I have a new name

September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Emma has given me a new name!

I’m sure it doesn’t rank up there with some of the best known name changes in history, like when Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (John 1:42). But I sort of like it.

In case you have forgotten, Emma is Joe and Paulette’s three-year-old middle daughter. She is as precocious and precious a three-year-old as I have ever seen. She seems to always look at me out of the corner of her big brown eyes with a sly “I know I’ve got you right where I want you” smile on her beaming little face. On Sunday in church, you will often find her sleeping in my lap. She has now “baptized” me twice while doing this.

Within a month of my arrival in Senegal, Emma and Mavis, her four-year-older sister, started calling me Peppe. Paulette explained to me that “Peppe” was Walof for grandfather. Of course, that pleased me greatly. Whenever I come walking in their front door, the girls come running to me with arms outstretched yelling, “Peppe! Peppe!” just like Carly and Addie Ruth, my adorable seven and five-year-old granddaughters, do in the United States, except they yell “Papa! Papa!” It has always been a nice taste of home.

But Emma apparently felt the need to distinguish me from her African grandfathers, whom she seldom sees, for she has started calling me “Peppe Toobob.” Toobob, you see, is the Walof word for “white man.” They use it here as a term of endearment and affection; at least, I am told that is how they use it! Often, when I am out on a street or in a village, I can hear the children whispering “Toobob! Toobob!” when I walk by. They are usually smiling, but will go running behind a tree or an older sibling if I look at them.

As you all know, grandparents are happy with whatever name the grandchildren tag them with. But I really like Emma’s name for me: Grandfather White Man!

Can you top that?


A week of firsts in Senegal

September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

History was made last week when United Methodists in Senegal hosted the West Africa Central Conference United Methodist Young Women’s Network.  Delegates from six West African countries attended the four day gathering held in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, September 2-5.

This was the first time that the young women of the four West African annual conferences and the two General Board of Global Ministries mission initiatives had gathered for an international event.  A total of forty young women attended from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroun, as well as the host country of Senegal.  They were joined by the West Africa Youth and Young Adult Executive Team, planning team members from Senegal, and leadership from the Women’s Division of GBGM led by Mrs. Finda QUIWA, the Women’s Division Regional Missionary for Youth and Young Adults for Sub-Sahara Africa.

The week was also historic in that this was the first time for the United Methodist Church in Senegal to host a Central Conference event.

Organized under the theme of Isaiah 1:18a, “Come, now let us reason together,” the gathering was officially opened on Thursday morning by Rev. Paul D. Messer, GBGM missionary, and Country Director for United Methodist ministries in Senegal, who was substituting for Bishop John K. Yambassu, Episcopal leader of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, who was unable to arrive until Friday morning because of travel difficulties.  Rev. Messer challenged the delegates to make their time together one of discussion, careful listening, and respectful argument as they addressed issues of HIV/AIDS, teenage and young adult pregnancy, Christian decision making, and the future shape of ministry with young women ages 18-30 in the West Africa Central Conference.

Delegates to the gathering say that the highlight of the week was getting to meet the young women from other countries and hearing what the United Methodist Church is doing in young women’s ministries in other countries.  “It was exciting to see that people of different backgrounds and cultures can work together in the name of Jesus Christ,” said Greta AKO of Cameroun.  “We have learned much to help us organize and educate young women in Cameroun on issues that are important to our health and faith. We are not going back empty!”

The Gathering concluded on Sunday with a worship service at the Methodist Protestant Church of Gran Yoff, when was founded and is supported by the Korean Methodist Church.  Delegates and guests to the conference, along with members of the Nord Foire and Gran Yoff United Methodist churches, joined the members of the Korean church and other guests in overflowing the sanctuary.  This service was also historic in that it was the first time that the two Methodist denominations in Senegal have worshipped together on a Sunday morning.

“We are very grateful to our Korean Methodist brothers and sisters for having allowed us to worship with them in their sanctuary today,” said Rev. Joseph Bleck, Superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Senegal.  “It is wonderful to have all of these followers of Jesus Christ and John Wesley in Senegal and West Africa together under one roof this morning.  It is a great day for Methodists in Senegal!”

Mr. Pape Gning, Youth Coordinator for the United Methodist Church in Senegal, led the local planning efforts along with four other young adult leaders of the GBGM Mission Initiative in Senegal.  This group spent many hours over the last year planning for this historic gathering.

“I think it was very important for our church in Senegal to take this step,” said Mr. Gning, himself a former Muslim who came to Christ ten years ago through the ministry of the United Methodist Church.  “It is a step toward our becoming full partners in ministry with our brothers and sisters of the West Africa Central Conference.”

