Can a Rich Expatriate Missionary Disciple a Poor Muslim Believer?

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Mary Crickmore, World Renew West Africa, May 2007

This paper comes out of personal experience and observation of missionaries of many nationalities working with West Africans who are Muslim Background Believers, in several Sahelian, francophone, predominantly Muslim countries (Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Guinea.)

The immense income disparity between sub-Saharan African countries and the industrialized world is a recent situation in world history. In the late 1800’s Europe was able to colonize most of Africa because of this disparity, especially in weapons technology. Now at the turn of the 21st century, the gap has grown bigger, and is most glaring in the dimension of income. We see sub-Saharan Africans risking their lives by the hundreds to cross the desert or the sea into countries where the average wage is 50 times what they could get at home; and often on my plane trip from Paris to Mali there is a sobbing deportee who has been forced to leave France, with four police sitting around him to keep him on the plane.

I and my colleagues have experienced significant emotional and mental stress as we try to live day-by-day among people who have so little compared to us. As some of those people leave Islam to follow Christ their financial problems become even worse. I believe the national Christians experience stress as well, because missionary behavior does not fit the expected cultural patterns. I have tried below to identify some of the “whys” of the stress on both sides. Sad to say, I have not found in over twenty years any way to “fix” it or to turn off the bad feelings. I do present a few recommendations that I hope might help us better tolerate the discomfort and relate more effectively.

For brevity, I have lumped North Americans and Europeans into the category “Northerners” in my text. Here are five cross-cultural issues which I believe cause problems: 

1. Differing expectations about what friendship means.

To a Northerner, friendship consists of conversation and companionship. Almost all friendships occur between people of similar economic standing. Friends from middle and upper class backgrounds are generally financially self-sufficient and don’t loan each other money or share their resources.

For West Africans, friendship definitely includes companionship, but also mutual sharing of resources when a friend is in need. Most people experience some kind of material need frequently, and small loans of sugar, salt, money, etc. are common between neighbors. That loaning and sharing is reciprocal over time—not one sided. 

I have seen West Africans become confused and upset when a Northerner has initiated companionship and conversation with them but will not share resources. West Africans expect friendships to include more than conversation, so when a Northerner has given signals that they want a friendship, but they don’t want to share material goods, it makes no logical sense!

Northerners likewise become confused and upset when there is a stream of people coming to ask for things. I have heard Northerners say that friendship for the West Africans consists of what the friend can do for you materially. But a cultural research project that I did some years ago demonstrated that the conversation, laughter, and companionship component of friendship is high valued by Africans. I have some hypotheses for why Northern-African companionship doesn’t often happen. It is hard for Northerners to take time out for conversation; and it is difficult to find things to talk about with a person from a different education and background.

Added to the cross-cultural difference is the problem of original sin. Pretty much everyone is tempted to be manipulative some of the time. A neighbor who was talking to me turned to her grandson and said, “I wish I could buy you a cookie, but I don’t have any money.” A well-timed accusation that “you’re not helping me like you should” may be calculated to induce a gift from a missionary. But it can produce resentment and bitterness over the long term.

2. Differences in employer/employee relations.

Sometimes a Muslim employee of a missionary, after a period of time, decides to accept Christ. Employer/employee relations are very different in West Africa from the North. West Africans expect employers to be responsible for employee’s personal and family needs. In the North, family life is kept out of the workplace. Health and insurance benefits are administered by a bureaucracy according to a highly structured set of rules. But in West Africa, work life and family life are all bundled together. The missionary has to relate to the person both as an employer and as a brother/sister in Christ. With high unemployment and few jobs available, employees tend to be delighted when they first get the job, but then build up resentment over time as they experience financial pressure and the employer doesn’t give what they ask. It is unlikely that a Northerner will meet all of an employee’s expectations; and since there are no alternative jobs, they remain in an equilibrium of dissatisfaction.

3. In much of the Sahel, Arab religious and aid organizations are building mosques and giving financial aid.

This context increases the expectation that Northern Christians should be sharing resources and helping West Africans with income generation, church buildings, and many other things. Plus, when they read the Bible, West Africans see passages like 1 John 3:17-18, Matthew 5:42, and James 2:15-16 about giving to the needy. The following quote from “Reactions by an African to the book, African Friends and Money Matters” by A. F. and David Maranz, SIL, demonstrates the resentment and suspicion that can build up:

Look at the example of the Mourides (Muslim Sufi order) which ought to be admired by everyone. When they greet others, there is solidarity, mutual aid, and a spirit of sharing.

