TAP: Tell me about ACrossMission and its focus.
HE: We work in Northwest Tanzania, in the Mara region, and we work across denominations. I would say that about half of our supported ministries are Anglican. They’re a wonderful group of Indigenous Tanzanian pastors.
TAP: How did you first became connected with mission work?
HE: I met Bishop Mwita Akiri from Tanzania in the foyer of Wycliffe College where I was studying. It was an interesting conversation, and ended with “You should come and visit Tarime.” So I went and a lot of the things that I presumed about the church in the Developing World were shaken away. I found a church with very knowledgeable, very gifted pastors who were living in very hard physical circumstances, and who were willing to take the Gospel into very difficult areas. And on that trip I was looking around and saying “Okay, is there a way to step in with these pastors – who are already there, already know the culture and they’re already here on the ground.”
Prior to going to Tanzania I had been at one of our local churches and there was a missionary there who was trying to raise $350,000 US so that he and his family could go to Mozambique on mission for 3½ years. I did some quick math and I remember thinking: “Wow, that’s a lot of money to send someone from North America to do mission for 3½ years.” So I started to communicate with some of the pastors on the ground in Tanzania and asked “What would be a dollar figure that would really help out?” Some are in such desperate circumstances that $1 or $2 a day would make a massive difference. And I came to a point – and it was admittedly a bit random – but I thought if a group of people could step into a ministry at $300/month, $10/day, that that would be a fairly impactful number. It would allow pastors to eat but it would also provide some money for transportation and ministerial expenses.
So ACrossMission is primarily a conduit: We are a way for the North American and the European church, who live in God’s abundance, to support Gospel ministers who live in poverty and persecution--we would just like to walk with them.
TAP: Do you have a lot of administration costs?
HE: One dollar leaving your pocket here in Canada loses 2.7 cents in the transfer to the ministry in Tanzania. The only thing we lose is a bank charge. So all the administration is covered voluntarily; all the travel that we do is paid for by ourselves. We try to ensure that every dollar we get from a donor in Canada gets into the pocket of a priest for his or her Gospel work in Tanzania.
TAP: You mentioned pastors going into hard places. What’s the religious background of the region?
HE: Christianity is not huge in the Mara region, as low as 3% are Christian. Islam is more prevalent than Christianity; then you have the traditional religions and non-believers.
TAP: Can you be more specific about what some of those hard things are?
HE: On the poverty end, we lost a pastor that was on our sponsor list. We had not found sponsors yet for him, he had an injury, and then an infection that went systemic and he died on Canada Day this past summer. These are educated men who have other options, but who are willing to go where there’s that risk. We’ve also experienced pushback. I was preaching last month, and I managed to be heckled by local Muslims, so there is that tension. We hear quite frequently where a congregation will begin building a brick wall of a church, and will come back and the wall will have been pushed in. We haven’t experienced open violence, but more of the marginalization, subtle persecution, from people who just don’t want the church in the community.
TAP: Does it depend on the leadership of the community, whether the mayor happens to be Christian or Muslim?
HE: It’s definitely territorial-based. Tanzania has made the choice to simply be non-partisan, religiously: all religions are equal in the eyes of the national government.
But we’ve seen violence when Christianity comes up against a pagan, closely-held custom – there will be pushback against the church. If you’re in an Islamic region, you see pushback. Certainly when my wife, my son and I were there in August, there were often arguments as we came into town – what did we intend to do? Town councils and community elders are very happy to see the Christian church in place, provided we come with money. So there’s always that: you can talk about Jesus Christ and the Gospel and we’ll tolerate it, but are you going to build us a school or a water project? How about helping us with transportation needs? There’s no question they take a very pragmatic approach.
TAP: I understand your project is to help pastors with these small but very meaningful gifts, so you’re not able to go in there and build wells. You’re not World Vision…
HE: That’s not the piece of the puzzle that we’re called to. And frankly, I’ve seen circumstances where water projects and schools have failed, and they have failed because the heart condition of the people was not “Love thy neighbor,” it was “What’s in it for me”? In one water project in the region, a man gave the land that allowed them to build a water tank and a well. It was a Christian group in the U.S. that funded and built it. That water project currently has a fence around it, with a guard. The man who donated the land now says, “That’s my water and if you want it you’re going to buy it…or you can walk the 8 km up the road.” We need to get to the point where we love the other and the other’s happiness is more important than our own, and where we work in a way that reflects that. And had he been doing that, that community would have water.
TAP: Some people would say that building a school (or a well) helps make people more receptive to the Gospel, in which case you then can lay the groundwork. Before you share the Gospel, you need to first get some goodwill from the communities?