When asked what the thought was the significance of the week for Senegalese Methodists, Superintendent Bleck commented, “For our church members in Senegal to see so many United Methodists from countries that have had United Methodist churches for many years is a great blessing to our young church.  We still have much to learn, but this was a big step forward for us.”

Delegates began returning to their home countries on Monday with promises to see each other again at the 2011 Young Women’s Gathering in either Sierra Leone or Liberia.

From: This missionary in Senegal…To: Rev. Terry Jones

September 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

O.K., I’ve never considered myself the smartest guy in the world and I’m sure that none of you ever thought I was either.  I’ve always stayed pretty quiet on controversial issues for fear of showing my ignorance and being made to look even more foolish than people already thought I was.  But as 9-11 approaches, and the Rev. Terry Jones is promising to lead his supposed-Christian congregation in Florida in a burning of the Quran, I’m having a hard time keeping quiet.

You see, I have lived in Senegal, a 95% Muslim country, for the last twenty months.

Never once have I felt threatened because I am a Christian.  Never once have I thought I was being mistreated because I am a Christian.  Often I go out on the streets of my country wearing a clergy collar.  Never once has anyone looked at me with anger or hatred.

Often when I come home from work in the late afternoon, Mon, the young Muslim man who manages the apartments where I live, will be kneeling on his prayer mat saying one of his five daily Muslim prayers.  I believe he would give his life to protect me, and I would give him the last dollar in my pocket, as long as I knew I could go to the bank and get some more.

There is much I don’t know about the Islamic faith.  I’ve tried to read the Quran and it is even harder than the King James Version of the Old Testament.  During Ramadan, when Muslims are fasting from sunup to sundown with a devotion I really haven’t seen much among Christians, and which I certainly do not exemplify myself, I’ve tried to read some on the history of Islam.  All of the names of the early Islamic leaders, and the countries and cities where they lived, are so foreign to me that I have great difficulty keeping it straight in my head.

What I do understand is that the roots of Islam are peaceful and noble.  I am afraid that it is the followers of Mohammed who have messed things up, just as some of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have misunderstood and misinterpreted his teachings.

One of the things I have learned since arriving in Senegal is that people here, whether they are Christian or Muslim, love their children just as we in the United States do.  When I see the faces of grieving people in Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or any other country – people who have lost spouses, parents, children, homes, their way of life – I realize that all of us are much more alike in this world than we are different.

I am convinced that the problems of getting along in this world are not due to religion, but due to religious fundamentalists; people who know the teachings of their religion, but do not understand the heart and spirit of their faith.  I haven’t done any polls, but I am convinced that 99% of the people on this planet we all call home just want to get along and live in peace; to see their children grow to be adults and accomplish more in life than they were able to accomplish.  To see their children and grandchildren live life without fear of bombs, hunger, and hate.

And religious fundamentalists, who have quit listening to reason and believe that they alone are the protectors of true faith, cloak themselves in the cross as well as the Quran.

I may not have ever considered myself the shiniest apple on the tree, but I have always considered myself a loyal American.  I bleed red, white, and blue; put my hand over my heart and sing when the National Anthem is played; cry when American soldiers come home in body bags.  But it seems to me in this day that the freedom of religion that I was taught was the primary reason that those first pilgrims left family and home, only applies if it is freedom to express the Christian faith.  Anything else is a wrong, and a threat.  This is the freedom that so many have died to protect?

You and I live in a world that is getting smaller every day.  If we are going to get along, and not spend all of the world’s resources in hating and killing one another, then it is time for the 99% of us who want to live in peace to lift our voices against the hatred of fundamentalism in the name of tolerance and love.

Yes, there will be those who call us stupid, misguided, and naive.

But somewhere I seem to remember a man who has been pretty important in my life saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

I’ll take that!

Little friend coming to America

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of my most special friends in Senegal is on his way to a new life in the United States.

Seven-year-old Guerchom Semana, along with his parents and two siblings, left Senegal early this morning headed for Houston, Texas, as part of a United Nations sponsored resettlement program for refugees. His parents, Alexis and Landrada, are Rwandan refugees who came to Senegal almost ten years ago. Landrada witnessed her parents and other family members killed in the civil turmoil of that country at the turn of the century. Alex’s brother, who was a successful businessman, was imprisoned and then sent to his rural home village, forbidden to continue his business.

