Tag Archives: Challenge

Where love comes to life – address to LCA Victoria/Tasmania District

What follows is a rough account of a presentation I gave at a regional gathering of Lutherans recently. I suspect you will find errors in the text – please forgive them! I have been asked to make this available rather quickly and thus I beg your forgiveness in this area.

I have thrown out some challenging questions towards the end. Please engage with the questions I ask. I have no easy answers and I do not hold my life up as an example of what we should be doing.  Send reactions and feedback my way.

I recommend Dr Jenning’s piece (http://goo.gl/wdErGq) for further reading on issues of finances and Lutheran schooling in Australia.

 

Where love comes to life

I would like to tell you the stories of 3 men – Stephen, Duan and Charlie. (All names in this piece have been changed to protect identities)

 

Stephen is Egyptian. His family is Coptic Christian.

In 2011, the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down in response to the Arab spring uprising in his country. This took place at a place called Tahrir (freedom) square and both Stephen and his brothers participated in the protests against the wishes on their parents. This is the same place that your speaker tonight discovered what tear gas tastes and feels like.

There are 87 million people living in Egypt and as my friend Ibrahim said to me, this is the first time in recorded history that the Egyptian people had been free. From the time of the Pharaohs, they had been ruled by dictators.

When you apply for a visa in Egypt you have to supply your religion on the official form. So you carry a card as an Egyptian citizen or a visa if you are a foreigner which states your religion. When you greet someone you have the choice ‘Salam alykuem’ (peace be with you) which is considered a Muslim greeting or Sabah alcher (good morning),  which is considered Christian (because you aren’t using ‘salam alykuem’!). You proclaim your religion immediately with your greeting.

Unlike the west where we consider it impolite to talk about religion, politics or sex – in Egyptian society these are fair topics. One day I was talking to a Taxi driver who had 9 children – he asked why I didn’t have any children. I said in my less than perfect Arabic that my wife and I were not planning to. He then pointed at this crotch and asked sincerely ‘andak mushkilla?’ which translated means ‘do you have a problem?’ Reproductive problems are very much fair game for taxi conversation in Egypt.

Stephen went to a government run high school and he told me great stories of the ineptitude of his teachers. Teachers in Egypt are paid less than $100 per month by the government. How do they make a living? Many refuse to teach the content during the day and then run night tutoring sessions at a great profit. Current estimates suggest that following the chaos of the revolution and on the back of years of mismanagement, half the Egyptian population is illiterate. Perhaps only 25% of women are literate in Egypt.

Stephen had an interesting time in university. Due to corruption, his professor of English had a PhD but could not read, write or speak English. As a result, the exercises and assignments Stephen had to complete were flawed. Stephen would be required to write incorrect English in order to pass in this professor’s class. Stephen passed with distinction after spending endless hours figuring out exactly what elements of English the professor had incorrect. Stephen then helped his classmates pass by teaching them these skills. In order to make sure he knew English, he watched every English language film he could find and read every book in English he could find. His English is extraordinary.

Egyptians are having a very rough time at the moment. The week that my wife and I arrived in Egypt an elderly Egyptian woman died from food poisoning as the hospital refused to admit her because she had no money. Work is scarce – with tourism representing 13% of the country’s GDP. The tourist industry in Aswan, in the deep south of the country, is currently running at 4% of what it once was.

Some are trying to use religion to divide the people but as one of my good Egyptian taxi driving friends said: ‘Muslimeen behab allah, messaen behab all. Koolo eizeen schokel, akl, modrassa wa mostespha. Mushkilla eh?.’ (‘Muslims love God, Christians love God. We all want a job, food, schools and hospitals. What is the problem?’)

When Stephen learnt that I was lecturing at a Bible college for Sudanese refugees and after hearing their stories, he started volunteering to translate at this college. He heard the need and wanted to help. After I left Egypt I was very happy to hear he became the head administrator of the college and has begun studying alongside the African refugees in order to become a pastor himself. This is truly amazing. The hatred between Egyptians and Sudanese runs very deep.

Not that long ago through Facebook I learnt that Stephen’s brother was killed. Stephen’s brother was actively involved with protests against Mubarack and then the Morsi regime. Egyptians fear that their internet is being watched and thus don’t write some things online. But I have a pretty good idea about what happened to Stephen’s brother.