If this movement is so strong, it is because those that succeed help others who in turn help still others. This is not the case with you Westerners and especially not the case with Christian missionaries. Africa should not be the place to make Western propaganda in order to become richer and then forget others. Africans should benefit from the resources sent to their countries for the benefit of the Westerners. Westerners profit much while in Africa. Your expenses while in Africa are nothing in relation to what you receive. Africa is a place to enrich yourself. To the extent that your enormous wealth comes from Africa you should at least be willing to share from that. I don't say to throw your money out the window but you need to create micro-enterprises, to train local people to take responsibility, and to ensure good management. What is done is quite the opposite and it is deplorable.

4. Northerners are not used to face-to-face relationships with the poor, because Northern communities are very segregated along lines of class and wealth.

Northerners who have come to work in West Africa are virtually all middle class, and are not used to poor people’s focus on day-to-day survival, and the fact that the poor don’t plan, save, and invest as does the middle class. Northerners are used to helping the poor, whom they do not see, through giving to non-profit institutions and/or through government programs supported by taxes. They also have a high degree of trust in the honesty and competence of these institutions. But West Africans are wary and suspicious of government and even church institutions, because these organizations have the general reputation that they divert funds for the use of powerful people. When Northerners suddenly find themselves in direct contact with poor individuals, it is a shock, and they have no past experience to guide them in how to behave. Even Northerners who have had some contact with the poor through short-term service programs have not had real relationships with them.

5. When a Northerner comes to live in proximity with West Africans, some harmful dynamics can occur in the local community as a result of gossip and jealousy.

There is a general expectation that those close to the Northerner are getting substantial material assistance. There can be maneuvering to get “in” with the Northerner or break up relationships that others have with the Northerner. This can be disastrous in communities and in the small churches or worshipping groups that surround the Northern missionaries.

What we have is, ironically, the reverse of what is described in the book of Philippians and other epistles of Paul. There, people who saw the potential of financial gain were posing as preachers of the gospel, because there was money to be had through pretense and manipulating the people they were teaching. Now, in West Africa, we do not have false missionaries coming to swindle money from the people they teach; rather, it is those being taught who see the possibility of gaining money through providing an audience. In both cases, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. This means that in situations of need among West Africans and Muslim Background Believers, giving money can DO HARM. I have written about this in another article in which I described how a Northerner may think they are giving a good gift (bread) when in reality they are giving something useless (a stone) or even something dangerous (a snake).

Recommendations for Northerners:

  1. DO NOT ASSUME that the strong impulse you feel to fix someone’s problem by giving them money is coming from the Holy Spirit. It may be coming from your own cultural background.
  2. COMMUNICATE with the nationals. LISTEN, and when you hear them express suspicions or assumptions that are false, try to show them evidence that will correct their misinterpretation.
  3. ENDURE THE DISCOMFORT. Just as the climate and the physical conditions may be difficult, the emotional conditions are difficult too.
  4. REMEMBER THAT YOUR WORTH COMES FROM GOD NOT FROM PEOPLE. If you have a strong need for affirmation from others, you will tend to do things that please people in the short term but create longterm problems.
  5. BE A LEARNER. Some people can’t face the fact that they may have made a mistake. They feel compelled to defend their actions rather than reflecting on past experience and improving the next time. This point, like number 4, has to do with self-worth, insecurities, and self-doubt. The healthiest situation for expats working with nationals is where all build a sufficiently strong relationship to engage together in action-reflection in an atmosphere of mutual love and acceptance. But where expats compare their ministries, criticize and become defensive, they have fallen into the error of 2 Corinthians 10:12 “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” NIV
  6. ENDURE AMBIGUITY. In many ministry situations you will never know in this life whether you did the right thing or made a mistake. If you are a perfectionist or highly achievement-oriented, prepare to deal with feelings of frustration.
  7. HOPE. God has called us to hope, and I share the joy of my colleagues who have spent many hours and driven long distances to make Scripture and learning resources available to Muslim Background Believers. Despite all that is against us, God’s people are growing spiritually in West Africa and God is daily adding those who are being saved.
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