Slacks and Old Loafers

I suppose a good life ought to give you moments when you say, “am I really doing this right now?” I had one such moment earlier today.

I wore slacks today. I rarely wear slacks and when I do, it’s on Sunday, not Thursday. But today I did. I also wore the only pair of dress shoes that I own, which I bought at JCPenney for my junior year homecoming. So that’s 12 years ago. If those hush puppies were actual puppies in 2002, they’d be dead now, as my shoes ought to be. Such a rarity this outfit, Melissa was inclined to snap a picture.

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What a dweeb, and why am I folding my hands like that?

I don’t normally dress this way, but Meshak and I had a meeting with a regional officer at social welfare to talk about our ministry’s introduction letter to the department. I was dressed to impress, quite literally.

As is the custom, we arrived later than planned and still waited a while outside the office on a rickety wood bench. As we sat, we talked about Meshak’s church and their involvement with Kingdom Families. We talked about American sponsorships, vocational training, parental training and all this other stuff regarding our ministry. We talked. There are a lot of times where we talk about stuff that we haven’t yet done and don’t necessarily have experience in. Talking is pretty easy.

At last, Mama Mboya, the official we were meeting with, calls us in. We sat down and exchanged the normal greetings. She looks at me and introduces herself and I remind her that we’ve met before as I previously worked at Treasures of Africa. She smiles and says (in Swahili of course) “oh yes, I remember you. Your beard is bigger now.” My trademark. I am “mzungu na ndevu” that is “the white guy with the beard” that’s my remembrance.

As we begin conversing we share with her about Kingdom Families and what we’re doing. Now, we do already have five kids in our program, but in most respects the project is still in it’s infancy. Hence why we’re introducing ourselves to the regional office in the first place. She shares with us her thoughts, a concern or two and gives us several items that we need to include in our introduction letter for opening a file at social welfare. After fifteen minutes or so of talking, Meshak and I tell her goodbye and walk out to the parking lot. There, we converse some more about the letter that I’ll be writing this weekend and then part ways.

When God first called me to Tanzania, I knew that at some point my wife and I’d be running an orphan care ministry and now that it’s happening, I’m like “what’s happening?” I just told an official in welfare that we’re going to be responsible for children that are not our own. We’re going to try and match them up with families that we believe will love them and care for them. We’re going to find sponsors for all these kids, provide oversight to make sure they’re taken care of, train the parents that bring them in. And we’re doing all of this by faith. We have to believe that God is helping us, we have to believe that we’ll get kids that need families and we have to believe that out of their own goodwill, Tanzanian couples are going to open their homes to these children for the next dozen years or so. What’s happening? And why am I wearing these 12 year old loafers today?

I’ll be honest, I’m in uncharted territory. I wound up here somehow. I don’t have to be in Tanzania. This is my choice. I didn’t have to go and tell a regional officer of Kilimanjaro that me, Melissa and Meshak are going to start putting orphans into Christian families and then supporting that family. This is my choice. This is a largely thankless job most of the time and that’s totally okay. Orphans shouldn’t have to say thanks for being my dad or thanks for finding me a dad, because being a child should just mean that you have a dad. It’s supposed to be the norm. It’s our choice to be here. We’re here because by faith we believe that God said something to us years ago about caring for orphans in Africa and we by faith decided to walk towards that.

Faith. That’s the currency of Christian life. By this world’s standards, I’m wearing 12 year old loafers and a second-hand button up shirt. But I want to be a rich person, that’s my aspiration.

Lord, just let me be rich in faith

Re-Envisioning Short Term Missions

Over the last few days, I’ve been diving into some thoughts on short term missions. Up to this point, I’ve only spoken about some of the problems that we, as American ministers, often commit in our attempt to help. Its been a little rough at times, but I think that a proper diagnosis and analysis of the situation is important for us as we move forward towards something better that God has for us. If you didn’t see the previous posts, I recommend you head back and get to reading them. The first was on discipleship and effectiveness, then the second was on money and perceptions.