Stephen is choosing each day to live a different life. He has given up a good salary teaching Arabic to foreigners in order to teach God’s word to refugee pastors and to train refugee teachers.

 

Duan is Ugandan and has the brightest and most sincere smile I have ever seen.

Duan’s story is quite interesting. He speaks 7 languages. When I asked him how he learnt French his answer was. “It wasn’t too hard. I had some friends from Congo who liked soccer and so we played soccer in French”.

English is Duan’s sixth language. His schooling took place under a tree. He sat in the dirt with another 50 or so young people and learnt language from an elder. The elder would write a word in the dirt and Duan would copy it in the dirt. The teacher would return after seeing the other 50 students check it and issue another word.

He is now the director of African Hope Learning Centre (AHLC), having begun as a technical assistant, becoming a primary school teacher, then primary headmaster and now director.

He is assisted by deputy directors Jacques, James and Matthew. Jacques is from Congo and is a political refugee as all of the men in his family has been killed due to his father being involved with an opposing political party. James fled South Sudanese to avoid tribal warfare. Matthew was a Christian born in the Muslim north of Sudan. For a time, Matthew lived naked in the fields as he lost contact with his family.

The UN interacts officially with about 250,000 refugees in Egypt. Having worked with NGOs like MSF, refugee researchers, long term missionaries, I know the number of refugees currently living in Egypt is closer to 4 million. There is a major UN processing centre in Cairo which acts as a funnel for those hoping for resettlement elsewhere. However, the Egyptian government bars refugees from accessing healthcare, education and from working.

So African Hope offers education to 500 students from grade 1 to grade 11. Staff and students have a basic healthcare program including dental care, vaccinations, health education. The school also provides employment for more than 50 refugee teachers.

Over 20 African nations are represented in students and staff. From Sudan into the horn of Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, through down as far south as Uganda and Burundi, then west to Angola and up to Nigeria.

The goal of this illegal school is to provide an education to build the African community which is in sore need of doctors, engineers, teachers and business people. It is hoped that this education will allow students to define and build a positive future for their countries.

This of course is difficult. Finding the finances to run the school is very difficult in a very competitive global aid market.

AHLC is reliant on volunteers due to the low educational levels of teachers.  Our refugee teachers would barely pass Grade 7 in Australia.  While staff training can help, volunteers are essential to improve our student outcomes. That was why I was there – to provide staff training. Put simply – you cannot teach what you have not been taught. At one stage we could not teach maths because there was not a single person in the refugee community who knew maths beyond a grade 2 level.

I discovered this naively when I set some benchmarking tests for all the students and I discovered that not a single student in the school knew what a rectangle was. I discovered the reason why when I saw the look of confusion in the eyes of my maths teachers when I asked them what a rectangle was.

Duan first came to Cairo to work in a call centre on a very good salary. Duan chose to give up this lucrative salary to lead the education of 500 hundred young Africans. We pray that he can lead this school into a positive future that helps to build Africa.
 

Charlie is Australian.

Charlie was borne to Deli owning parents in the great wine country of McLaren Vale, South Australia. Charlie’s family are not really religious. He recalls a story of a rather tense moment and vigorous theological argument when Charlie’s mother stared down the priest who took issue with her demand to remove the promise ‘to obey’ from her marriage wows. There is also a rumour that Charlie’s grandfather tried to burn down a church after copping a hiding from the priest for being insolent during Sunday school.

Charlie’s parents were told, when he was a grade 1 student, that he would never learn to read and write at an adult level. “He should leave school as early as he can and get a trade”, his parents were told. Charlie was lucky to have parents who knew this was rubbish. He shifted schools but it was at that time that his parents started looking for a suitable high school with great teachers. They did not want this to happen again.

As it would happen, a new Lutheran school was opening in McLaren Vale, Tatachilla Lutheran College, the very year in which Charlie would commence high school. Charlie happened to be enrolled number 65 of 67 sof that first intake of students.

Charlie became a Christian through seeing the teachers at Tatachilla model a Christian life of service. As Charlie often says,

“I can’t pinpoint the moment that I became a Christian – I just felt an increasing belief that this stuff the pastor talked about in chapel was true because the teachers lived it. They didn’t just talk about it.”

