Nineteen years ago I was in Zimbabwe on a two-month Youth With A Mission (YWAM) outreach, out of The King’s Lodge training base in Nuneaton. This was with my wife and three young children (6, 5, 2), and nineteen other people (adults and children).
This was my first experience of cross-cultural mission and ministry outside the UK and my first experience of the incredible Continent of Africa. I was not even thirty years old and despite all my senses being assaulted for good or ill, God was calling me and my family into mission.
The reason for writing this post is two-fold: First, I was reminded of this incredible adventure earlier today by a simple smell of something that took my head and my heart right back into Zimbabwe; And second, I have never actually written, or spoken, about anything of those life-changing weeks as a family and a team, that we experienced together. This experience marked the beginning of eight years with YWAM, seven years of which were spent on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS), a nine-month course in Biblical Studies. It was this School that changed my life.
The smell was sweet and smokey and beautifully primitive: wood smoke. I’ve smelled wood smoke many times before, I have my own fire place in the house and a fire-pit for the back yard, but something about this one shuttled me back to the last year of the previous millennium.
We were outside Harare, in a rural village, helping the only church to provide better toilet facilities, by digging pits, making bricks and building walls. The gender lines were defined along ancient Zimbabwean customs (at least in the rural settings), so the men chopped wood and fashioned bricks from the rich red earth, whilst the women cooked, washed clothes and provided childcare. I don’t mean for this to sound like a hideous stereotype, but they were the “rules of engagement” in a country where we were the guests. However, I definitely did some childcare, and for sure, some women from our team and their Zimbabwean counterparts certainly helped chop wood and make bricks.
It was a challenge, what with three young children of my own in that context, and so many people had affirmed that we were called as a family into mission. There were however, the few voices that called it “unwise” and “irresponsible” and “dangerous” and so on. Those voices represent my unrepentant disregard for a bourgeois Christianity that will stop at nothing to maintain an appearance of Christianity, a Christian mediocrity that has more to do with personal safety and privilege before any actual call of God!
These voices didn’t win out. We won out by responding, however tentatively, to the call of God to “Go!” So we did. And among all the things we did, toilet building was one of them because the gospel dignifies human beings, and as a colleague commented at the time, “God deals with our shit, so we help others to deal with theirs – it’s in the Bible for goodness sake!” And it is: Deuteronomy 23:12-14. So through words and actions, we endeavoured to dignify the incredible people we met in Zimbabwe in 1999, knowing as we went, that it was they who dignified us!
And that memory came from a whiff of smoke in Devon!