Today, I’m looking forward to talking about something that I am much more excited about. Despite what you might think from the previous posts, I believe that there is a lot to be excited about in the missions movement of recent years. The fact that so many people are wanting to get involved shows so much promise and I believe that as we pray and move forward, God is going to do more and more to see the global harvest come in. Below are some things that I think can help get us there, this list is far from comprehensive, but I think that it can get us going in the right direction.

MAKE THE TRIP ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE TRIP
This is something that I hammer on whenever I get the opportunity. A two week trip is too easy to be that effective and there are so many blind spots (some of which I spoke of in the previous posts) that can make the trip, in fact, detrimental. When we decide that we are going to make more of the trip than just going for a couple weeks (or the six months of preparations), we are saying ’yes’ to be a part of what God wants to do in that place for the long haul. Perhaps, that means the Lord is calling you to a long term mission in that city, but even if He’s not, I believe He still wants us to extend our involvement in that place.

My first sponsorship photo of Awadhi

When I first felt God calling me to Africa, I made a point to apply forwhatever short term teams my university was sending there. I applied for Tanzania and Mozambique and was accepted for Tanzania. When I found out that we would be working at a small orphanage called Treasures of Africa, I felt the Spirit incline me to do something beforehand. I decided that I would sponsor a child at the orphanage. That child ended up being Awadhi and that relationship, that sponsorship, radically changed my life and propelled me into a deeper discipleship and calling. It was a simple enough decision. I decided to send $100 every month and pray for this little boy. But God used it to open me up more and more to making the short two weeks into something far more.

When missionaries follow Jesus’ calling to a particular nation, they realize that this calling is going to take of their own time, effort and finances. While they may not know how long they’ll be there whether it be a few years or a lifetime, they nonetheless know that it is going to take time. Short term missions trip offer an opportunity for those that the Lord wants in the US to make a similar commitment to missions in another country at the same time. What would it look like to make a multi-year commitment to one ministry in one country and have that be the country that you visited?

This will inevitably take more sacrifice. Sacrifice of potential other opportunities. Instead of hopping to another country and another ministry every summer, you put one spot on your map for however many years and say, “I’m going to bless the socks off of that ministry. I’m going to pray for them everyday. I’m going to encourage the church leaders and missionaries there through letters and emails. I’m going to advocate for them stateside. I’m going to give money generously and sacrificially towards the Kingdom-work that I see them doing.”

Commit yourself to believing in faith, then seeing with your eyes that God is doing something there. You can then feel assured that you are fulfilling your calling to those nationals that become disciples of Christ.

We have a church in Costa Mesa that took us on as missionaries last year. This is an Assemblies of God church and we are a non-denominational ministry. While this church is on the site of my alma mater, Vanguard, I personally never attended there. Nonetheless, they have circled Moshi on their map and decided to pour money and prayers into the Kingdom work there. Therefore, they support multiple ministries/missionaries in Moshi and are committed to seeing God exalted in that city. I think that’s pretty cool.

LOCAL FRUIT
A couple days ago, I mentioned an email conversation that I had with a guy from a supporting church of ours and he brought up the standards that they are setting up for people that they would send on short term teams. They won’t send people that don’t have fruit on the tree in their own city. That is an important standard and brings us to the question of how is local fruit and global fruit related?

God’s Kingdom is at work in all places. He is in the process of turning people’s hearts back to Him and renewing all things. This takes place on every continent (yes, even Antarctica). God wants to do something in Thailand, Kenya, Uruguay, Bosnia and your city. He is no respecter of persons in that He is calling all to Him without discrimination. Kingdom work is Kingdom work. I mean this in the least cliché way possible, the Lord wants you to live on mission in your own city. You are a minister of the gospel all the time. Segregating our missions outlook between what we do overseas and what we do at home is detrimental to our spirituality and our witness, especially when you consider that you are going to be far more effective in your own cultural context of home. Allow your desire for international missions be the spark that ignites your passion for the mission opportunities in your very own city.

Furthermore, local fruit doesn’t mean only ministering to people that are just like you. It is quite easy in the US to minister cross-culturally to someone right down the street. For example, I am from California and throughout my life, there have been opportunities at pretty much every church that I’ve been a part of to go down and do ministry in Mexico. While those opportunities would come by from time to time, I rarely heard of outreaches to the Mexican community in the very city in which the church was in. I’m talking about Paso Robles, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, there is a considerable Mexican population in each of those cities. That is a blessed opportunity to get down to Kingdom work in our own backyard.

