Simply unthinkable

Simply unthinkable

I certainly never thought I would be spending the night tonight in our "retirement house". In fact, I didn't even plan to be here in Kising'a at all! According to the schedule, right now Emmanueli and I were supposed to be in the little village of Taweta hundreds of miles away in the Morogoro region and tomorrow we were supposed to participate in the grand opening of our latest new school. But three nights ago when Emmanueli and I were in the village of Bukimau, Godfrey called to say the mechanics had given up and neither Hewa nor Yatima were going to be drivable any time soon. The news put in jeopardy the trip Godfrey was supposed to be making with Jovinus, Ntula and Justin to our schools in the Rukwa region. Cancelling, or even delaying his trip, was simply unthinkable – he had hundreds of people, dozens of masons and carpenters, and three truckloads of supplies lined up in six different villages in a vast effort to try to make a giant leap forward so we can get our schools there registered and accredited in time to sign up our students to take the national exams. At first, the situation looked pretty hopeless – you can’t exactly rent a car here and when your mechanics have given up, there’s really not much else that can be done quickly. It only took a few minutes though for us all to arrive at a consensus on a rather bizarre solution -- to switch vehicles! Godfrey would drive Kobe, our tiny Toyota, to the little town of Nyololo and we would meet up with him there to switch vehicles. Then he and the guys would continue on with their trip with the all-weather, all-road vehicle with 4-wheel drive Emmanueli and I had been driving, and Emmanueli and I would continue on our trip with tiny Kobe visiting the schools where at least the roads were somewhat passable in this rainy season. The only glitch? Our trip to Morogoro was definitely not possible. The roads there would be a challenge even for the best of our vehicles and going there with Kobe (“The Turtle”) was laughable. And so Godfrey made a call to the village of Taweta and we postponed the opening of the school there for two weeks, and then he made a second call, rearranged our timetable slightly and moved up our trip to Kising’a. And so here we are!

They took me up the hill to the house that Justin had built as the retirement home for me and Susan.

It's a beautiful house.

It's your house Mzee, the house Justin built for you and Mama. They were a bit giddy – and I kind of felt like I imagine it feels to be taken by some realtor who earnestly wants you to like the house, showing off all of its nice features, helping you to imagine how you’ll make it into just the perfect home. Way back in 2006 we had joked about one day having a retirement home in Kising’a because Susan loved this little village so much. We had been so well received when we came -- I still remember Susan dancing with all of the old ladies in the village -- they put their Hehe bells around her ankles as well, and she danced and danced with them! And there is no question that it is breath-takingly beautiful in the hills that the village of Kising'a is located in. And we had indeed said, I remember us laughingly saying it, that when we got old and retired that we would come and live here. We would build a little house in this meadow amongst all of these towering trees. We were feeling giddy that day ourselves! And so here on the vast school land, nestled in a small meadow surrounded by towering Eucalyptus trees is the "little" house that they built for us. Susan would indeed love it -- it's beautiful! And if you wander a bit, through the trees you can see the school of Kising'a at the foot of the hill. It feels wonderful to just sit and listen to the wind rippling through the trees. All it needs are flower gardens everywhere and it would be simply perfect.

But a lot has changed since 2006.

Our thinking has crystallized, and we've truly decided that there will be no retirement for us. We never used to say that, that’s for sure! I remember when we quit our jobs in Washington DC in 1990 and we told ourselves that we'd return to America at 65 and leave whatever was going on to those who were younger! No growing old in Africa for us! We'd work hard up until the day we turned 65, and rather than slowly getting tired in Africa we'd leave before we got worn out. Even after we first got to Tanzania we continued to think that way for a while. But now we truly do think differently. With the work here firmly in the hands of what is clearly the quite capable leadership of all of our former students, we're are enjoying our role as advisors, doing this and doing that as they see fit. We have the real joy of watching it all flower and blossom and bloom as our students serve the Lord together and accomplish great things. In the roles we have, there's really no need ever to retire! We don’t have to think about one day “moving out of the way” for other leadership, because we “moved out of the way” at the very beginning. In that sense, we've retired long ago! And we like where we're living. Susan likes it so much she never wants to leave -- even getting her to go to town for a few days is difficult.

We have an intern arriving tomorrow and so I'm thinking about the things that I have to talk to her about. It's been such a conscious decision to choose to be "under" our former students and to watch them lead – they didn’t like that whole idea in the beginning and I still remember the day Godfrey protested strongly that never would he agree to it! But lowering ourselves and letting them run the programs has opened the door to so much happening! I'm glad that this intern who is coming is a Christian and that we’ll be able to talk both the “impossibleness” of the model and also about its “essentialness”. For a Christian it's not hard to see parallels in many of the teachings Jesus gave us. We all struggle with Jesus telling us that if you want to be a leader you have to be a servant. The whole idea of lowering and humbling oneself is hard for us. The big concepts about believing that the Spirit of God can work through all of His people, regardless of what their resumes look like, challenges our thinking. It’s all foolishness of course in any business model; garbage in fact! People derisively talk of those who lead from behind. Indeed the whole spiritual concepts of leadership are so hard that we hardly ever even see them modeled in the church and almost never in mission work. After all, we missionaries are essential, right? We run the programs. Without us, nothing can happen. We lead, and our African co-workers are always cast in the supporting roles in the theater of our projects.

