It’s 21:46 on Tuesday 12th January 2010. I’m sat on my sofa, looking at the street light through my window and watching the snow getting blown about by bitter, blustery winds. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that just 3 days ago I was in the sweltering heat and cultural whirlwind of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It already seems like I’ve been back in the UK for weeks! The harsh weather, the familiar faces, sights and sounds, the pace of life and of course the joy of being with my family again. It’s all back as it was. At least on the surface it is. Underneath, however, things have changed for ever…
This isn’t going to be a long post. As so many of you who follow this blog know, I posted a vast amount of words and pictures while I was away, and in many ways there’s no point in regurgitating what I’ve already written. If you haven’t read my previous posts then by all means do so. This post, however, is just a closing comment on what, for me, was a trip of a lifetime.
Having never been to Africa before, I didn’t really know what to expect and was going with a very open mind. I can say with all honesty that I was daunted by the prospect of encountering poverty on a level that I never had before. Aware that the language barrier could be a problem. Concerned that being as (comparatively) young as I am and looking as (apparently) thuggish as I do, people might have struggled to take me seriously as a Pastor. (We had been tipped off that tattoos could prove a stumbling block to believers out there – so I was in long sleeves all week!) I was also very conscious that I was way out of my depth. Hill City Church is a very young church in many ways, so to be establishing a gospel partnership with a church on another continent is a massive commitment and a faith venture into the unknown. Furthermore, I was also very nervous about meeting Karelle, the girl who we sponsor through Compassion. Joking aside, I have a proven track record in making young children cry – without even trying. I really didn’t want my visit to traumatise this precious little girl!
As I look back on the trip, I can see how God had His hand on all of these things! The scale of poverty in Burkina did hit me hard – I saw, smelt and experienced things that were completely new to me. However, I was not overwhelmed by it, but rather saw it as confirmation that this was the right nation to be partnering with. I remember when we had a church meeting to discuss where we should pursue a partnership with. Compassion had given us 2 choices – Ghana (English speaking, far less poverty and greater life expectancy) or Burkina Faso (French speaking, 3rd poorest country in the world, with an average life expectancy of 45). I remember being proud of my people when they all voted for Burkina Faso, citing the scale of the challenges as the reason why we should be involved there! God loves nations like this, and He loves it when His people step up to the plate. I saw in Burkina Faso the opportunity for Hill City to play its part in shining the light of the gospel in the face of great darkness. Furthermore, I have to say that it quickly became very apparent that while the people of this nation are materially very poor – they are also rich in many ways that we in the west are not – which explains why there are so many smiling faces in all my photos. There’s more to life and happiness than comfort of money and possessions.
The language barrier proved little problem so long as the trusty Ouena was in the loop. However, I have come back with the intention of learning French – purely for the sake of this partnership!
As far as the age/thug thing went – I don’t think that this was an issue at all. Certainly from the time that our guide, Vivianne, met us at the airport, through all of our meetings with the various leaders and facilitators at Compassion, we knew nothing but honour, respect and a very warm welcome. This was even more the case when we met Pastor Robert and the leaders at SIM Paspanga Church. These guys not only greeted as brothers, they gladly gave us multiple opportunities to teach the Bible and lead them in times of ministry. Both me and James found this immensely humbling, and regularly felt that it should be them teaching us as they had a joy in Christ and a commitment to the gospel that we were jealous for! On our final day with the church I thanked Pastor Robert for being gracious enough to welcome us in light of our young ages. He replied “It is not you who we welcome, but the One who sent you!” That says it all!
As for feeling out of my depth in establishing a formal link between SIM Paspanga and Hill City Church – I still do! But I’ve decided that it’s a good thing!! Having seen the scale of need/opportunity that faces our brothers and sisters there in Paspanga – it feels way too big for Hill City to truly help. However, there are three things that give me hope:
i) The heart of Hill City Church – Of all the ministries that we have launched since the inception of the church, none have captured the hearts, the imagination and the sacrificial commitment of the saints like this partnership! From the number of sponsorships, to the packing of rucksacks for the children, to the number of hits and comments on this blog while we were away – the passion for being part of God’s plans in Paspanga is staggering! The picture that I think best describes this came as me and James were leaving after church a week last Sunday. Seeing Helen and Fiona carrying a handle each of a huge bag of gifts for ‘our kids’ through an icy, snow-covered car park, along with many others coming out with bags, or even just to wave us off – that blessed me deeply and gave me such hope for this partnership! I just know that Hill City is up for this!!
ii) The heart of the guys out there – Pastor Robert keenly stressed that he felt that this partnership was absolutely God’s timing. Certainly the way that the church both received and responded to our approach as gospel partners suggested that this was the case. Also, the actual church itself – it’s theology, it’s passions, it’s vision and direction – it so dove-tails with Hill City that you couldn’t miss the evidence of God’s purposes and grace. One of the most striking images that we saw last week was on the wall of the church hall behind the pulpit. There was a watermark 6ft up the wall that reveals just how deep the devastating flood waters had been in Paspanga last September. What I loved though, was that there was a cross painted on the wall that rose above the water level. That, I believe, is a perfect picture of the gospel heart and intentions of SIM Paspanga Church. The heart behind the Compassion project also suggests that this partnership will work. While I’d love to see us be able to help out in Paspanga on a huge scale with big projects and significant, generous giving – it’s so encouraging to remember that Compassion exists to help change areas like this in the name of Jesus – one child at a time!
iii) The heart of Jesus – He came, died and rose for ones such as these! He boldly stated that “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18v27). He also promised that for those who we obediently step out onto the mission field – He will be with us the whole way! (Matt 28v20) So If Jesus is down with us – we’re sorted!!
(I will be blogging about some of the specific ways in which Hill City is going to be able to help support the work of Compassion in Paspanga in a week or so – I just think that it’s not appropriate to blog about these things before sharing them with the saints of Hill City – which I’ll be doing next week.)
Finally, as far as meeting Karelle went – my nerves were soon turned to joy as I met this beautiful young girl and her family. Compassion had really prepared the whole thing well, so there was little room for things to go wrong. It was great to hear from her parents about just how much she has developed since joining the Compassion project. It was also nice to see that the international greeting of ‘safe’ is alive and well in Burkina Faso! Seeing her in the project on the Thursday was also fantastic – to see her have so much fun, engage with the Bible teaching, eat good food and be quite happy to hang out with me – her weird Welsh sponsor – that was lush too. I honestly can’t speak highly enough about Compassion – they are just superb. I am now on a mission now to get as many new sponsors as I can for these kids. If you’re reading this and you’re a Christian and you want to sponsor a child in our project in Burkina Faso – post a comment below and I’ll get it sorted out! Serious!!
In conclusion then – I’ve changed! Seeing the gospel, the church and the purposes of God lived out loud in such an extreme missional context was always going to change me. It’s changed my heart, my attitude to wealth, my personal comfort and ultimately the future direction of Hill City – the church I love!
I want to thank everyone who prayed for me and who made the trip possible. I especially want to thank Jesus – the Saviour and King of the whole world – from Wales to Ouagadougou and back again! Thank You, LORD, for the privilege of being part of all this!