INTERNSHIPS AND DISCIPLESHIP TRAINING SCHOOLS

Teaching at a Tanzanian Christian School as an intern in 2009

As you would gather from reading up to this point, one of the problems that I observe in short term missions is just that they are too short. A simple remedy to that would be to make it longer. Makes enough sense. My 2009 internship in Tanzania was honestly an integral part of my move to Tanzania just five months later. Internships of two or three months in the host country pack a lot more punch on both sides of the equation. The short term missionary intern is given a lot more opportunity to get into the pace of life of their host country and foster deeper relationships with the nationals they meet. At the same time, they are often put in a position where they can really aid a ministry during a time of need.

It also helps that interns come by themselves or in a group of two or three. That helps them become more self-sustaining and hence less of a stress to their host missionaries. They then get more of an opportunity to enjoy the relationships and learn from the missionaries and national leaders, hence aiding in their own discipleship.

Discipleship Training Schools (DTS) are similar to cross-cultural internships in the focus on commitment to discipleship. A DTS allows the short-termer to experience more of the culture that they’re in while being fed and stretched to grow spiritually themselves. This too takes more of a time commitment, but we shouldn’t shy away from commitment, because what you’re doing is putting down spiritual roots in your own life and advancing the Kingdom more effectively in other people’s lives. That’s worthwhile.

Possibly the most important way to make the most of any ministry opportunity is intentionality. This certainly goes for short term opportunities like a DTS or an internship. These opportunities present a better chance to really experience God and be effective, but it isn’t automatic. God calls all of us to live lives that are intentional. We must go into these experiences not only hungry, but laying it all out for God, striving for more of His Spirit and more of His kingdom. That’s how we make the most of any spiritual experience.

HUMILITY
The path that we walk must be humility. Sad to say, many of our downfalls are caused by a lack of humility. I’m not simply talking about people that you can tell are proud and brash. Beyond that there are everyday mistakes that we make, because we assume that we know what is best. This stance is something that is bred into our culture and is silently lethal to not only missions, but our own spirituality.

The truth is that the center of Christianity has already begun to move, and in many people’s views already has moved, away from the west and has landed in the majority world. We go to these places expecting that we are going to wow them with our service, only to find that the people there are hungrier than us and their churches experience far more growth than ours back in the states. There is something to be said for that.

Jesus’ teaching is clear that it is better to serve than to be served and it is better to honor than to be honored. While we normally give mere lip service to the former, we hardly even consider the latter.

So what does it look like to walk humbly, to just serve and honor others in short term missions? Three little words will go a long way here. Listen. Submit. Acknowledge.

Unfortunately, we often come into short term missions with our own idea of how things ought to go. We know what we want to do, what we want to bring, how long we will be there, how many people will come and the like. That can make it very hard to accommodate within a ministry in the host country. Listen to the missions contact whether that be a national pastor or a missionary. If they say they need six people, don’t send fifteen. If they ask you to bring certain supplies for them, don’t waste all your space on personal items or things that are unnecessary. If you tell them that you want to bring a team of twenty people for ten days and they tell you that what they really need is two people for the whole summer, suck it up and see how you can help. Very likely, they may be more in need of prayers and money than a team of people at all.

The second part of this is to submit. The overseas ministry is the spiritual authority in this situation. Make sure that they know you’re behind them, regardless of whether or not you get to do exactly what you want. Too often, I feel, ministries are forced to take on a team or some service just because its better than nothing. They don’t feel secure in the relationship enough to say what they actually need, because they don’t want to miss out on the partnership altogether if the team decides to go in another direction upon hearing the ministry’s requests. This would be especially true for national church leaders that are in hopes of American partners.

The third part is really the attitude of the heart in submission, and that’s to acknowledge. The overseas ministry knows better than you and the team. What you think is a really good idea, might in fact be a really bad idea. Don’t be discouraged by that, but just recognize that God put this overseas ministry in your life to turn your compassionate heart into an effective expression of God’s kingdom. Acknowledge that they know best and submit.

