From Everywhere to Everywhere

Many of you know of my love for Africa University. Ten years ago, in 2010, I made my first visit to AU when I was a district superintendent in Michigan and created a task force to raise money to build a retreat center on the campus. During that first visit, we had a vision of what came to be named the Ubuntu Retreat Centre, a place where visitors could enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the university and learn more about the culture of Zimbabwe and the African continent.

In 2014, I led another group from Michigan, including Bishop Deb and Brad Kiesey, for the dedication of the Ubuntu Centre, which was not quite completed. What joy to see our United Methodist Africa University thrive and become a leader in education among countries on the African continent.

A third group from Iowa traveled to AU in the fall of 2018 after we raised over $45,000 to complete the kitchen so that meals could be prepared for guests at the 24-room Ubuntu Centre. On that trip, our group became acquainted with Larry and Jane Kies, both of whom were General Board of Global Ministries missionaries for many years. Larry formally retired on September 30. I first met Larry in 2014 when he agreed to guide me on a hike to the top of nearby Mt. Chiremba.

Jane, who is British but grew up mostly in southern Africa, and Larry, who is originally from Iowa, have always looked forward to providing hospitality for United Methodists from Larry’s home state. In 2018, we enjoyed a wonderful tour of the Africa University Farm, where Larry served as the Technical Advisor for many years. Larry also led DS Paul Wilcox, Pastor Ben Wedeking, and me on a second climb up Mt. Chiremba.

After serving as directly hired missionaries in Botswana where Larry managed a farm at a mission high school, Larry and Jane underwent formal missionary training in Atlanta in the early 1990s. They were assigned in 1994 to Nyadire Mission in Zimbabwe. Larry managed the UMC mission farm, with dairy and beef cattle, corn, cotton, and a butchery, while Jane taught English at Nyadire High School.

In 2002, they moved to Africa University and have been there ever since. Larry has provided technical assistance to the AU farm and has also taught many agricultural classes. Jane has been teaching English at AU for the last 18 years while raising their children. Jane said, “Learning the ropes in teaching English to university students was fun. The mix of culture, language, and dress was … and still is … very exciting.” I asked Larry and Jane several questions a few weeks ago.

  • What have been the greatest challenges you have faced as missionaries?

Larry: “My greatest challenge came when I had been in Maun, Botswana, for five years. I had felt God calling me to teach in Africa since my undergraduate years at Iowa State. When the opportunity arose for me to start working for the church in 1980, I felt that I was finally where God wanted me. I felt that I was effective in my work there in running the school farm, in teaching, and in advising the Scripture Union (Christian youth) group at school. But by 1985 being single had become a burden… Although Jane didn’t realize it when she first arrived in Maun, she was the answer to my prayers.

“Another major challenge came from 2000 to 2008, when Zimbabwe suffered from extreme hyper-inflation and political instability. In 2000 we had to leave Nyadire Mission for six months because the local church leaders felt that due to political issues (in which we were not directly involved) our presence was not only a risk to us but also a threat to those with whom we worked… In the end, God did provide for all of our needs during those years, but it was a trial.”

Jane: “In my first weeks in Zimbabwe on a remote mission, surrounded by friendly people I could not understand, in a rather dry and dusty environment (it was in the dry season), I often asked the Lord: ‘What am I doing here?’ It was a lonely time, and I often worried that our children would not thrive in the small mission school with its unfamiliar approaches to teaching and learning. God has shown me how wrong I was since they are all thriving now and value their upbringing and African roots. In time, I also discovered God’s purpose in making a life with people there and teaching English in the High School. We have some good friendships that continue to this day.”

  • What have been your greatest joys in your missionary role?

Larry: “Treasuring relationships formed in each community where we served. Also, seeing former students progress professionally, not only the few who I knew from the start would be successful: earning advanced degrees, becoming productive farmers, rising to responsible positions in companies, even becoming involved in agricultural development as missionaries. But there were also several who gave me a special joy when they struggled in their first couple of years here at AU.

“After words of encouragement, they found their niches, improved their grades, and earned their degrees. I know that the future of Africa is in their hands. I also know that there are many people who want to make a difference in the world, and they can do so by enabling others to do work that they themselves can’t do. Connecting the two groups (those in need and those wanting to help) has given me great joy.”

Jane: “Friendships, family life, meaningful roles in the church, influencing, and being influenced by so many Zimbabwean and international students. Watching students smile with pride as they become more fluent in English and move on to their degree program with greater confidence. The great beauty of the country itself and opportunities to hike, camp, and view game have given me incredible joy.”

  • When do you plan to come back to Iowa for a time?

“We are not making plans to return to Iowa for now. Our main purpose in flying to Iowa would be to see people, many of whom are in high-risk groups for Covid-19. Even if travel restrictions are lifted, as long as Covid-19 is a threat, we will not feel comfortable coming into close contact with many people, risking our health and theirs. We hope that by the summer of 2021 the situation will have improved enough that we can come for a short visit. We hope that in 2022 we can visit churches again.”

  • Since you were not able to come back to our Iowa Annual Conference this year to speak, what else would you like to share about your time as a missionary?