Guerchom was one of the first children to catch my eye, and my heart, in Senegal. One of the reasons is that he has severe birth defects that make him stand out in a crowd. I don’t know a way to describe it other than his head is too large for his body, and he is very “bug-eyed,” as you can see from his picture. He was also born with webbed feet and hands. Several surgeries, made possible by the generosity of United Methodist mission teams from the US, have left him with three stubby fingers and a thumb on each hand. I have never seen his toes.

But what makes Guerchom really stand out is that he is very friendly and outgoing, in some ways like Down syndrome children I have know through the years. Soon after my arrival, he began to break into a big smile whenever he would see me on Sunday mornings and would give me a “high five.” Then he started following me to my car wanting to go home with me. I will never forget giving him a ride one day and his happiness in getting to ride in my car. Last night, when I went to visit the family and say good-bye, he sat in my lap the entire time.

There is much that I do not know about this family and the resettlement program due to the language barriers. I know that it is a United Nations project, and there were about 30 other people going on the plane with them. I know that they are being placed in Houston, Texas, where a home awaits them. Alex, who has supported his family with photography in Senegal, does not know what kind of work he will do in the US. He was recently diagnosed with Sickle Cell Anemia, so I am very pleased he will now have the aid of our US health care. Landrada recently completed nursing school, once again with the help of the church, including a friend in Alabama, who paid her last year’s tuition. I assume she will find work as a nurse or nurse’s aide.

What I do know is that they are a wonderful family and they have been strong leaders in the United Methodist Church in Senegal. One of their main concerns is finding a United Methodist Church home in Houston. I want to see the United Methodist Church play a vital role in helping them have a successful new life in Texas.

So, if you are in Houston, or have family or friends in the area, contact them and ask if they would be willing to help a great family have a new start in life. I guarantee they will be blessed.

All you have to do is say, “I know Pastor Paul!” and I know you will get a big smile and hug from a very special little boy.

Chrystal (10), Alexis, Landrada, Marty (5), Guerchom (7)

August is vacation month in Senegal

August 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Growing up in a textile area of the Southeast, the week of July 4th was always considered “Vacation Week.”  Almost the whole town would close down and head to the beach, or the mountains if you didn’t care for the sun and sand.

In Senegal, August seems to be “Vacation Month.”  That’s right; everyone here who actually has a paying job is entitled to a month of paid vacation each year.  In the hard daily life of Senegal, a month’s vacation is much anticipated, appreciated, and needed.

Since August is so hot, and little gets done because of the power outages, it seems like most people take their vacation this month.  Some will return to home villages to visit with family and friends.  Others will use it as an opportunity to rest and catch up with work at home.

This year, Pastor Joe, our Mission Superintendent, decided we would officially close the mission offices during August.  By doing this we would not have to hire a substitute secretary or someone to clean the building, which would save us some money.  And, he hoped, it might actually give him some time off, which remains to be seen since he has been at the office every day so far this week.  Yep, preachers even have a hard time getting time off in Senegal, at least hard working ones like Joe.

So what am I doing during August?

First, I’m trying to stay cool!  If the electricity is on at the apartment and the fans are running, I’m just staying there and doing my work.  If the apartment has no electricity/fans, then I head to the office.  If there is no electricity there, at least I can usually find a shady area with a slight breeze blowing.  And if there is no breeze, and there is work that must get done, I’m telling folks that we have to turn on the generator the Gran Yoff and Nord Foire churches bought this spring; that I will find the money for the gasoline somewhere.

So, officially I am working during August, though I have to confess at a pretty leisurely pace.  I’m working on grant proposal to try to find some much needed funding of the Women’s Skill Center, the Prison Ministry, and our Youth and Young Adult program.  I’ve been working for months on getting e-mail addresses for all our supporting churches, and must begin to get in touch with them this month.  I will be returning to Alabama for about six weeks in mid-October – Pastor Joe is going to be with me for ten days! – and I’ve started scheduling churches and groups to visit.  And we are hosting a West African Young Women’s Gathering here in Senegal the first week in September, and the youth/young adult coordinator, who is also working this month, and I have lots to do to be ready.

So, I’m wondering, when do I get my vacation?  Maybe it really is like Tillman Sudduth, my first boss, always said, “No rest for the weary and the righteous don’t need it.”

Senegal Mission holds annual meeting

August 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bishop Benjamin Boni listens to reports of pastors

Senegal Mission Holds Annual Meeting The Senegal Mission Initiative of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) held its Annual Meeting July 21-25.  Just as in the US, Annual Meeting is where reports of the various ministries of the mission are presented and official business is conducted.

