missionary predicament: purchasing musical instruments

image courtesy of synthtopia.com


The letter was addressed to “the Father and Mother of this house” (that’s Christie and I).  It was delivered to our gate while I was in town.  Christie received the letter and assured the messenger she’d pass it on to me.  [Despite being addressed to “Father AND Mother,” letters are meant to be read, and decisions made, by “Father” — and independent of “Mother.”]  When I got home I put the letter on the desk, saying I’d have a look another day; it was no doubt another request for moneys or funding.

[This post is one installment of a somewhat (okay, extremely) irregular feature of my blog called Missionary Predicaments.  Occasionally I attempt to explain some recent (or ongoing) dilemma having to do with being a missionary and development worker in Tanzania.  And then I ask what you think the proper Christian missionary response would be.  Then I do whatever you said.  Well… maybe not.  But I do welcome all advice — especially if you’re over 50 years old and have grey hair.  In the case of this particular “predicament,” I realize I’ve probably not given you enough background and culture to make a firm decision; rather I’ve simply asked some questions of the situation — which I intend to answer as best as I can in coming days.]


A couple of days passed, and I’d not yet reviewed the letter (we were busy trying to get work done before heading to Mwanza for Baylor to receive another vaccination).  The pastor of a local church “hodied” at our gate,* and I went out to receive him.  He asked if “mama” had given me his letter, and I answered in the affirmative, though I told him I’d not yet been able to read it.  I could tell he wanted to discuss the matter there at that time (which kind of defeats the purpose of writing a letter), but we had visitors.  So after he told me the letter was a request for funding to allow his church to buy several musical instruments, I told him I’d read the letter soon and get back to him.  He was not satisfied with that answer, but it is the answer I gave.  [Little did he know that the less time I was given to consider his request, the less likely I would be to grant it.]  The pastor walked away, expressing that he was looking forward to my answer (he was very optimistic, I might add).

Two or three days passed again, and we (and several others) ran out of water at our house.  The pastor visited our home again on that day (while Carson and I were in the middle of our 7-hour water-procuring party) and spoke with Christie.  He very indirectly and politely (as much as is possible) called my wife a liar when she told him she had indeed given me the letter.  He continued suggesting to her that it would be better if she would give me the request, so that I could consider it (and answer in the positive).  She continued telling him that I had already received the request and that it was sitting in a stack of papers to be reviewed on my desk.  Eventually, tired of trying to persuade Christie to ‘fess up to her wicked dealings, the pastor left, again to await my answer.

I have now answered the pastor in written form, but have not yet received his response to my response.  But I thought I’d share with you a bit of his letter, which was handwritten in English.  I have not altered it in any way:

“…we are requesting a great assistance from your family so as you can enable us to purchase Church’s music instrumental which will be used to preach the Gospel of the Lord.  By doing that from your heart God will bless you indeed.  For more vivid evidence, read MALACHI 3:10.  From this book of the Bible God promised to bless all people who will up raise his work from their money and properties.  We give thanks before and we are looking forward to be helped from your family.  Amen.”

This letter raises a lot of questions for me:

  • What does it mean to “preach the Gospel of the Lord,” and will musical instruments help in that process?
  • Should I have any say in how a local Tanzanian church spends their money?  What about how they spend my money?
  • If I disagree with how (and why) they spend their money, should I decline to help them?  Should I offer an explanation of my disagreement, or simply decline?
  • Does Malachi 3:10 really address me helping a local church by purchasing musical instruments?
  • Perhaps most importantly, what does this letter and the entire process of its delivery teach me about the beliefs and worldview of this local church (and probably others in the area)?

Any thoughts?


* Hodi = Swahili word that announces the presence of a visitor at a door or gate.  I’m guessing this practice developed over the knock because of the general lack of doors on which one could knock.  And a single “hodi” will not, under any circumstance, suffice.  The visitor is required to “hodi” constantly until the door is opened or (in some cases) someone from inside answers with “nakuja,” a familiar way of saying, “I’m coming.”  However, one must continue yelling “nakuja” until one has actually opened the door, lest the “hodi”ing begin again.  It seems the general rule is that there can be no time of quiet, however brief, between the arrival of a visitor and the actual opening of the door.  I’ve on several occasions thought about doing the same sort of thing while waiting for my food at a restaurant or while waiting to be helped at the hardware store — constantly repeating my order until I actually have the item in my hand.  It truly is sad that a word announcing a guest (something which is quite an honor in this context) can come to mean about the same thing as nails screeching on a chalkboard.


