I was in Zambia for ten days in January 2006. I led a team of three people from my Simi Valley, CA Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise. Our task was to develop relationships and scout out projects that we could help support financially. I didn’t know that this trip would so impact my life. We went to Africa, and we will never be the same.
I have never seen the level of poverty that I experienced there. I have seen rural poverty, but urban poverty has an angry and a hopeless spirit. We discovered the ravages of HIV/AIDS. Five thousand men and women and one thousand children die every day in sub-Sahara Africa: 6000 people a day, 180,000 every month. That is a staggering statistic, but it became more than a statistic for us while we were there. We saw children dying of AIDS, and families torn apart by AIDS. Africa haunts me.
More than the poverty and the despair, I saw a desperate hope. I saw people who went to the most difficult areas of Zambia and stayed and worked and blessed others. These people are the heroes. They work for no recognition. They simply work because it is the right thing.
Many who we saw working in Africa were not a part of faith communities. They were acting out of, I think, a hardwired, God-wired, part of humanity that knows that we are at our best (or theologically living out our imago Dei) when we are serving others. Someone once said that the church is the only organization on earth that exists for the sake of others. That sounds good, but my experience with North American churches is that there is too much self-absorption and a choosing to stay safe and comfortable. I saw Rotary at its very best in Africa. In Africa, I saw people who took risks, who stayed in the toughest of neighborhoods and blessed others.
Bono of U2 spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington a few months ago. He called attention to the poor and the vulnerable in our world. In that talk before President and Mrs. Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan, politicians and religious leaders he said:
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us, if we are with them.
In Zambia we saw poverty and disease and death. We also saw a desperate hope. We saw people who stay and work and bless. We went to Africa and we will never be the same. I have a new heart for Africa. And my world has been shaken. And I think that experience is making me a better servant in Jesus’ name as well.
This is a picture of the church at its best. We are to live out the incarnation (John 1:14, John 20:21). We go to the tough neighborhoods. We don’t wait for people to come to us. We go and dwell and stay living the representative life of Jesus. We go and we stay, and in those places we serve and we offer the gift of the gospel. And that just might shake some worlds.