Bishop Benjamin BONI, the resident bishop of Cote D’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) Annual Conference, is the bishop responsible for oversight of the Senegal Mission, and was with us from Wednesday thru Sunday to give guidance to our work and preside at the Annual Meeting on Saturday.  Bishop BONI is a short man, barely 5’4”, with a big smile and an even bigger heart.  He loves to sing and began and ended each of our meetings with a hymn, keeping time to the songs by tapping his fingers on the table.  I am told he is the most respected of the African bishops, and led the Methodist Church of Cote D’Ivoire, an autonomous church birthed by British Methodists, to become part of the United Methodist family in 2004.

Also with us for the week was Dr. Caroline Njuki, Assistant General Secretary for Mission Relations with BGGM.  Dr. Njuki is the new supervisor of the Senegal Mission for GBGM, having replaced Rev. Patrick Friday due to organizational restructuring at GBGM.  She is a veteran of ten years with GBGM, having served in a variety of positions, and now oversees and coordinates the work of thirty-nine missionaries in Africa.  While Caroline is new to working with mission initiatives, the wisdom she has gained over the years in program areas of GBGM, and her knowledge of potential funding sources, is going to be of great benefit to the mission.  We will continue to have the benefit of Patrick Friday’s vast experience in mission initiatives in his new position with GBGM, where his focus is on raising funds for the mission initiatives.

An important part of our work of the week was the interviewing of the seven pastors, and two local pastor candidates, appointed to the sixteen United Methodist churches in Senegal.  Since our pastors are licensed and ordained through the Cote D’Ivoire Annual Conference, two members of their Board of Ordained Ministry were with us for these interviews and to serve as part of our “Cabinet” for the week, along with Bishop BONI, Dr. Njuki, Superintendent Joseph BLECK, and myself.  Dr. Nathaniel OHOUO, Chair of the Cote D’Ivoire Board of Ministry, and Rev. Phillipe ADJOBI, a District Superintendent in the Conference who serves as our official secretary, contributed great wisdom to our work of the week.

In most ways, supervising pastors here is much the same as in the United States.  Some are doing excellent, energetic work; others seem to be very steady, working well with their members.  One or two seem to be going through the motions, more interested in collecting a pay check than working hard for the Kingdom of God.  One pastor, who has not received a new member in two years, was given a “Letter of Warning,” giving him six months to show improvement in his work or risk being discontinued as a United Methodist pastor.  Yes, in many ways I felt like I was back at the table of the North Alabama Cabinet dealing with the frustration of historically ineffective pastors.

The highlight of the week for me came on Friday morning when we met with those interested in receiving training as Lay Pastors in our churches.  Almost twenty people, male and female, young and middle-aged, responded to this invitation to be part of the second generation of pastoral leadership in the UMC of Senegal.  They will embark on a four-year Course of Study that will qualify them to become licensed local pastors eligible for appointment in the mission.  We have attempted to be very clear to these men and women that our goal is for them to be bi-vocational, and they will not receive salaries from the mission.  This is a new model for the church in Senegal, but one very necessary if we are to plant churches on a limited budget.  It is going to be very interesting to see if we can make it work since most of these people do not have jobs and would certainly like to receive salaries from the mission.

Bishop BONI officially called the Annual Meeting “To Order” at 10:26 am on Saturday morning, a bit later than the announced 10 am starting time, but not too bad for Africa.  I would estimate that about 70 persons were present for the day. For the most part, the work was routine: prayers, singing, long reports, challenges and celebrations of the past year, and dreams and plans for the future.  We concluded our work around 6:20 with the reading of the pastoral appointments by the Bishop.  All appointments remained the same for the coming year.

The total membership of the United Methodist Church in Senegal at the close of 2009 was 960.  The five churches of the Thiadiaye Circuit continue to lead our membership statistics with a total of 401 members.  Five persons were baptized in Thiadiaye this year.  The thing that is so interesting to me about this is that Thiadiaye is in the Serere tribal region, which has been more open to Christianity than the Wolof speaking regions.  These figures certainly testify to this truth.

Other statistical highlights of the year were twenty-three total baptisms and confirmations, with the Nord Foire Church leading the way with seven baptisms and six confirmations.  Total financial contributions to the churches by members were nearly $22,000, of which I was very proud.

It is hard for me to judge the tone and success of Annual Meeting, since I miss so much in translation and am not able to have those one-on-one conversations with folks that reveal so much.  But both Bishop BONI and Superintendent BLECK seemed to be pleased and thought we had a good conference.  Bishop BONI was especially complementary of the spirit of cooperation and respect he sees among the leadership of the mission.

And the best part of Annual Meeting for me?  It is over for another year!