Charlie found himself the first in his family to attend university. Not long after starting university, Charlie starting attending his local Lutheran church.

He was enjoying quite a successful opera singing career (a talent fostered by his teachers) when a vocal injury forced him to take 2 years off of professional singing. He had two options before him. With his passion for God, young people, sharing big ideas and music, he considered becoming a pastor in the Lutheran church or becoming a teacher. He chose the latter, studying education through Flinders University and through Australian Lutheran College. Charlie gained a job at a very prestigious Adelaide Lutheran school and began his teaching career there.

Around this time a nice young girl came into his life and it wasn’t too long before friendship turned into marriage.

Through the Lutheran Church, Charlie had the opportunity to discover that not all Lutheran schools were as nice and well resourced as his. He travelled to Papua New Guinea and the US on social justice trips. Charlie’s wife had for a long time had a passion to work with African refugees – specifically Sudanese women.

A flame burned a little brighter – a flame that was lit at a Lutheran school which emphasised active love for others. Charlie remembers his principal at Tatachilla, Richard Bruss, saying often “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

So it came to be that Tom (or ‘Charlie’)  and his wife left their comfortable lives in Adelaide to serve in Egypt.

 

What would you die for?

Working in Egypt caused me to come to terms with a willingness to die for a belief. I will not pretend like Egypt is anything like current situations in the Congo, Afghanistan or Iraq. Rarely did I feel my life was in true danger. However, as foreigners began being killed Robyn and I had to think about what was going to be line where we fled. Robyn spent a week at home at one stage as a public threat was made against foreign white women working for churches.

Living with a packed bag and $1000 USD under your pillow to buy your way out of a country changes your perspective. It brings a certain clarity to things. You think “am I willing to die in order to provide a service to those who need it?”

How much am I willing to personally suffer so that others don’t?

 

What is God’s will?

Few things annoy me more than people who try to give me comfort by saying that I don’t need to worry about those who are still in Egypt working with the refugee community or the refugees themselves. “God will look after them” or “God will rise up those to do what he needs done.” When I was working at African Hope there were more than 10 international volunteers – now there are two. I chose to leave and I left behind work that now goes mostly undone. That is something I need to deal with.

We live in a protected bubble here in Australia. Our faith, our worldview, our lives are all symptomatic of a society that lacks suffering. We choose to ignore the great pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters across the world.

As Christians in the west we have blindly followed a lie. Many believe that it is enough for us to have our faith in God and just live our lives as best we can. It is shameful that the lives of most Christians look no different to the lives of your average Australian – mortgage, shiny car, shiny kids, overseas holidays. Is that really what Christ taught us? Is that what God sacrificed his son for? So that we could live Christian flavoured lives hidden from seeing the suffering of others?

Experiences like mine change your perspective. So much so that I still think of money in different units. When I was working at African Hope, every $50 meant another day that I could afford to feed the 500 students at the school. At my current school, when I buy an iPad, I cannot help but know that for the cost of the iPad I could have fed 500 African refugees for about 2 and half school weeks.

I know what it is like to form a contingency plan for running out of money for the food program. You remove the meat from the dish, you remove the vegetable, you half the amount, you feed the youngest only and then as a last resort, you stop the meals. Thank God it didn’t ever get to a point where we had to stop meals.

Please don’t put me, or anyone else on a pedestal and say “I could never have done what you did”. It isn’t a case of can’t – what I did was not difficult. Anyone in this room could serve in this way usefully if they wanted to. Robyn and I made a choice to serve in Egypt. To simply say “I couldn’t do what you, Stephen our Duan did” is an excuse. An excuse so often used to justify inaction and to do nothing to help those in need.

The world is the way it is because we continually make choices that allow it to be so. It is humanity’s will that is causing the suffering the our world. This is not the will of our loving God who suffers with the oppressed.

 

What motivates you?