Larry: “When I first left Iowa for Africa, I had secret dreams of following in the steps of Norman Borlaug, the Iowan who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work that started the Green Revolution. Nearly three decades (now more than four) later, I realize that I will never be short-listed for a free ticket to Oslo, but also that, for all of us, it’s all about making ourselves available to carry out God’s purposes – making a difference where we can, using the skills God has given us. Jane and I know that Africa University will not be able to solve all of Africa’s problems, but still, we are proud to be part of the church’s effort to do what we can.”

“In our travels, while speaking in churches, we were continually impressed by congregations and individuals who are, in the name of Jesus, doing what they can in their own communities and further afield. Like the boy with the loaves and fishes, doing what they can where they are with what they have.”

  • Do you have any words of encouragement for the clergy and laity of Iowa?

Jane: “I am not American, but I have been made to feel special as we visit churches in Iowa. I have appreciated the hospitality and warmth of congregations, the effort made to ensure that our visits are fun and enjoyable, and the interest so many show in mission – our joint mission (from everywhere to everywhere!) as Christians. I have also seen how young people from America can be so touched by the experience of coming to Zimbabwe and interacting with students and churches here. It is a life-changing experience! So, planting seeds of missionary service in the lives of the youth is so vital to keeping the mission of the church alive.”

The Kies’ plan to stay at Africa University for the foreseeable future, where Larry will continue teaching as a volunteer and Jane will continue as a GBGM missionary, teaching Intensive English. Thank you, Larry and Jane, for keeping the mission of the church alive from everywhere to everywhere. We look forward to seeing you when you are able to return to Iowa.

Do No Harm

“I knew this job would be hard,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said last Thursday. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.” An investigation had been ongoing for months, but the news broke on Thursday. Six men were charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Whitmer before the November 3 elections and are in custody. In addition, seven others who are part of a militia group called The Wolverine Watchmen were charged with terrorism, including attempting to attack the state Capitol, plotting to kidnap a sitting governor, and starting a civil war.

According to a New York Times article on October 8, “The men spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities, the F.B.I. said. They indicated that they wanted to take Ms. Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a ‘secure location’ in Wisconsin for a ‘trial,’ Richard J. Trask II, an F.B.I. special agent, said in the criminal complaint.”

Earlier in the year, on May 14, the Capitol building in Lansing was closed when demonstrators gathered on the Capitol steps to protest Governor Whitmer’s “stay at home” orders related to the coronavirus. Two weeks before that, demonstrators, some of whom were armed, entered the capitol building and demanded to go into the legislative chambers, which were closed because of social distancing. They also demanded an end to the state of emergency and were angry that gyms in Michigan were closed in mid-March because of the threat of the spread of COVID-19. Gyms were allowed to reopen on a limited basis on September 9.

This is a stressful time for people around the globe, including the United States and here in Iowa. COVID-19 has not spared any part of our world. We are one human family, and what affects one affects all. Through connections with United Methodists across the globe, I sense how very difficult life is right now for all of us. And, at the same time as we affirm our freedom of speech, we have an obligation to speak out against harmful words and hate crimes. As John Wesley encouraged followers, “Seek to do no harm.”

We have a few weeks leading up to our presidential election, and threats of partisan violence are real. How are we going to act as Americans? David Leonhardt wrote last Friday in The New York Times, “Three years ago, the polling firm YouGov asked Americans whether they thought it could ever be justified for their political party to use violence to advance its goals. The overwhelming response was no. Only 8 percent of people said anything other than ‘never.’

“This year, YouGov asked the same question – and the share saying that political violence could be somewhat justified roughly doubled. The increase spanned both Democratic and Republican respondents.

“‘We’re seeing more and more citizens expressing openness to violence as more and more partisan leaders engage in the kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric that paves the way for taking violent action,’ Lee Drutman, one of the political scientists who oversaw the YouGov poll, told me.”

In response to last Thursday’s arrests, Governor Whitmer said, “So let me say this loud and clear: Hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan. If you break the law or conspire to commit heinous acts of violence against anyone, we will find you. We will hold you accountable, and we will bring you to justice.”

We have a violence problem in our country, and it is on both sides of the political spectrum. Angry rhetoric. People making assumptions about others’ beliefs. Differing views on coronavirus mitigation. Terrifying threats. How do we as people of faith respond? I sense the polarization and tension increasing as Election Day draws near and would like to offer a few observations.

  • God never intended to create us to be exactly alike, and each one of us has a right to our own views.
  • Differences are a part of the beauty of our democracy.
  • In our churches, we are called to model respect for all, even for those with whom we strongly disagree.
  • We must make it clear that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we believe that violence is never an acceptable path to resolving differences, and we unequivocally denounce hate groups.
  • We can disagree without vilifying others. We can debate without becoming contentious, and we can dialogue without creating enemies.
  • We can honor one another’s convictions without feeling that we are “giving in.”
  • No one should ever be coerced to vote in a certain way.
  • Respect, understanding, and open dialogue model healthy conversations.
  • Putting people down and spreading mistruths is never acceptable.