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35 Comments

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35 responses to “missionary predicament: purchasing musical instruments

  1. Assuming that you have some source of potential funds to donate to this pastor, under what terms are you entrusted with those funds? Would it be from personal salary or from some “missionary work” type of fund? Obviously the response would be different for each of those.

    To a certain extent, the question arises as to how well you know and trust this pastor, too.

    I would think some sort of explanation would be necessary, and might offer a teachable moment.

    All that said, I’m not a fan of paternal prosperity missionaries, and your donation could lead to being seen as a sugar daddy of sorts for other churches. Obviously, this would lead to a lot of hodies at your gate and quite possibly defeat much of what you are attempting to do. In other words, I see your job as more to help train and evangelize, rather than “prospering” the churches materially once they are established. I would decline the request on those grounds, but I’m not sure that the pastor would even slightly understand, so it leaves you with the inappropriate option of being slightly dishonest with him regarding your reasons.

    • The whole interaction is quite interesting, especially his presumption that Christie had not given you the letter. Somewhere I read that their are African cultures where it would be inappropriate for me to tell my friend “No” to a request, but I could tell him that my wife said, “No” and that would be acceptable (works easily for me personally since Debra is the accountant in our family and said money would come through her). That probably does not help, but I just find this fascinating.

      Make your best judgment. Explain it as well as you can and view the whole exchange as a “lens into the culture.” You are probably not going to get this one right. I look forward to hearing more on this one.

      • I’m reading African Friends and Money Matters right now, and what I’m reading there is certainly colouring my perception of the situation. What I’m reading there would have me believe that the pastor assumed you’d decide yes or no immediately upon hearing the request. The delay of your response would suggest that Christie was protecting you from the request.

        • great book. i should probably give it another read, now that i’ve been here a while (i read it my first two or three weeks in country).

          john, if you’re reading this comment, i highly recommend the above book to you. i think you’d enjoy it… and learn a great deal about money matters in africa in the process.

      • there is a general principle here that “no” is a hard/rude thing to say if it stands alone. but if there’s a reason given with it — an excuse, really (true or false) — then it’s acceptable.

        UPDATE ON EVENTS: i wrote the pastor a letter over email yesterday, because that’s how he asked me to be in contact with him that day at the gate. he came to my gate again today, having not yet read the letter, so we sat out on the front porch as i told him its contents… something along the lines of me being in country with an organization, and with specific work to accomplish. and that my budget wouldn’t allow me to buy his church instruments (which are quite expensive here) and still perform those tasks for which i’d come. he seemed to be very understanding, and we talked for 30 minutes more about my work here and about the church he’s helped to start in a certain part of town. he invited me to visit his church (and to teach) one of the next two sundays, and i asked him to eat lunch with me next week. i think overall it was a very good interaction, despite my feelings about it in the beginning.

    • great thoughts, bernard. thanks for sharing. any funds i give would be from my personal moneys. i had never met the pastor in any way until the day he came to my gate several days after the letter was delivered. there are already a lot of hodies at the gate, asking for money for personal needs, and i try to help most individuals. but this is the first from a church group — except for when christie and i stayed for a while in a house on a particular church’s property; they asked for help with a certain need, and we obliged.

  2. Good food for thought as always, and again I suspect this is an issue that I will eventually face. I’ve already faced versions of it. Here are some possible responses.

    -to “preach the Gospel of the Lord” is to declare or affirm the Resurrection and our deliverance from death. There are many ways to contextualize this message, and in some societies it is appropriate to declare important news through chant or song. Musical instruments– especially cymbals and drums– can give background rhythm that supports the chanter or the choir.

    There are probably other ways that instrumental music can be contextualized well in evangelistic work. There are also many ways for instrumental music to obfuscate or undermine the Gospel.

    – if you have an established role within a given community, then you have a say in how your community uses its own resources. Everyone else has a say, too. If your role is that of leadership or patronage, then your voice carries a weight similar to that of other community leaders. This being said, a gift freely given ought not bear additional burdens: if you give money away, then it is no longer your money.

    – I would try to make a decision based not on how the money will be spent, but rather on what kind of relationship I hope to establish with this congregation. If you hope to cultivate a long-term relationship with this community, then giving the requested gift will deepen that relationship. If you are not interested in cultivating a relationship, then withholding the requested gift will help you distance yourselves from them.

