It’s still incomprehensible to me.  OurAfricaUniversity mission team was traveling fromZambia toBotswana to visit a game park.  To enterBotswana we had to cross theZambeziRiver at the convergence of the countries ofZambia,Botswana,Zimbabwe, andNamibia.  It’s nearly the only quadripoint in the world: where 4 independent countries meet at a single point.

As we approached the border, our driver said that we would have to cross the river by boat because there was no bridge.  He further explained that because this road was a major thoroughfare in sub-SaharanAfrica, semi trucks had to wait up to seven days to cross the half mile wide river on a barge, one at a time.

Can you image semi after semi sitting alongside the road simply waiting?  Naturally, we asked, “Think how much time is wasted.  It can’t be that big a deal to build a bridge over the river.  This is the 21st century!”  Our driver replied, “We need the cooperation of all 4 countries to build the bridge, but the leadership of one country has resisted for years, so here we sit.”  In this case, it’s not a “bridge to nowhere,” it’s “no bridge to somewhere”.   

Yes, this may be an example of Africaat its worst, where leaders find ways to divide rather than unite, simply for their own gain.  However, “no bridge to somewhere” does not define Africa and, in fact, flies in the face of Africa’s greatest gift to our world: the concept of ubuntu.  

I first learned about this unique African word when I read Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness.  Tutu writes, “Ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human.  When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Hey, so and so has ubuntu.  Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate.  You share what you have.  It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours….’”

The African concept of ubuntu is a gift to the human race and, if lived out, would transform every government, university, business, school, church, and family in our world.  Ubuntu claims that at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters, and we find our value and purpose in community.  When others hurt, I hurt.  When I celebrate, others celebrate.  I am a person through others.  The group is more important than the individual.  No one cares who gets the credit. 

The Grand Rapids District Africa University Task Force is preparing to roll out a campaign to raise $500,000 to build a retreat center on the campus of our UnitedMethodistAfricaUniversityin Zimbabwe.  Last month we spent several hours discerning a name that would capture the essence of this project.  We decided on Africa University Ubuntu Gathering Center, which signifies the gift that this center will offer not only to the university but to all of Africa and to our world.  The Ubuntu Center will be a gathering place on campus where innovation and hope grow out of bridge building, dialogue, and holy conferencing among people from many nations.   

I saw ubuntu in action everywhere our mission team traveled in Africa.  The Zimbabwean pastors with whom we met are cohesive and do not compete against each other because they know that it is God’s desire and in everyone’s best interest to bring in the kingdom together.  The students at Africa University, coming from 25 African countries, look after each other’s welfare because they all share a common dream of changing the continent in a positive way.  We even heard stories of students giving away their meal cards to those who had no money for food.  Within each African country there are dozens of tribes, languages, and customs, but ubuntu unites them because they have learned that to harm others is to harm themselves. 

Do you know about the African handshake?  It is used between people of all races and tribes.  To do the African handshake, shake hands and, without letting go, slip your hand around the other person’s thumb; then go back to the traditional handshake.  By linking thumbs, we show ubuntu: we are united as one. 

What might happen if you and I and our world decided that practicing ubuntu was a priority this year?  This is no easy challenge, especially for Americans, where we tend to live in silos.  OurAmerica tradition is looking out for #1: we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and are proud of it.  Individualism is more important than community.  Needing others is a sign of weakness rather than strength.  Cooperation too often becomes moot unless our political, religious, and social views agree.    

Furthermore, our deepening political and cultural divisions have devolved to the point where mean-spirited rhetoric, threats, and violence have become acceptable in the name of freedom.  The Saturday shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, begs us to make our voice heard when ubuntu is neither practiced nor desired.

These attitudes carry over into every aspect of our lives, including the church.  Although our very nature as a connectional church promotes ubuntu, too often we United Methodists reflect our country’s personality rather than our Wesleyan heritage.  By tending to our own needs first, we miss the opportunity to use our collective influence to build bridges and end up instead with “no bridge to somewhere.”  Operating in survival mode by withholding ministry shares until we can “afford to pay them” not only misses the joy of being in ministry together around the world but relegates us to a faithless existence.  Turf protection among churches and squabbling at the denominational level rather than sharing resources to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world diminishes the body of Christ.

Fortunately, positive examples of ubuntu abound: individuals, churches, businesses, and schools are linking thumbs and building bridges to somewhere.

  • A community rallies around a family who lost their home in a fire, providing shelter, clothing, workers to rebuild the house, and hope for the future.  Ubuntu
  • Drew Brees was selected by Sports Illustrated as 2010 Sportsman of the Year.  Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, won the Super Bowl last year and brought hope back to a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  Brees said, “I needed New Orleans as much as New Orleans needed me.” Ubuntu
  • Businesses are realizing that employees who feel valued, respected, and trusted and are shown appreciation are more productive and happy, and the companies are more successful.  Ubuntu
  • Samuel’s family immigrated from Sierra Leoneto Grand Rapidsand was adopted by a local UnitedMethodistChurch.  Because of the unselfish love and care lavished on this family, Samuel has become fluent and will become the first person in his family to go to college because the church has pledged to pay his tuition.  Ubuntu
  • Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics professional basketball team, credits ubuntu for forming a group of individual stars into a team characterized by sacrifice and unselfishness.  Ubuntu

You’ll never find the word ubuntu in the Bible.  In fact, there is no one word in English that describes ubuntu.  “Shalom” may be about the closest we can get.  But no one in this world personified ubuntu more than Jesus.  If there is an ubuntu verse in the Bible, it’s the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:26-27, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  And if there is one quote from John Wesley that describes ubuntu, it’s this, “The world is my parish.”

Ubuntu is a way of life and being.  We have to be ubuntu before we can do ubuntu.  And the church is called to lead the way.  If we don’t link thumbs, who will?  When I asked my daughter a few weeks ago why she has a tattoo on her arm that says ubuntu, she replied, “Because I feel called to do something positive with my life.  I want to help people.” 

Ubuntu: a new word for a new year.  Are you ready to build some bridges?  Are you ready to be a bridge?  Ubuntu!

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. After the Africa University Ubuntu Gathering Center is built, the bridge over theZambeziRiver is next!

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