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The Otavi Lesson

Some thoughts on mission from Jon Paul Witt
otavi

The mountains to the left of me stretch to the horizon, merging with the dry veld in front of me. The view is truly stunning. Leopards, various buck and baboons clamber over the rocks of the various kopje’s that are scattered high behind me. This is Ghaub in the Otavi Mountain Conservancy, Central Namibia. It’s now a guest farm with a view to remember and a very poignant history.

Ghaub used to be a mission station. Started in 1895 with the aim of reaching the Bergdamara and Hai communities, this Rhenish Mission was established in what must have been a very tough assignment. Walking around today, you can still see the humble mission origins of the buildings. Although of course they have been significantly upgraded.

The shame is that within 25 years of the establishment of the mission station at Ghaub, land was already being sold off and eventually in 1968 the mission came to an end. You can read more about the history here.

Walking with my children on the vast farm, we came across the old mission graveyard. As they ran on ahead, I was left alone to savour the considerable silence and vista. Over a few minutes I was overcome with a great sadness. Here lay children who had died of malaria and missionaries who had given their lives. All of them in unmarked graves with small piles of quartzite stone arranged as a simple headstone.

What had they achieved? 120 years after they began, the answer was they had built a guest house. The Bergdamara and Hai communities didn’t settle on the land, today it is all commercial farms. In short they gave their lives for seemingly not much at all.

Yet, it wouldn’t have felt like it. I’m sure it was very tough, I know Africa enough to realise that. I can imagine though the sense of pride, thankfulness and achievement that must of accompanied the establishment of the mission buildings and operation. These were true pioneers in almost every sense of the word. Standing there however, I can’t help that they fell for a lie that still shapes so much in mission, aid and in the wider church today.

To put it simply, they believed the modernist notion that infrastructure, buildings, “stuff”, would be the transformative element within the people they wanted to reach. Not quite “build it and they will come”, but not far off.

If they could see their efforts today, a lovely guest farm, I wonder how they would feel?

They are not the only ones.

There are many churches who in an effort to re-invent themselves change the physical structure of their building. Their assumption is that if we make our building more accessible to the community, then they will come and they will be transformed. We end up with a plethora of sports halls and multi function buildings with mainly crèche and child care being provided. We have a few cafes thrown in too. The buildings themselves are not the problem, although they do cost an awful lot of money, it is our view of the mission God has given us. Mission is meant to be with people where they are, not with us where we are. The direction is wholly wrong. That’s quite a costly mistake to make. In terms of people it is wholly disastrous. The church mainly sits and waits for people to come………… and spends a lot of money doing it

I’m not for one minute saying we shouldn’t serve people, a cafe is a good idea, so is helping people with their children, but let’s go and do it in the heart of the community. Let’s spend our cash on that instead. I bet that way we will bring the truth and love of God to far more people.

History is littered with lessons like that in Ghaub. We have cathedrals and church buildings that cost a small fortune to keep. The tourist attraction is a witness people say. I’m yet to meet anyone who had their life changed via a stained glass window. There are other buildings that have become offices, mosques or even simply demolished. In Manchester I even remember an old temperance hall that was now a pub….. What irony!

Mission is the same. There are thousands of buildings built in an effort to transform Africa. Orphanages, child care centres, schools, everything you can think of. I know I’ve done it! I wonder however, if this really transforms anything at all? Is it the same lie that we are falling for. A simple case, transforming people equates to providing buildings. From the African side, there is a thirst for development and buildings satisfy that thirst. They can be status symbols both for the community and more sadly the organisation that built them.

I wonder what we will look back on in 25 years time and see? A litany of neglected buildings (they’ll be ruins here in Africa) and re-appropriated churches? There’s a great rush to build churches in Africa, and yet I don’t see the same rush to transform people, especially in the remote areas.

The lesson for me is to always prioritise people. Instead of believing that physical structure is the key item in transformation, let’s go wild and build real community with real people in the heart of real places. Let’s be sure that we take God with us too. Of course, sometimes a building will help. It is very much a means to an end, but they are not the integral item that we think they are and very often our money would be better spent elsewhere.

Our lives in Christ have the very real power to transform society. When we speak we can speak the words of Jesus to people. When we act, we can bring his love directly to people.

Standing in Otavi I cannot think for one minute why we would want to do anything else. Looking past the graves of those brave pioneers, past the quartz stone piles to the mountains beyond, I yearn for reality and a cutting edge in the mission that I’m involved in. I certainly don’t want people to look back in years to come and wonder what all the fuss was about, or stay in a building that was once my office. I don’t want to spend my life making stuff that simply wears out. I want to build love and eternity in real people.

There is a lesson to be learnt from Otavi. I hope that we are listening.