    If you would like to cultivate a relationship but cannot in good conscience support the purchase of musical instruments, then it would be appropriate to negotiate with the pastor and discern other ways that you might serve as a patron to the congregation.

    – The passage doesn’t seem to directly address the purchase of musical instruments. However, giving a gift to this congregation is one option as you consider the disbursement of your tithe. The passage applies at least to that extent.

    – I find it really interesting that the request was delivered as a letter rather than by person. Given my experiences so far, I would have expected the pastor to approach you in person and to emphasize the relationship rather than the way money would be spent.

    My instinct is to think that this pastor believed you would respond poorly to an African-style request, and so was trying to adapt to your culture– that he believed wazungu would respond more readily to a written request which specified how funds would be used. I’m inclined to interpret the Scripture reference as an added flourish, another attempt to accommodate your worldview.

    • lots of good stuff, james. i’m going to bullet point back my responses:

      – my feelings are that most of the instruments used in this area either muddle the gospel or become an attempt to force people to listen to it. i have to be honest and say that i don’t think these particular instruments have been contextualized well, and seem to lend themselves to creating divisions and positions of “honor.” also, i’m not really big on trying to share the gospel through attracting people to a building. probably more on all that in tomorrow’s post.

      – i prayed a lot during my prayer (and running) time this morning about other things i might could do to help this pastor and his church. most of those options required that i determine and dictate where and how my funds are spent. i don’t like that idea mostly because it’s not african. (as you’ve already mentioned) a donor here has no say in how money is spent; you give money away, and it’s no longer yours to decide how it’s spent. even if you give for a particular need such as musical instruments, if the church finds it has a need that arises before those instruments are bought (let’s say an outdoor restroom is needed), it is their prerogative to spend the money that way. this is SO incredibly different than in the states.

      – i have decided (as you can read above) not to give funds but to foster some level of relationship. i don’t know where that will go, and it may even end with me having an opportunity to give funds for another purpose? or this invitation to teach may be something that proves worthwhile.

      – i’ve been thinking and studying on tithes some lately. and i may disagree with you — but not about this one instance, more about the entire subject of tithes. for a different time and place, perhaps.

      – it seems to be the case that requests are often done here in letter or petition form, whether they be for tanzanians or wazungu. children go gate to gate with petition letters explaining their school fee situations and requesting money. [Those forms look just like “jumprope for heart” forms in grade school in the states, with a line for the donors name and address and money given (not that you would know about that, having grown up in kenya…).]

      • – I’m in full agreement re. musical instruments.

        – You may not have read the book in a while, but you’re still quoting African Friends and Money Matters almost verbatim.

        – It sounds like this is a fruitful beginning, and I look forward to hearing about where it goes.

        – I look forward to hearing about your study of tithing, and expect to learn from it.

        – As I think more about it, what you say about letters and petitions strikes a very familiar note.

        These “case studies” are very helpful for me to observe. I’m grateful that you’re writing them up, enjoy the opportunity to respond, and appreciate seeing how they work out for you. Thank you.

        • you’re more than welcome to learn from my many mistakes, james. though if jason miller (posted below) had a blog where he wrote all this kind of stuff down, neither you nor i would need to make these mistakes…

          and i’m sure the letters and petitions are an attempt to do things the “western” way, but i think it’s become the african city way of doing things. probably because the government and ngos used the letter method starting long ago. even out in the villages, they’ll write letters of request and such. just the other day i got a printed invitation to a wedding… and i was out a little ways.

  3. In my personal opinion, I would imagine that this is the type of request that one would need direction from the Holy Spirit in which to respond. Obviously, the church is in need of something, and the musical instruments may assist them in their ministering to the people of the area. However, that’s not to say that the only way God is going to bless that church by providing for them need is you giving them your money. Maybe telling him that it’s something you need to pray over before providing an answer.

    • thanks, expectancy. i do believe one can never go wrong with prayer. my prayer time this morning was largely about this one issue, though i had already decided not to purchase the instruments. that decision was an easy one, because i don’t have enough money to buy what he was asking for.

  4. Jason Miller

    Invite him in for tea, where you and your lying wife can serve him joyfully, and tell him no after investing in a relationship with him. No is a perfectly acceptable response, but no at the gate is not.