We live in a democracy where voters will decide the course of our leadership on November 3. Gary and I will likely participate in early voting, and I will make sure to thank all those who are working to provide safe and secure locations. We are blessed and privileged to live in a country where democracy affords equal opportunity as well as freedom. However, with freedom comes responsibility.

What responsibility can you commit to now? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? (United Methodist baptism, confirmation, and membership vow) Will you commit to dialogue about important issues while respecting one another? Can you acknowledge that differences are part of the beauty of our democracy? Will you do your best to ensure that no one is forced to vote in a certain way?

May God bless our country as we prepare to vote, and may God bless our entire world as, together, we commit to doing whatever we can to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Most of all, may we do no harm as we share God’s love as one diverse human family across the world.

Tending the Fire Within

It was ten days ago, and I had just finished several Zoom meetings in my home office. As I walked into the kitchen, I heard a loud crashing sound from the direction of the office. To my astonishment, the top shelf of one of the eight-foot, built-in bookshelves chose that moment to collapse.

Grateful that I had not been sitting at my desk, I gathered up the books into a few piles and gave thanks that I was not hurt. I guess I should have known. It’s probably not a good idea to place heavy hard-cover books as well as my United Methodist History, Polity, and Doctrine papers on the top shelf of any bookcase.

Discerning this as a sign from God, I began looking through the books and pamphlets that had fallen, some of which I had not touched in many years. Here’s what I found.

  • These Things are Ours, a book of poems and illustrations by Michigan artist and author Gwen Frostic. My 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Richie, gave me this book at the time of my high school graduation. I, on the other hand, gave her fits because I just couldn’t seem to understand the nuances of English grammar.
    • “the woods stood shimmering … a delicate fantasy …
      the wind was still,
      the air was warm
      a great phenomenon of life took place
      the day the leaves came out”
    • “somehow a tree exemplifies a great unconquerable spirit”
  • A copy of my ordination service. I was ordained as a pastor in the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1982. Five years later, I transferred my ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church after taking online courses in United Methodist history, theology, and polity. In the service, I included a hymn, Bow Down Your Ear, Almighty Lord, written in 1978 by one of my Yale Divinity School professors, Jeffrey Rowthorn.

Bow down your ear, almighty Lord, And hear your Church’s suppliant cry
For all who preach your saving Word, And serve you in their ministry.

 

  • The Arsenal of Democracy; FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm America at War, by A.J. Baime
    I bought this book three years ago, but it sadly remained cloistered until the big bang. It has now moved from the top shelf to the top of my reading list.
  • An Analysis of the Greek New Testament, 1974

I freely admit that I have not opened this book for a while.

  • Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

I am a classic introvert, most happy not to be the center of anyone’s attention and certainly not the life of the party. I’ve lived for years with the assumption that I am a social failure if I am not charming, which makes ministry a bit more challenging. Yet I can only be who I am, claiming my introverted nature and learning when it is important to pretend to be extroverted.

  • The Rule of St. Benedict in English 1980
    Chapter 22, The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks

“The monks are to sleep in separate beds. They receive bedding as provided by the abbot, suitable to monastic life. If possible, all are to sleep in one place, but should the size of the community preclude this, they will sleep in groups of 10 or 20 under the watchful eye of seniors. A lamp must be kept burning in the room until morning.

“They sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep. Thus, the monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum. The younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other but interspersed among those of the seniors. On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.”[i] (I don’t think I would make a good monk.)

In mercy, Father, now give heed, And pour your quick’ning Spirit’s breath
On those whom you have called to feed, Your flock redeemed by Jesus’ death.

  • The Wild Muir; Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures

I love adventure and relish these stories from John Muir (1838-1914), also known as the father of our national parks.

  • The Way of the Heart; Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, published in 1981.

I took Nouwen’s class, Ministry and Spirituality, my first year in seminary at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen modeled in his life and teaching the importance of care for mind, body, and spirit. He writes, “What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with the utmost care. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings.”[ii]  

  1. How does the wind of the Spirit need to be kindled in you? And how will you tend the fire within with the utmost care?
  2. How are you caring for yourself in this unprecedented time in the life of our world?
  3. Are you taking time to cultivate relationships that are important to you?
  4. Are you finding ways during COVID-19 to serve others and celebrate how God is working through you to bring hope to our world?
  5. When incredible demands threaten to take away your joy, will you take time away to rest as well as renew mind, body, and spirit?

Reading gives me life and takes me to places where I can lose myself in adventure and wonder. Most of all, reading guards my joy. May the life of the Spirit be guarded within you, may you always tend the fire within, and may you hasten to arrive at the work of God, ready and eager to serve.

Blest Spirit, in their hearts abide; And give them grace to watch and pray;
That as they seek your flock to guide, They too may keep the narrow way.

P.S. Oh, there’s one more thing. I did not notice until a week later that one of the books on the top shelf landed right in the wastepaper basket. Women & Religion in America; Volume 2; The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods; A Documentary History. The women survived the fall.

[i] The Rule of St. Benedict in English 1980, Collegeville Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1981, p. 49.

[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart; Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, New York, The Seabury Press, 1982, p. 54.