I didn't quote the words from Isaiah ...

I didn't quote the words from Isaiah ...

I don't sit in cafes very much. First of all, we don't have a lot of them here in Tanzania -- our mgahawas are more places to eat and go -- the food is cheap, a buck or two a plate, and you're not really paying for the atmosphere, and so you normally come in order to keep hunger at bay and you leave pretty much as quickly as you can, and Godfrey & Emmanueli and I do a lot of that when we're traveling. But today I'm in Iringa town -- not really by choice although I came here originally because we had important things to do and necessary meetings, but what started out as a minor car repair has turned into a three-day affair and I keep kicking myself that I only brought along a single change of clothes. All our real work is done, but we're at the mercy of our car mechanic friends. I'm less than useless when it comes to cars, broken or not, and so it just made sense for Godfrey and Emmaneuli to send me to Neema's to hang out. Me and my laptop and a huge pile of computer work that needs to get done.

I've been to Neema's before -- whenever Susan and I happen to be passing through Iringa, this is the place we like to come to. You can sit for hours on comfortable couches or you can choose to sit out on the porch and watch the world go by. All of the waiters are deaf so at every table are pencils and little note cards where you write down your food order. The rest of the staff all have various disabilities -- but the lady from England who started this place taught the cooks to make delicious and decidedly exotic food. They do have beans and rice on the menu, but why would anyone order that in a place like this? Not when you can order things like freshly made tomato soup, or vegetable lasagna, meat sambusas, or something called a bacon and avocado Panini that Susan seems to like and that reminds me somehow of our Washington DC days decades ago. And who cares if it takes them a long time to prepare such wonderful food, they have couches with real cushions and there is always a wide collection of people who show up at Neema's. Peace Corps volunteers. Government officials. Students from the universities in town who can get a cup of coffee and study for hours in the comfortable chairs. It was actually one of those students who interrupted me and got me to peer up from my computer.

He had heard of Vinton and he had heard of Village Schools and he was wondering if I were not by any chance Vinton of Village Schools. It made me chuckle. He sat down on the couch across from me and for a good two hours I forgot about the work I was supposed to do and he forgot about the exams he's supposed to be studying for. His questions seemed theoretical and philosophical at first and I enjoyed trying to figure out with him the ingredients of why the whole concept of Village Schools was working. Why will thousands of people work for months to make bricks for these schools when no one else can get them to make bricks for any of their development projects? Why indeed? These were the same kinds of probing questions I get on university campuses in America every time I speak. Why are the kids in our schools passing the national exams when we take all of the "unchosen kids"? [The government chooses the A students and sends them to boarding schools and we take all those who aren't chosen and who will otherwise never get to go to school -- the B, C, D, F students, those who have been out of school for years, the orphans, the kids with no shoes.] In truth it's hard to make any sense of it all. But there are plausible reasons for why this is happening year after year and I'm having fun discussing them with him. He's clearly bright, the subject interests him (he's studying Education at the university), and we're weaving from the theoretical to the tangible practical examples and dancing back to the theoretical. I'm enjoying myself thoroughly.
Somehow, I mentioned the new school we are building in the village of Kidugala and the incredible work that the people are doing there to build a massive new school that they want to open next month or the month after. But there's already a school in that village -- why would you choose to put a school so near one that has already been built? My answer came quickly. We didn't chose the village! Those people asked us to come, in fact the truth is that they were outrageously persistent, almost making if you will pests of themselves, in earnestly entreating us to come -- and they are the ones making the bricks and hauling the stones and working so hard -- they clearly want a school. They feel in their hearts that there is a need, and the need must be great, if you consider all of the work that they have been doing all of these months towards the goal of opening their school! But why? He was persistent. Is the other school that is already there a bad one? I told him I was certain it was not -- in fact I have every reason to believe that the education provided in that school is excellent. Then why are they doing all of this work, and why are you joining with them instead of just telling them to send their kids to the school that has already been built in their village? Because my friend, the school fees there are a million three hundred thousand shillings this year (that's over $800) and there's no one in that village who can afford to send their kid there to study -- that school is for the rich kids -- the school might be located "in" the village, but it's not "of" the village and it's not "for" the village -- and it's definitely not a school for the poor -- it's a school for the rich and it just happens to have been built for some reason long ago in their village.
Silence.

I know. I graduated from that school. Wow. Open mouth insert foot. Suddenly I felt like a heel. And I tried to apologize. No nothing to apologize for, you are absolutely right, it is a school for the rich, and it always bothered me even when I was there that no one cared that there were all of those hundreds of kids in that village and the neighboring villages who would never get to go to that school or to any school. A school had been brought right there to their village, right before their eyes, but the doors were forever to be closed to them. The rich would come from the cities and drop their kids off and pick them up at the end of the semester. The poor would stare at the building and know that education was oh so very near, but they could never enter in.
We talked then of the important things in life. It was no longer about theoretical questions out of a university classroom, we no longer had philosophical matters to ponder. He wanted to know why I even cared. I paused. My thoughts raced. I think Christians have to care. It is who we are. The lady who started Neema's a decade ago and provides employment for the deaf and the disabled is a wonderful Christian woman who couldn't just live in Iringa and go to church on Sunday and ignore those who were hurting and who had to use the creativity God had given to find a way to give those who are deaf and disabled and blind and hurting an opportunity to have dignity, to make a living for themselves and their families, to contribute and give to society, and no longer be the object of people's charity but the creators of wealth so that they could do good. It's got to be the same with us. How can I live here in a village, say I'm a Christian, and only worship God through song and study and not worship Him by caring about those who are poor and needy and want an education for their kids, a future, a hope, a chance? I didn't quote the words from Isaiah 58 but they rang over and again in my ears.
I was enriched by the conversation.

When I saw him again today (the car still isn't fixed and so I've been sent back here to work again), he told me he's already contacted the people back where he comes from and they would like us to come the first week in February. I live here in the city now; this is my home and this is my life. But if I can be the bridge that means that there is a school in the village of my father then I will have done something of value.
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My new friend has left the cafe now. And as I sit here writing to you all and thinking and pondering about all of this, I want to once again encourage anyone who wants to have a significant part in this work here to join with us in this new year by praying for open doors, in keeping with Paul's teachings in Colossians 4:3. I freely admit that I do not know how this works, nor do I know why God decided that this is the way He wanted things done, but I have enjoyed watching it happen in the way that it has for these past seven years. We now have 21 schools open with another 10 under construction and we've sent 117 missionary teachers to these villages to teach and love our students and share the Gospel with them. It only emboldens me to want to go to more and more villages, partner with people to build more and more schools, and send more and more missionaries. It all begins with the prayers of those who ask God to open more and more doors. Consider seriously joining us in this effort. In His service, Steve