    Of course, this does mean he’ll write you more letters.

    You could also point out the houses of teammates and suggest that Calvin or Carson (not their lying wives, of course) are always interested in cases like this….

    Ahem.

    Problem-solving and team-building all rolled into one. That’s just a little of what I bring to the table.

    • thanks, jason. i should’ve asked you for advice before i responded. i didn’t do the things you said in this order, but we kind of did / are doing them now…?

      i’ve thought many times about giving calvin and carson’s phone numbers out in town when i’m asked for a job and my digits.

      and concerning the “he’ll write… more letters” bit, i already have an email from him in response to mine. it’s just a polite email, inviting me again to his church. and at the end… his phone and bank account numbers.

  5. So do I just stand there and say:

    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi
    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi
    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi
    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi
    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi
    Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi, Hodi

    until someone shows up to slap me quiet?

    Ahh.. but I love learning foreign customs. I am mischievous by nature so I would be tempted to set up a recorder and tape someone Hodi-ing for minutes on end and then setting it to music and video. It would be a ‘hodi-down’.

    How does this work with the deaf or mute?

    • yes, pretty much you do. and i was about to.

      eventually, if someone’s hodied long enough they’ll give up. and i would be very interested in your hodi music video. let me know if that ever comes about.

      i’m not sure how it works with the deaf and mute. i have only seen and spoken with (to the extent i can) them in town, and so, have never seen them in this situation. but i do know that knocking on a gate is not completely unheard of.

  6. I don’t know much about missionary matters, but I did enjoy reading about the predicament. You and Christie must have to exercise patience and understanding on a regular basis! I know here in America if someone accused someone else of being a liar…that would be a big deal. Is it there?

    I read all of the comments too and I really liked how you answered the pastor’s request. It seems that a friendship has formed out of it, despite the way it began and the answer you decided to give.

    • uhm… you spent a year in china as an english teacher / missionary.

      i’m not sure about the being called a liar thing here, really. well, i’m sure it’s not a good thing. but it seems to me that as long as something is not said directly — and instead it’s kind of vague, or relayed through another person — then it’s okay.

      and christie has to exercise more patience than i do. i think women definitely have it a little worse here. you wouldn’t like it.

      • Yeah, I don’t think I would like it either. Maybe for a few weeks, but certainly not for life or 8 years. I savor my life here and all the customs and freedoms that come with it…

        The China thing was forever ago and I didn’t really feel like a missionary. I felt like a Christian who taught English and made friends with the people around me. Kind of like how I live here. I am a Christian who runs and works and I make friends with people around me. I don’t hide who I am or what I believe and if people want to know, I will gladly share.

        But as far as all you are studying, experiencing, praying about, learning, dealing with every day…I have absolutely zero experience or knowledge. I do enjoy reading it all, however, and getting to see what you experience and what you and Christie do with those experiences.

  7. JMF

    I find all of this completely fascinating.

    I have zero advice. All of my thoughts are so incredibly Western that I’d probably end up getting you fed to a lion or something.

    Keep posting these sorts of things…it is so educational and interesting…as well as the responses.

    But I had two thoughts upon reading the responses:

    1) That guy sending you an email with his bank acct. # at the bottom is the funniest thing I’ve heard yet today.

    2) It must be great to have the pastor of your sending church to offer the advice, “Make your best judgement.” I was greatly moved by that — that is simply great Christian leadership…to know and trust the “boots on the ground.” If he’d have given you a strong suggestion, it would have been hard to disregard due to your relationship. So what he offered shows great wisdom on his part IMO, and I’d say you are fortunate indeed to be under oversight such as this.

    • Ah, but we missionaries, in our prayer letters, don’t we always make sure to include information about how to send support? The pastor’s bank account # is a version of the same sentiment…

    • zero advice from one jon fife? hmph.

      1) yeah, the email has his bank account number (or the church’s, not sure) right under his phone number… just like that were normal…

      2) jon, you don’t know the half of how fortunate i am to be under the oversight of these shepherds. they are an incredible group of men who love the Lord like crazy, and do what he says. and on top of all that… yes, they trust me to make decisions here in tanzania.

      • Thanks for the comments. I would hope all sending churches would trust the judgment of the people they send to the field. I know Jesus trusted the 12 and the 72 when he sent them out proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Sounds like many need to be spending more time watching Jesus lead. We would lead differently, I suppose.

