I am still processing my recent trip to Africa. There is the contrast of frigid winter temperatures in Chicago with several days in the Namibian desert with temperatures in the upper 90s. The apartheid narrative and the issue of race offered much fodder for reflection. Wildlife (over 30 animal species counted; of course, elephants, giraffes, and zebras), natural beauty (desert, dunes, the Atlantic ocean, the wine country of South Africa), Cape Town, and the hospitality of the people continue to linger in my heart.
It was the many conversations with people in South Africa and Namibia that keep coming back to me. We clocked over 50 hours talking with Scobie, our tour guide and driver for the Namibian portion of the trip. Scobie is in his mid-thirties, from the Damara people with a spoken language that uses vivid clicking sounds. Scobie is the owner of a travel agency and leads many tours in his native country, including groups from the United States, such as Pacific Lutheran University.
Over time we learned that Scobie identifies as Christian and grew up as a Lutheran. Like many Americans, faith in a God who provides guidance and purpose is important to him, yet he is ambivalent about the church. When I pressed him on that statement, he named the pastors that preach a prosperity gospel and live in great wealth amid the poverty of the masses. Scobie is more apt to attend an Anglican church these days because the Lutheran services are three hours long! I would do the same thing, I must admit.
At one point I asked Scobie how he felt about colonialism and white Europeans who brought not only Christianity, but Western culture to Africa. He admitted that he has mixed feelings about this. And so do I.
In the gospels Jesus calls the disciples to leave their nets so that they can fish for people. Several hundred years ago many Christians would have interpreted that verse to mean the gospel of Jesus should supplant whatever religion was practiced by native people.
I am glad that the ELCA currently defines mission work as accompaniment—serving, learning, and growing with people in other countries and contexts, rather than imposing our faith on them.
The most surprising thing for me was when I asked Scobie whether Jesus is portrayed as black in pictures or in nativity scenes. Never, he said, from his experience. That moment was one of the saddest for me of the entire trip.