So many of our missteps would be cured if we would just listen, submit and acknowledge the overseas ministries that we seek to partner with. In my estimation, this approach enhances our follow-up, our relationship with the local church/ministries and helps us become more culturally sensitive. It will also help us refrain from making poor judgments or expressing false perceptions. A person walking in humility will recognize that they don’t know a ton about the culture after only a short time and will hence hold their tongue from broad generalizations and rash statements.

BE WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IS BEST, EVEN IF THAT’S CANCELLING THE TRIP
I would be remiss to not take this all the way to its potential furthest extent. I’m not saying that short term trips ought to stop. I am not saying that. They can, if done properly, be a part of global missions. What I am saying is that some teams are better not sent and that could be a team being sent from your area.

What we ought to be after is growing spiritually and advancing the Kingdom. If a particular short term team or trip isn’t going to do that very well, it’d probably be better to stay home, donate that money to a worthwhile cause and pray for the nations. Over the last few days, you’ve read about different reasons that this might be the best option.

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The elements that I’ve discussed in this blog are not either-or, but both-and. Its not enough to go for an internship, if you aren’t willing to give and pray beyond that when you return to the states. Its not enough to just cancel the trip, if you aren’t going to focus on local ministries while supporting global ministries with prayer and finances. The fact is that the Lord has endowed Americans with prayer, intellect and financial prowess to play an important role in His cause for every nation. Every Christian is called to fulfill the Great Commission both locally and abroad in one way or another. I invite and encourage you to play your part.

Like I said from the start of this series, I’m just a small voice in a sea of meaningful people talking about this important subject. Though this series is over, I encourage you to read more and more importantly, act. Your church does missions, both globally and locally. Be a part of that and make an impact for Christ and His Kingdom.

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For more on the subject of Short Term Missions check out this recent series of articles by Darren Carlson on The Gospel Coalition:
1. Celebrating The Short Term Missions Boom
2. Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Missions Trip
3. Toward Better Short-Term Missions

I also highly recommend a couple books that I’ve enjoyed and learned from:
When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett is incredibly informative and thorough. This is a must read for those that are outreach minded (which all Christians ought to be). Read this book, you’ll learn so much.

Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan has been a widely circulated book that sheds light on missions in Asia, but can be applied to some degree to other majority world countries. The thing that I like about this is his perspective as someone from India and how that has translated to the way that he runs his organization. His views on money are to be carefully considered by American church goers.

Examining Short Term Missions – Part 1

Five years ago, I went to Poland. I raised nearly $3,000 from various friends, family and churches then boarded a plane with a group of students from my school. We spent 12 days out of the states and taught English while working towards some semblance of evangelism. A few Poles got saved and I figured that this introduction into global missions went about as good as they come.

Me and my Polish English Class. Zbyszek, Halina, Zgregorz and the translator Dan (who could have taught the class himself).

In the midst of what I considered to be a unique-to-college experience, I didn’t realize that I was a part of something much bigger happening in the American church at large. A multi-billion dollar venture into a different take at global outreach, something on the short-term scale.

In my own thoughts and writing on short-term missions, I have felt as though, I must temper what I say, because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Perhaps, you or someone close to you has been in short term missions and really enjoyed it or really felt God in that time. I praise God for that and let me start by saying that I myself have been on multiple short term missions which have played a part in my walk with God to one degree or another. My purpose isn’t to tear down what God’s done in your life, nor belittle it, but rather to add to a dialogue that gets us to more effective, Kingdom-based ministry. Above all, I know that’s what we as followers of Christ want.

In a post that seems to have been in the making for a while, I decided to break it up into three parts. In this blog and tomorrow‘s blog, I’ll offer some critiques of the current way of things. The purpose of this is not cynicism (so forgive me if it comes off as such), but rather to point out some things that can be detrimental to one’s spiritual health, for ourselves or, worse yet, for those that we went to serve. It may seem a little rough at times, but I ask you to stick with me, because I believe God has something for us. The third blog (that I’ll post on Monday) will be some ideas that I think could get us going in the right direction. There are people with more experience and more insight on this and I’ll suggest some later on, but this is my two cents. I write out of things I’ve read, but more out of my experience doing overseas missions, long-term and short-term.