And so, this whole idea of having our former students lead often seems foolish. Sometimes when I say that Godfrey and Emmanueli lead, people find themselves asking, so, well, so what then do you do? I am to the point where the question itself is funny. The assumption is that the only thing that I, as the missionary, could ever possibly do is to lead! In truth what I’ve come to see is that the greatest role I can possibly have is to follow, to follow well, and to cheer on and to support their leadership! After all, if I were doing the leading, no one would ever ask in bewilderment, “Well, if you’re leading, then what are Godfrey and Emmanueli doing?” For me what has become important is that I do what I am asked to do, putting my whole heart into it, working as best as I can. To some the entire concept seems foolish. Isn’t Africa in need? Doesn't it therefore need leaders to come from the outside to tell everyone here what to do?

Ephesians 4 clearly defines for me the role I need to play! My job is to not to do the work, but instead my job is to prepare others to do the work. There's a big difference. My role is to prepare others to do the work. And therein lies the essentialness of this whole concept. And the results are clear -- 21 schools open, a 22nd one about to be born, 9 more "in the womb" and on the way. While other organizations, Christian and non, might look at it and want to imitate it, they are attracted by the results but bewildered by the process. Asking all those who serve as missionary teachers to lower themselves, to purposefully aim to melt into the background, to earnestly seek to see our students take off in leadership – how truly essential it is!

It definitely removes for me and Susan the whole reason we used to see for retirement. Instead we will just continue on, doing what we are asked to do. When they see we slow down, those in leadership will shift what they ask of us. The truth is that Susan loves the little village where we live. She has all of her friends here. And so the house is here in Kising’a, and I'm enjoying spending the night here, but I suspect it will never be a retirement home. The hills around our home at Madisi aren’t quite as lovely as those at Kising’a, but they are still tremendously lovely. We have our beautiful forest behind our house at Madisi. All of the flowers around our home have been planted by our students. The trees at Madisi aren't quite as towering, but the pines do whisper. And behind our house at Madisi, there's a "secret place" where Susan and I can go sit, and look out over a small flower garden down into the huge forest that has been there for centuries. It's a protected forest now, coming right up to our back door. The monkeys run through it and we get to enjoy it. It reminds us of how Congo used to look and we’re perfectly willing to grow old here. Susan used to serve with the Salvation Army -- those folks never talked about retirement – instead you got promoted to glory -- and so I guess we'll just work here quietly up until we get promoted. We'll watch our students lead. We’ll cheer them on. We’ll serve where they want us to serve, and we'll keep on forming more leaders and training more young people. We will inspire them, share the Gospel with them, and invite them to join us in God’s work.

With every decision Godfrey makes, every success that Justin creates, when I see the transformations that George and Sunday and Ibrahim have pulled off in a few short months, I see the advantage of having invested a little bit of myself into them and then encouraging them to fly. I look at Msafiri very competently leading a huge HIV/AIDS Treatment Center as he inspires our teachers and our students to serve those in need, and when I see him, I see how wonderful things can become if we prepare students and help open the doors to opportunities for them to be used by God to do the impossible. All these schools being built throughout the country, the college coming into being, the whole wonderful enterprise moving forward – it’s a joy watching God work through it all!

The question that I'm hoping to discuss with our intern is what would have happened had we chosen to lead the way the books all talk about leadership. I'd have a school, maybe two (but I'm not even sure of that) and I'd be preparing and grooming a successor to hand things over to when I'd be ready for retirement 14 years from now. And people would call me a good leader if I passed the baton well to the successor I had well groomed. And I’d be a bad leader if my school went downhill after I retired. And the result would be that rather than having 7000 kids enrolled today, we'd have 300. And instead of having 20,000 kids enrolled in 2025, we'd have 300. And instead of having 50,000 kids enrolled in 2045, we'd still have 300. We would still of course see some lives transformed – Christian education is still Christian education and where the Gospel is proclaimed things will indeed happen – but with a single school we would never have the potential of seeing the Gospel transform the lives of whole villages and whole regions. We would never have the chance of seeing tens of thousands of students going forth convinced that God would have them make a difference in the lives of their families and their villages and their whole country. Settling for a single school seems just, well, simply unthinkable when we see before us even a glimpse of the incredible wonderful future that God is orchestrating in the lives of our students!

The nice thing is that I'm sure they'll still find good things for me and for Susan to do all the way up until the day when we finally get those big promotions. Until then we'll keep on following. And we’ll keep on inspiring more and more of our students to lead. They will uncover more and more ways to serve. They will dream bigger and bigger dreams. We're never going to need that little house they built for us here in Kising'a. It's been nice to visit it though, and to reflect on the fact that we’re never going to need it.