, Pastor Evarist’s church in Bonite village. (Pastor Evarist is pictured in black and white). Grateful for my wife, Melissa, for coming up with this idea, as well as Brian, Patrick, Leah and Peter who filled out our team. This is how we affect change in Tanzania, we call on the church to rise up.