Why did a teacher and his wife from a nice Lutheran school in Adelaide go to Egypt and spend 35k of his own money and 10k of generous people’s money, to help people? Because there was a need. Robyn has always wanted to work with Sudanese refugees and the largest population of Sudanese outside of Sudan is in Cairo. Faith without works is dead. Nothing more than that. We went because there was a need we could meet. Within each of us, the Holy Spirit is working to bring us to love our neighbours as Christ taught us. We must choose to take this call or ignore it.

Moving to Melbourne was not really part of the Brennen’s plan after Egypt. But at the same time a Lutheran school leader with refugee and migrant experience comes home at the exact same time that the only Lutheran school in the country serving a significantly refugee/ new migrant/low income community needs a leader.

Sunshine Christian School is a lovely primary school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Being principal there takes as much passion, perseverance and dedication and fortitude as working in Egypt did.  The issues are different but the goal is the same – to nurture young people to serve God and his people.

Ask yourself – Would you get up tomorrow and do your job if you were not paid? Do you believe what you do each day is truly serving others as God would have you serve?

 

A great Lutheran social justice heritage

Lutherans have a great heritage to offer. I was in demand as a lecturer at a bible college in Egypt because Lutherans are known in Africa for having biblically centred and sound theology.

Ask many a Sudanese refugee about Lutherans and they see it as a word that represents comfort and support. This comes from their time in Lutheran run refugee camps.

It has been written of our spiritual father, Martin Luther:

“[He argued that] God’s justice is a life-giving justice for all persons regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, social or economic status – a justice that should underpin human relationships and the education of future leaders in society. Indeed, he was among the first of his generation to protest business, banking, and religious practices that favoured the wealthy few and impoverished the many. And yet…Lutheran history is marked by the refusal to heed the ancient call to act with justice, exchanging that more difficult task for charitable endeavours or stoic silence in the face of oppression.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote :

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”

As Lutherans I think we are very good at the loving God bit and feeling saved. What we need to do is to commit more to the mystery and gospel imperative of loving others.

 

There are many choices we make as a church.

A choice we make at the moment is to allow our schools to exclude families on the basis of their economic status. I live with the knowledge that if I were born now my parents could not afford to send me to a Lutheran school – not on their income. My family situation is not unique. What might Luther say if he were here today and saw that our schools, that were first set up to serve Lutheran refugees newly arrived to Australia, now exclude refugees through their fee structures?

Could our church find new funding strategies to sustain and plant low fee schools in areas of great need in order to provide a Lutheran education to children that need it most?

Last year I met with a family who wanted to enrol their daughter at my school. Knowing that they were a practising Buddhist family I asked them why it was that they wanted to send their child to a Lutheran school. They said this:

“I don’t want my daughter to go to a public school. I know your school is a good school. You will not ignore her soul. You will teach her about God. You will teach her about duty to others. This will not happen at the other local schools”

According to the enrolment policies of most Lutheran schools we are required to give first preference to Lutherans and then practicing Christians. Had there been an abundance of enrolments in the previous categories this child would not be attending a Lutheran school. What do we make of this?

As a church we make the choice to pay our school principals an annual salary that alone would be enough to run African Hope Learning Centre for an entire year. My wage alone is more than enough to feed, educate and provide healthcare for more than 500 refugee students while also giving work for another 50 refugees. What does this information mean to us as schools of the church? How do we process it?

As we look at approving church budgets, how are we spending our money? Are we investing in supporting the oppressed and needy or perpetuating nice buildings with empty pews?

Could the current shortage of Lutheran pastors, teachers and leaders suggest that we have lost a culture of service to others that we once had?

Germaine Greer was educated in the Catholic schooling system. She writes:

“(The Catholic nuns) brought out the best in me and it needn’t have been brought out – it could have stayed right where it was. I could have married a stockbrocker and settled into a life of three cars and a carport. They made that impossible because I was hungry for something else”

This is what the Lutheran church did to me. It made me hunger for justice for all people. Are all of our Lutheran schools and churches encouraging this and making it central to their culture?

Our world is full of need and we must respond. A response more than turning away, throwing in a few dollars or praying for someone else to do it for us.

I don’t care how much money you make, what country you come from, what your religion is, what your qualifications are, what you have achieved or what others say about you.  What I am most interested in, what I want you to show the world, is that you can love others amongst your own struggles, brokenness, grief and despair – because that is where love comes to life.

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