That's the question I really don't know how to answer.
It feels the same in some ways, but I don't want it to at all. I don't want to be left unchanged. I want to discover what things I see differently. There are areas of my life that I want to be drastically altered.
What does it feel like to be back? It feels unsatisfying until I can figure out what has really been refined and processed, sharpened and shaped in me. Until I can figure out why and how I'm ready to move onto the next things God has for me. Until I can say the things which deeply affected me have grown into branches bearing fruit.
I don't want to be unchanged. I don't want to file the person I was in the Congo away into memories and binary code transformed into stories on some blog.
Perhaps processing through some of my lessons will help. I want to post something on here, it was a school assignment, but I think it will help you to understand my processing and some of my experiences overseas. The assignment was to develop a list of questions to ask a missionary on field and then to interview them and report on the interview in a paper. Here is that assignment:
The questions which I asked were as follows:
1. Name: Christina
2. When did you first come to the Congo?
3. Did you see any changes in the city since the time you came?
4. How has your perspective of the country/city changed since you first came?
5. What are some of the greatest difficulties you have felt?
6. What are the greatest joys that you have experienced while serving overseas?
7. What has most helped you overcome the difficulties?
8. How often do you go home?
9. What are your main responsibilities now?
10. How do you balance personal time and ministry time?
11. How do you decide who to help (physically/materially) and who to say no to?
12. What would you change if you were to stay it all from the beginning again?
13. How do you stay focused and connected on God?
14 . What has changed in your vision since you came?
15. What advice would you give to new missionaries coming onto the field?
Christina first came to the city of Bukavu in 2002 as a teacher and school supervisor and since then has seen the city grow in population, technology and resources. Automatic withdrawal machines have been added, many fancy houses built or in the process of being built, an increase of military activity, increased access to the internet and increased political awareness are all changes that she has noted since she first arrived.
Since her arrival she has also been able to see the country a bit more "from the inside out". Knowing individual people and circumstances rather than the general situation of the country. I too, though my time has been short, have felt this change. Reports on the news become personal stories among friends while walking down a dusty road or driving in a beat up car. You see the individual nits and grits of life and remember that even in a country ravaged by war someone still needs to change the baby, peel the cassava, change the oil in the car and to dance to music blaring from the radio. I have seen a more intimate part of life here. Less extravagant or sensational than some may imagine, but more elegantly simply and beautiful than most know how to imagine.
However when getting to know people here on a more personal level the stereotypical image of a 'mzungu', a foreigner, is not one that is easy to overcome. Christina felt that " We are not a woman or a man – we are a mzungu. We are not supposed to work hard physically; we should have the best places, get first in the queue, not to get wet...." I myself have often felt as though I broke the stereotypical image of a mzungu by choosing to walk to work each day rather than take a car. For this I have received more than my fair share of stares from people who just did not know what to make of a mzungu getting his pants dusty and his feet dirty on the Bukavu streets. Christina said that she knew many people see us differently out of "love, thankfulness or honor...but I still have problems with it... Sometimes you just want to be a normal, real person and to be a normal, real friend.
This has been my one of my greatest difficulties. There are a few individuals that I have greatly desired to demonstrate true friendship and care towards. However it has been a struggle because it seems that they cannot see me as a person but rather merely as a mzungu with 'unlimited resources' who is expected to help them as the people struggling to live. Prior to my internship my supervisor from STMNetwork asked me this question: "What do you need from the poor?" I did not know how to answer him then, but now I would say that I need them to see me as a person and not just a resource. Only then will we be able to exchange genuine care, support and love that will result in lasting empowerment and change.
It is a constant struggle to know who to help. To know who genuinely needs it and to know who is lying to you. Christina said that "Everyone who asks maybe needs my help. Some are cheating and some who are really in need are not even asking..." It is hard to know who is going to spend the money to buy food and medicine for their family, and who is going to buy a Primus beer with it the next day. It is hard to know who's voices are genuinely touched by grief and who's are merely a facade put on to invoke your pity. As I have chosen to do, Christina said that she also rarely gives to people herself. It is just too difficult to know and to give only feeds into the stereotype of a mzungu probably more than it actually helps anyone. So even though it can be heartbreaking to so "no" to someone, sometimes this is the choice that has to be made and another way must be found to connect with them.
This leads into what one of Christina's greatest joys while on the field were - to be accepted as a person. There have been a few amazing times where God working through my actions has allowed people to see me in a different way. Where they stopped asking for money or stuff and instead just wanted to spend time with me. It makes being relational much easier and rewarding as well when you know that the other person does not have some sort of ulterior motives behind their willingness to talk with you.
To overcome difficulties and to connect with God Christina mentioned how she enjoyed both spending time in preparation and delivering a sermon, as well as in prayer with other missionaries on the compound. There is an undeniable link between the most difficult days and the days where prayer and connecting with God were not a priority. I cannot deny that my greatest frustrations were on the days when I did not take care of myself physically (allowing enough sleep or hydration), and spiritually (spending the needed time in prayer and in the Word). When I had taken the time to pray, I always experienced a greater love for the city and thankfulness for the opportunity to be here.
While taking care of yourself spiritually and physically, however, there keeps arising a tension between personal time and ministry time. Should you feel guilty about taking time to yourself? What is a good balance? I asked Christina about this as well and what she did to relax/recharge and deal with the tension of ministry and personal life.
For recharging time Christina travels home for a month each year and then for a full year after every 6 years. While on field, with so much need and so many people requesting the 'endless resources' of a mzungu, it can be easy for ministry to consume your entire life. However more hours does not mean better ministry. So when she was not away Christina would also still try to have her own time to read, take walks outside the mission and connect with friends back home via the internet. It did not seem as though she felt like every waking hour should be 'ministry'. Of course as Christians we should live and breathe an intentional life for God always being "ready in and out of season" to do what He sees is good. However this does not mean that every hour is spent with others. Jesus himself often took time alone to pray and recharge. This is what Christina recommended when I asked what advice she would
give those new to the field - that they take a break and go away regularly. To keep the spirit refreshed, the mind focused and the heart thankful for where God has brought it and is doing in and through it.
Her other piece of advice for those new to the field was to not be too eager to change or criticize things until you have a deep understanding of how things really are and why they are that way. To understand things with a lens beyond the one you grew up with in your own country. Your time should be first spent learning and walking through life with open eyes and ears. This is something I have been thankful for during this internship. There have been a number of time where I have felt like I was doing so little for the people here. However in reality my purpose in these three months is not to change the Congo. Though I am to selflessly love while here, it is alright to see myself as a guest in a learning position. That this time be an opportunity to soak up experience without having the pressure of career or outside expectations controlling my every move. Now is a time to see, hear, touch, taste life in a context so unlike the one I have known and to test my heart to see where and how this experience will fit into my future. The biggest change that will result from this time will no doubt be in my own heart and life. I am not seeking merely to satisfy or gratify myself after all, so I do not think it is wrong to think this way.
Now, in conclusion, I had also asked Christina what she would have changed if she was to being her time again. To this she responded that she would have been more quick to be involved in preaching and the spiritual activities of the church. There is something to be said about not forgetting the spiritual aspects of a land so saturated in social and physical struggles. I hope that no matter where I find my life leading in the future, that the spiritual condition of my friends and family and strangers as well, would always be on my heart and mind. I cannot forget that miserable people live both abundant and impoverished lives, but the spiritual rich have joy and strange peace in all circumstances. When I find myself unable to share physical wealth, may spiritual wealth be pouring out from my hands, my words, my thoughts, my prayers and into the hands, ears, minds and hearts of others.