After I took an African Literature course, I had a 19-year-old's arrogance to think I could be of use in Africa. I went to Paris, France, for language study in preparation for a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in Chad. But then war broke out.
I became acquainted with students at Foyer Grebel. This hostel for Africans studying in France was a ministry of Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. So instead of going to Chad, I worked at the hostel where I was humbled by these brilliant young men who spoke multiple languages. They succeeded under difficult conditions. I had the advantages of privilege as a White American. At the end of my assignment, my student friends encouraged me to go back to the United States and finish university, to get some skills before I presumed I had anything to offer in the African context.
The Foyer Grebel experience taught me the importance of being relevant in mission, the value of invitation from local partners, to recognize that God is already at work preparing people in whatever context a mission worker may enter, and that effective ministry is grounded in understanding the context in which one lives. These students came from many different situations. There were many commonalities in their stories, but there was not a "single narrative."
Following my time in Paris, I dedicated myself to studying and received degrees in philosophy, international development, a master's in divinity, and did research on new religious movements. While these studies helped to broaden my perspective, I remained focused on what I had to offer.
In July 1989, two months before heading to Liberia to begin an assignment with MBM, I participated in a conference on "Ministry in Partnership with African Independent Churches" held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). I presented a relatively modest paper about Mennonite objectives in Liberia.
After he listened to my paper, Charles Kudzerema, a pastor from Zimbabwe and a national leader in Zion Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, said he was already doing much of what we wanted to do in Liberia. Kudzerema acknowledged the benefit that I had received from my extensive education. He said that his passion for teaching and leadership training would be more fruitful if he were given similar opportunities.
Kudzerema took issue with mission agencies pouring all kinds of resources into the training of people from outside of Africa to work in Africa. He said, "Why not give the same opportunities to Africans?"
After a decade of awareness-raising that began with the Foyer Grebel students, I was "ripe" for Kudzerema's challenge. This epiphany helped to ground the work I've done for the past 30 years in listening to African partners and their desires for training.
His words constantly remind me that I needed to take a back seat so that African leaders can fulfill their God-given calling. As Mission Network's Africa director, I hear Kudzerema's question each time I make a decision. "Are you willing to put the same kind of investment into African leaders as your organization has put into your education?"