Throughout these posts, I ask for your engagement. Disagree, agree, share your experiences in missions. Tell me what you think.

DISCIPLESHIP
In Jesus’ teaching and especially in His final address to His disciples, The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), He makes it abundantly clear that discipleship is THE way to change the world. It isn’t a facet of our spirituality, but rather the mode in which we actually become like Christ and love God. That is our main purpose in life. I’m sure that you would agree from your experience that discipleship is rooted in relationship and relationship happens over time.

Discipleship is about creating a lasting change and establishing an ongoing growth in the Spirit. The average short term trip focuses on a two week trip (if that). There might be a series of five or six pre-trip meetings and perhaps a reunion/debrief afterwards. The whole experience for the short-term missionaries may only be a small portion of their lives over a six month period of time. How much less would it impact those nationals that the Americans go to serve in that brief two week stint!

We like to think that we’ll stay in touch online or we’ll come back again next summer, but those rarely happen. Facebook messages and emails are quickly strained when wanting to talk with someone who speaks another language, has poor English and limited computer access (and don’t even get me started on substitute technological spirituality, because I don’t believe in it. Community is best served face to face.) Then, when the next summer rolls around we find that we want to go to another country instead or rather not go anywhere at all. If one does go back, he’ll probably find himself doing the same things he did the previous summer. Where’s the progress in that?

Furthermore, there is often a missing element of sacrifice on behalf of the short-termer in most cases. I am primarily referring to financial sacrifice. Let’s paint a typical picture of a short-term team. You plan six months in advance and begin fundraising. Most of your money comes through donations from friends, family and churches. So you get the time off work ahead of time, then travel overseas on someone else’s dime with a group of friends that you’ve really grown to like. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Is that a sacrifice of two weeks? I would say that is a pretty enjoyable two weeks. On a trip that would potentially cost two or three thousand, the individual pays much less, maybe nothing. Again, I’m speaking generally, there are of course instances that do require sacrifice and I don’t want to discredit that. Nonetheless, this must be a concern to be raised.

The last thing on discipleship is something that I’ll talk about more later in this series. We are often apt to send just about anyone. I was a part of a trip in 2006 through a big Orange County church where they sent several dozen high school students down to Mexico to build houses. I served as an adult leader though I myself didn’t have a real connection to the church. Many of the students that went weren’t a part of the youth group and clearly weren’t even believers. During the evenings, we would have worship and the majority of the students talked throughout the service acting as though they were at a bad concert.

You may be thinking to yourself, by the church offering school mandated community service hours to these students, that they make those unbelieving students part of the church’s mission field. To which I would say that that is a risky move considering that from that point on they are representatives of the church and hence Christianity to the Mexican community that we were serving. Not to mention, if the target of outreach is the neighbor down the street (which is so important), then evangelism is best offered in a cultural context that is actually relevant to them, their own.

I was emailing back and forth with Billy some months ago as we were in Tanzania. Billy is a staff member at one of our supporting churches and when Melissa and I gave him our thoughts on missions as they form their missions council, he articulated a very succinct analysis of the very thing that I’m talking about. “If the individuals who want to go on the trip don’t qualify for leadership in our church, then we simply won’t be interested in sending them. However if they are radicals disciples of Jesus with fruit on the tree here in Long Beach then it might be worth it to send them.” Agreed.

EFFECTIVENESS
The reason that we do missions is to inspire worship of Jesus in other people/cultures that don’t yet know about Him. I would like to propose that if there are methods of ours that are missing the target we ought to examine those and make adjustments or drop them altogether. Here are some of the pitfalls that I see that lower our effectiveness…

Cultural Insensitivity
There is a somewhat inevitable cultural insensitivity that happens in overseas missions. This happens at some level for short term teams as well as long-term missionaries. It’s a tough thing to get around and the only remedy is a gradual increase of cultural understanding which of course takes time to learn. The average two week team doesn’t have the time to learn the culture, appreciate it and act accordingly. For those short termers that make an attempt to learn some things they often learn second-hand from a long-term missionary that may or may not be off themselves.