Senegal village life

April 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

 There are several small villages near where we visited, and the people had been informed we were coming to deliver health care.  This village was located approximately three miles from a small town and 10-15 miles from a medium-size town. We had to walk about a city block from where we were sleeping to the make-shift open-air clinic that had been set up for us.  Along the way we passed the two-room school made from millet stalks and tin.

 The clinic was near a crossroads of sandy trails that are roads in this semi-desert area.  I could see several compounds from the clinic area and would often think an automobile, horse or donkey drawn cart heading in our direction was bringing people to the clinic, when they would actually be headed to another compound. One day I saw two camels in the distance and was disappointed when I discovered these huge beasts of burden weren’t coming near us.  Another day we all scattered as two donkeys chased each other into the clinic area.  Goats were frequent visitors to the clinic and wandered throughout all the village compounds.

We arrived at our destination at dusk on Monday night.  Thankfully, several of our volunteers had brought lanterns because, even though there were poles and wires for electricity nearby, it was not hooked up.  I’m sure that is another story.

Discovering that the village leader, who had organized the visit, and his ‘any day now’ pregnant wife had given up their bedroom for the ladies of the Wellness Team, reminded me again of why the Senegalese are known for their hospitality.  Their bed and a foam mattress on the floor provided sleeping space for the four ladies.  Two of the men slept next door, three slept in the van, and two were outside.  Due to the heat, I slept outside one night and was able to experience how cold it gets in this semi-desert area at night.

Dinner time for the Senegalese is usually 9 or 10 PM, so this means cooking in the kitchen hut in the dark for the village ladies.  A little meat, usually with several bones, fat, and a few portions of vegetables in a sauce over lots of rice, is the usual lunch and dinner. It is served on a large round platter on the floor where five or six people eat from the common platter. A tablespoon for eating was provided for us, but the villagers always use their right hand.  Fluids, usually water, are served after the meal.  Long baguettes of bread with chocolate spread, butter, or cheese spread (One Wellness Team volunteer used all three!) is breakfast every day.  The instant Nescafe coffee, (Yes, your parent’s Nescafe!) is served with breakfast, but I got the water boiling early so I could have my first cup before breakfast, as is my habit at home.  This was one of the few habits from home I was able to keep.

Now for the other essentials.

Picture a small, free standing concrete building with two tin doors side by side and you get an idea of the bath room and latrine facility.  The latrine is a ceramic square with a designated place to put you feet and standing up is the only option.  Sorry ladies!  Bring your own toilet paper or wash with water from a kettle provided is how the system works.  I was glad the odor was controlled compared to many villages I’ve visited.  The bathing section is partitioned off by a concrete wall and had a drain, shelf for soap and a two-gallon bucket for bath water.  Play like you’re washing off at your bathroom sink and you’ll forget you are rinsing with the same small amount of water you are bathing in.

When I made the short trip to the compound for a “potty” break, I would see a grandmother sitting under a large tree on a wood and twig box-like seat that also serves as a bed at night if needed.  She would have seven or eight preschoolers sitting or playing by the bed.  Once, I noticed a switch in her hand and all the little ones lined up on the bed.  

By the morning break-time, the older children had already made the short walk to school and were involved in studies.  Mothers and girls were doing chores such as washing and hanging laundry, cooking lunch, or sweeping yesterday’s trash from the sand yard.  Adolescent girls were helping with chores because, after a girl gets older, she may quit school since her future job of childrearing and homemaking doesn’t require education above whatever grade the father decides it doesn’t.  On one trip to the compound area I watched as a young boy of about fourteen brought 20-30 three gallon containers of water from the nearby well on a donkey drawn cart.

As I mentioned earlier, people in the village lead a tough life.  Jobs are mostly in the cities, so agriculture would be occupation for the majority of the men.  The men who have found a job in the city travel back to the village on the weekends.  The architect who had arranged for the Wellness Team to bring the mobile clinic to this area actually worked in his family started business in a nearby town and came home after the work week.  The older men of the village have positions of authority that involve governing the village, and/or sitting in the pleasant, open air, male only, community building, gossiping.  Children went to bed at age appropriate times often under the tree on the box like bed, later being moved inside the family hut when the evening cooled down.  Everyone else was in bed later than me and up before I heard the roosters perform their early morning crowing routine.

Village life might be small step above camping out without any hook ups and Senegalese villages are usually hotter than most US camping areas.  But in village life there is no going home after the camping.  This is your life day in and day out. 

I have complained plenty about my life in Dakar without air conditioning, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, etc.  But compared to life in the village, it is easy!