HE: We start from a very relational perspective. ACrossMission ministries is not looking for folks to just be there for a short time, it’s being present for a number of years. If we have the opportunity to bring education or healthcare we do – and that’s usually through making connections with people who are already doing that ministry (there are lots of organizations that are focused on those particular things), and that is wonderful. But I’d like that blessing to be received and be useful in the long term – that is my prayer for these communities. I’ve seen beautiful schools that have been built and they become exclusive, they become profit centres for people, and I don’t see how that is particularly good in the long term. It’s creating a class system, the haves and have-nots, even in the poverty of East Africa. I do believe the Gospel is active and effective; I believe the Gospel gets taken in and when a blessing is received subsequent to that (if we hold on to that Gospel message) many will benefit, rather than few.
TAP: What message do you bring back to churches in Canada when you speak to them?
HE: In 2 Cor. Chapter 8, Paul is talking about the Church in Macedonia: even in their poverty they gave and gave for the saints in Jerusalem and he held that up as a model for Corinth: ‘You’re standing in abundance,’ he says, ‘those who harvested much should not have too much, and those who harvested little should not have too little.’ And the message is clear: we in Canada are a church in abundance and there is a responsibility that we have because God has placed some of our brothers and sisters on the frontline of taking the Gospel into difficult areas. ACrossMission asks: “How do we work that out”? $300 a month for a congregation of 40 – a little bit of mathematics tells you that what I’m really asking people to do is to sacrifice 25 cents a day. That’s a good first baby step, as long as we see it as a good first baby step.
TAP: We’ve talked about laying the Gospel foundation first, instead of trying to put cultural or social changes first. Can you talk a little bit about how the knowledge of the Gospel might have changed some people’s view of a practice such as FGM [female genital mutilation]?
HE: That is a great example. The cutting, the mutilation, occurs in and around the Christmas season – I think it has something to do with the winter solstice. We were working with the Kuria two Christmases ago and we would pass these roadside clusters. It’s a big celebration for the girls (the boys are cut at the same time but there’s a focus on the girls). There’s music and whistles and masks – the girls are on the way to their circumcision. And on our way to church we were passing a lot of these and I got to the church and in the choir the girls are dancing at the front of the church and I’m thinking, “Wow isn’t that awesome” because they are here and with us they are not being cut.
Sadly, later that week I passed one of these clusters and I recognized one of the choir girl’s fathers. I asked what he was doing and it’s his daughter that’s being cut. She was singing in the choir that past Sunday and she was being cut on Tuesday. And that challenges me: I want to yell, I want to scream – we’re missing some piece.
The next Sunday I preached from Colossians 3 – turning to Christ and turning away from the things of the world. We can’t go in and tell people what to do; there has to be a transformation of our heart. You and I can probably talk about things we do in North America that are bad choices we haven’t turned away from – it’s the same thing. We have to preach the Gospel and we talk about turning to Christ and turning away from the things of the world – we’re all human, we all have intellect, we eventually put it together and realize “Wow, turning to Christ means turning away from that.” And when that choice is made by the individual, that is a permanent and powerful choice. When it’s forced by somebody else, more often than not, it’ll be pushed back or rebelled against. Even when the law was passed, I think in 1994, against female circumcision, all it did for a time was put it underground. And people now, openly, and defiantly, disobey it. Just before I left for Tanzania in August, they passed a law against child marriage, yet one of the first things I encountered in Tanzania was a 14-year-old girl being married as the third or fourth wife. We can force it all we want, but things don’t really change until it becomes internalized and part of who they are. And that happens through the Gospel, and that is where our hope is – Jesus Christ, the Word. We’re promised that the Word is active, it has agency.
We drove into one community as the witch doctor was walking out and there was a bit of laughter: “There’s the first step; he’s gone.” We were there for a few days, and as we were driving out, he was walking back in. He was persistent. And that’s another piece with ACrossMission, we have to be there persistently, through thick and thin with each community. One of the difficulties I have coming from North America: [East African Christians] will ask us about our divorce rate, our definition of marriage, and about abortion. They’ll ask about all those hot-button issues and say, “You’re preaching this here, but that is happening back home. How do you reconcile that?” When I was there with a group of Canadian students, some of the Tanzanians were listening to our conversations, and said, “Wow, you have to get your house in order!” And we do. But the response to them and to us is “What is the call of the Gospel?”
TAP: How did you end up in seminary at age 48?
HE: I thought that being a Christian had to be more than I understood Christianity to be. [Wycliffe Principal at the time, now Bishop of Dallas] George Sumner, the first day in his lecture said, “You have to shake the context of the church in the West. Until we see Christianity in other contexts, you’re not going to see the Gospel clearly.” I know now what he’s talking about. TAP
Howard Edwards and ACrossMission would welcome sharing their mission ministry with your congregation or small group. To learn more visit: www.acrossmission.org.