When I was preparing to go to Tanzania for the first time in 2008 as a two week short-termer, we asked a missionary if tattoos were considered offensive, he said that they weren’t and we had nothing to worry about. I am the bearer of a tattoo on my right shoulder, a scripture from Isaiah 6:8. Well, after sometime talking to my good friend Eli, a Tanzanian pastor and co-laborer at TOA, I’ve learned that tattoos are indeed frowned upon. Having a tattoo is correlated with being a bad person, possibly involved in witchcraft. Tattoos are not Christian and Christian Tanzanians do not have them. Now, I won’t open the conversation of whether or not its on me to “open their minds.” That’s not my job. Before we ever get there, being culturally sensitive, not giving a reason for offense, and fostering a positive relationship with Tanzanian Christians (my partners) comes first. Therefore, my kids have never seen me in a tank top (nor do I were my earrings at TOA).

National Church Partnerships and Follow-Up
That last part that I mentioned about relationship with the national church is so important and often poorly done. Like it or not, white, western powers imperialized the third world – those countries that are often the focus of our missions. Tragically, a common attitude in missions is that we, as westerners, are still in charge. We come in with the best answers, top of the line resources and are placed on a pedestal, whether we asked for it or not. This then strains the relationship with local pastors and church leaders who are indeed far more knowledgeable and more effective in their own cultures. This isn’t to say that western missionaries don’t have valuable insight that they ought to speak into the cultures, that’s so important. But unfortunately, the nationals are often lost in the aggressive western style of leadership and they miss out on what God was wanting to do in that group. And when they miss, we all miss.

Another facet of poor relationship with the national leaders is that it makes follow-up all but impossible. Yes, that’s right, I said follow-up. Follow-up is so important in any ministry, not the least of which is global outreach. I’ll tell you that it is incredibly easy to get a lot of poor people to come forward to an altar call, especially one given by an American team. They do it often (I have even come up to three different altar calls myself, when I was younger. Getting “born again“ blew Nicodemus away, he‘d be totally thrown for a loop to find that I‘ve done it thrice). But what comes after that? Remember discipleship is the model, not conversion. Conversion is only a point in our sanctification, not the end all. It’s an amazing point to be sure, but its only the beginning of so much more.

How long does it take to become fully discipled by the Holy Spirit? An entire lifetime just to get to the next stage of our relationship with Him. How long does a short term team stay? Two or three weeks, maybe. The point is without follow-up, we aren’t making disciples. A good start is handing off follow-up to national churches, but are they fit to handle the hundreds of people that came to your crusade? Probably not. So what do you do then? Help them build a church or greater ministry? How is that funded? How do you partner with them in the ministry to see the flock is truly fed? Well, those questions are best answered in long-term partnerships at which point we realize that we’ve had to go entirely outside the short-term model.

Relief, Rehabilitation, Development
If you spend much time at all reading about outreach efforts in the majority world, you will quickly come upon the terms relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is coming to the emergency aid of people. You can think of natural disasters or the aftermath of a terrible dictator. Rehabilitation comes right after relief and has to do with partnering with the disaster victims to build their society back. Then comes development which is all about getting sustainable societal and individual growth over time. These terms are typically taken in the physical sense of how to generate sustainable living for those that we minister to. That is a huge part of it, but I think that it applies equally to the spirituality of those to whom we are ministering.

The vast majority of the majority world is in need of development. The vast majority of American church outreaches see their poverty and default to relief in countries that need physical and spiritual development.

If someone is in need of development, but receives relief, what does that create? Dependency. They don’t feel inclined to get up and work on their house, because they can wait for the next team of Americans to do it. They don’t need to pursue God or appreciate their national spiritual leaders, because they prefer when the American crusade comes through. Who can blame them? Hear this, its not about them being lazy. This is a learned activity. It is about us being lazy, because we haven’t put forth the time, sweat and tears to actually help them.

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A little heavy for day one. I’ve got a couple more things to talk about in regards to pitfalls with our current system. That’ll come tomorrow so check back on the blog then. Once we all suffer through that, we’ll turn the corner on Monday and look at some positive changes that are attainable and just steps away from where we are currently. Thanks for following along and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Here’s to building better missions and partnering for God’s Kingdom…

If you want to keep reading, here’s Part 2