August 12, 2008

On 16th century West African empires and other missionary challenges

A few weeks back, one of the high-school students I see regularly asked for my help on a homework assignment. It was a document-based question, familiar to me from high school Advanced Placement tests. You’re supposed to answer the questions based on your own knowledge and the information you learn from the set of documents that accompany the questions. The particular topic of this assignment was West African empires of the 16th century, something I know zero about, but we settled down to tackle the assignment as best we could.

It quickly became clear to me that we weren’t going to get very far. This particular student has a minimal grasp of English so understanding the documents and questions (both in English) was the major initial challenge. I had her read the documents and questions to me and tried to explain the parts she didn’t understand (all of it) in my limited Xhosa. She had no pre-existing knowledge of the topic, though it is not clear whether this is because she has missed a lot of school lately because her son has been sick or the topic hasn’t been taught and there are no other readily-available resources. Needless to say, the hour we spent on this assignment was one of the most frustrating experiences of the week for me.

A while back, I wrote about how one of the great challenges that an overseas missionary faces is the sheer fact of being alone. This is still a great challenge for me and one that I know won’t ever go away. But it has faded (to an extent) in recent months to be replaced by another overwhelming - and likely insurmountable - challenge: ineffectuality.

The more you learn about people the more you realize just how hard it is to do anything of value for them that will allow them to make concrete and positive changes to their lives. There are scores more stories like this homework story and they frustrate me so much.

Ineffectuality (like loneliness) is nothing new, of course. For instance, as a news reporter, there were times when I wanted to move people to righteous anger or indignation about a topic and my story generated nothing but more apathy. There are a number of things I wish I could do and have tried but just cannot. That’s a part of life.

The difference here is that the gap between the need and the ability is massive and overwhelming. For the high school student I tried to help, she needed to learn more English, be able to attend school more regularly, have better resources available to her, and on and on. My English classes address only one of those needs and they are only for two hours a week and are only a small part of what she needs for a better command of English. I think of this gap between needs and ability when I see HIV patients who need so much and all I can give them is some vitamins or a ride to the doctor.

At this point, I imagine some of you are saying, “But, Jesse, you yourself have been yammering on for the past year about how what is important as a missionary is not what you do but who you are.” That, of course, is true and I continue to take comfort from this knowledge. But it only gets you so far when the stark and awful nature of the overwhelming needs here are laid out in plain sight. My desire to help is also overwhelming but my actual ability to do so is significantly less so.

It’s solipsistic to quote yourself, but I found myself re-reading my past monthly e-mails recently and this paragraph from the November letter grabbed me:

Had I made a shorter commitment to Itipini, I don’t think this patient would have affected me as much as he has. But since I’m here for a year, I am learning to see the people of Itipini for the individuals they are and learning about the trajectories of their lives. On the one hand, this is wonderful because there is a whole community of talented and capable people to get to know and become friends with. On the other hand, that knowledge makes this patient’s health struggles all the more difficult to deal with because I see them as affecting a real person whom I genuinely like. I want to snap my fingers and cure him – I must have missed the “how to perform miracles” session at mission training – but I can only provide a smile, a caring heart, and a free ride, all of which seem woefully, even insultingly, insufficient.
How true this remains. And to think I was just writing about how much power I have here.