  8. i get the impression that this pastor is looking for you to provide all the money to acquire whatever instrument this is, because all americans are rich. i agree with you, i do not see how an instrument helps in the preaching of the gospel. his misuse of Malachi 3:10 gives me great pause as well. is this a church you work with? what do you do as a missionary? most missionaries i know are typically trying to plant a church by having bible studies in their homes. you don’t seem to be doing that so do they know you are a “minister”? i just kind of get the feeling they think that by making this sound good they can get the rich american to buy them an instrument.

    • Jason Miller

      It’s surprising to me that it took 23 comments before we got to the request of the American for money angle. I mean, he wasn’t (I assume) going to all your neighbors asking for money as well?

      In one sense this is totally as characterized by TRAPPERHONEY: all Americans are rich.

      In another sense, Brett you are being included in the “possibilities” of society, which is flattering in a way (especially in Gieta, since they wouldn’t ask a miner for certain.) You are being considered a possible solution to the problems life has presented the Pastor (and the church through him.)

      Lucky you.

      Of course, all sarcasm aside, it does open up the possibility of relationship, which is infinitely more valuable to Tanzanians than money. Money is always acceptable in the short term, but relationship is always preferable. Conversely, for Westerners, giving a little money (or even a lot) is preferable to us b/c it stops the possibility of relationship (or so we think) which is time-consuming and messy.

      Really, that’s kind of sad for us. I’d much rather be known as an opportunist than as a reclusive anti-relational Westerner. Especially in a place (Sukumaland) where “relation” is the root of all things good.

      • nope, i’m the only one on my street who got a letter. thanks for the commentary on westerners giving money because it’s the easier investment. i’ve found that i struggle with that here.

    • trapper, you’re spot on with the “rich american” idea. it’s funny, because that’s so much a part of what is happening that i wrote the entire blog post without mentioning it — thinking it was a given. but i forget only a few of us are actually IN tanzania.

      and to answer your questions, this is not a church i work with (though i wouldn’t be opposed to teaching there some). i do agriculture development and disciple-making. i’m trying not to actually start churches, but rather to teach groups of people how to study the bible, interpret it together, and be obedient to it. i do think this will result in churches beginning, but i won’t be a part of the leadership process within that church. i’ll be more of a mentor from the outside. all of that said, we’re just in the beginning stages. there is one of those bible studies going, and i’m still looking for land for the demonstration farm. and this pastor knew i was here doing development work, but not “missionary” work — which is actually all working according to my plan… aaahahahaaha.

  9. Pingback: what does it mean to preach the gospel? « aliens and strangers

  10. steve ker

    Interesting, we are all continually bombarded for requests for donations. Most are legitement and worthy of our attention. We all have limited resources and have to pick and choose which to support.
    I believe it is important to judge the use and decide on which is the best use for The Kingdom. We should do that with all of our expendatures.
    Musical instuments do contribute to spreading the gospel, but could there be a better use of the funds?
    I am sure the local people view you as rich and able to help them with their needs. Compared to them you are rich, even as I am rich in comparison.
    If you are not able to help, explain what God has called you to do there, and all funds are currently allocated to that use. Possibly you could loan and instrument to the congregation for them to use during services which would meet their need without and expenditure on your part.

    • thanks for the advice, steve. i’ve actually now already done that which you suggested — save loaning the church an instrument. i’m pretty sure nobody there plays the banjo.

  11. I’ll send you an old organ that’s in storage, you can make some bamboo pipes and it’ll remind you of that. Movie we starred in called the goonies 🙂

  12. Paulette Jackson

    Hi James:

    Interesting thoughts regarding the musical instruments. As a counselor, I have a few thoughts which might be of help from a Manual I have.

    Ask: what is the issue? what prompted the issue? What are your wants and desires in this situation with regard to Objective: What specific results do I want? What changes do I want the other person to make? Relationship: How do I want the other person to feel about me after the interaction and Self-respect: How do I want to feel about myself after the interaction?

    Ask: What are the priority ratings in the situation, 1-3 (1-Most important, 2-Second most important, 3-least important) with regard to Objective____,
    Relationship_______ and Self-Respect______.

    Ask: What are the conflicts in priorities that make it hard to be effective in this situation?

    I hope it helps!
    Paulette Jackson
    http://www.facetsofcounseling.wordpress.com
    The Conversant Counselor

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