When a church adopts an orphan (Nov. 2016)

A conservative estimate is that, by traditional definitions, we have over 200 orphans amongst our churches (and probably over 1000 at-risk children). What can we do about this?  How are our churches responding?
I was invited to visit the church in Langi last Sunday because of this very issue.  I was asked to help an orphan in the church, but as it turns out, not in a way that I expected.

Instead, I was invited to help pay a brideprice for a 23 year old man.

Pictured with me is Sylvester.  When Sylvester’s mother passed away five years ago, following his father’s earlier death, he and his two young siblings were left behind.  With a lot of hard work, and help from the community, Sylvester has been able to raise his younger siblings to this date.

If we think about this situation through western lenses, we would commend this community for how they, together with the older brother, have helped these two young orphans. And we would want to continue to help these orphans. After all, who is more worthy of our compassion—or as the biblical writer James would remind us (echoing dozens of other biblical passages), what purer religion is there than caring for widows and orphans?  Let’s talk about how to help the younger kids, we might say.

It might seem like the church misled me—pulled a classic bait-and-switch.  But not as they see it. When we remove our western lenses, we realize that society here is much closer to the near-eastern culture from which we have received these scriptures; in the eyes of people here in Sukumaland, Sylvester is STILL an orphan.

Why?  Because here, Sylvester is not defined by his individual identity.   Rather, he is primarily defined by his relationship to others; it is through his family that he can derive his identity, his rights, and his responsibilities.  In Sukumaland, (just as in the scripture, by the way), the terms “Orphan” and “Fatherless” are not restricted to children. Likewise, the response to orphans is not limited to basic physical provision, but also includes social protection and restoration.

And this is where the brideprice comes in.  Simply put, a brideprice here is the formal linking of two families; it is like a social cement that keeps basic life in order.  Opposite of a dowry, the family of the bride receive compensation (traditionally several cows, though currently often substituted with money) as they release their daughter—and subsequent children—to a new family. And this new extended family is bound to protect, provide for, and to never abandon the wife and her children.

This system of brideprice—beautiful in spite of its inherent problems—is under great stress as modern values conflict with the traditional. In fact, all social systems have been weakened here. In generations past, Sylvester and his siblings would have been absorbed into the deceased father’s clan.  These days, for many complex and intertwined reasons, intra-family adoption is far less functional. Some say a major cause of this is the erosion of the social bonds created through marriage customs; i.e., many people aren’t paying their brideprices anymore.

Why is this broader social issue such an important issue for the church at Langi, though?  Practically, a wife would be a huge help for Sylvester, as the overwhelming household responsibilities of village life could be shared, and the younger children could receive better care.  But beyond this, the church is taking the role that Sylvester’s father would traditionally assume.  They are volunteering to take social responsibility, and according to customary law here, even some legal responsibility for this new family. They will be the mediators of marital issues. As the church stands in the place of the father’s family, they will be expected to be the first to contribute when subsequent children need school fees, medical care, or if there is any shortage of food in their household.   By paying this brideprice, they are restoring Sylvester to the fullness of identity that he lost when his parents died.

In other words, they are not merely helping Sylvester.  They are adopting him.

I wish I could take some credit for this beautiful act of love.  I was happy to contribute to this cause, and even happier that my contribution was dwarfed by the members of Sylvester’s faith community.  I can’t even take credit for discipling this group of believers, as I have largely worked in different districts than this one (though my teammates should be proud of the work they have done in Langi). But I am pretty confident none of us taught them to show love in this way.

Perhaps it wasn’t something they were taught at all, but instead, (if I can borrow some of the words from Romans 8) it was something they received—the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom they—and we—ALL can cry, ‘Abba! Father!’.

–by Kevin Linderman


Eating with Muslims (October 2016)

“So, where did this meat come from?”

This was the question I asked Jackson and Simon (the chairperson of the village of Songiwe, and its minister, respectively) as we sat down to eat after a long day of work installing a hand-pump at their new well.  I typically don’t ask questions about food here, but on this occasion I felt the need to, because of who was eating with me…

…because together with the aforementioned hosts of the meal, we were eating with John (one of the other church leaders from a different district who serves on the water committee), and Sulemani, a technical expert with decades of experience, one of the outside experts that we contract with for key aspects of our project.

And Sulemani (pictured on far left) is a Muslim.

I believe his faith is one reason why he has spent much of his life in the field of clean water provision and sanitation.  For most Muslims, these are not simply health issues but religious issues; cleanliness is requiring for worship.  But Sulemani delights in working alongside our churches; he has commented on the goodness and integrity of our church leaders, and he has no objection to our prayers for God’s blessing, in Jesus’ name.  And on a personal note, he and I have enjoyed many spiritual conversations together, learning from each other’s faiths.  In spite of these points of commonality, the customary village meal can become divisive.

Simply put, Muslims observe dietary laws, especially related to meat. In sum, no pork is consumed (which I’ve never been served in the village anyways), all slaughter must be done according to certain sanitary and humane principles, and prayers are to be performed at the time of slaughter.

Some background information is needed: in Tanzania, over a third of the population is of Muslim faith. From its beginnings as a country, Tanzania has never had a religious majority, and has had to learn how to navigate many sensitive issues for the sake of national unity. For example, by law, all meat sold at the thousands of tiny butcheries scattered throughout the country is slaughtered in approved abattoirs, with the oversight of Muslim leaders. By entrusting commercial animal slaughter to the Muslim community, any Tanzanian can enter any eating establishment and eat without concern.

But this policy cannot extend to rural communities, where people produce—and slaughter— their own food. In Sukumaland, young children slaughter chickens, goats and cows are slaughtered with whatever sharp(ish) instrument is available. But since, generally speaking, Muslims do not live in their communities, it is not a problem.  Except when the troublesome missionary (or sometimes a government official) brings a Muslim with them.

When we had finished the work of installing the new pump, we were invited to the meal.  I talked to Sulemani on the side, knowing he would prefer to just start the drive back towards Mwanza, but he understood that my work in this community compelled me to receive their hospitality.  So we headed to the nearby house where food was waiting. First, a huge platter of rice appeared. I had hoped that we might also see some beans, or greens, or fish—anyone can eat them.  But after the prayer, the other food dishes were uncovered. Chicken. Goat.

I started asking some hopeful questions. “So, did someone go to town to see the butcher today? Where did this meat come from?”. “No, this food isn’t from the butcher.  It’s from right here!” was the answer. But as Sulemani let the food dishes pass him by, the village Mwenyekiti unveiled his secret: “Sulemani, eat!!! We went to town to bring a Muslim here to prepare the food today.  We need to all be together! So don’t be afraid!!! EAT!” Which he—and we—did.

I would like to think this example of true, sacrificial hospitality is a success of our training and discipleship work in the church (some other church leaders have told me that while they don’t feel required to accomodate people with different dietary beliefs, it doesn’t seem Christ-like to not go the extra mile.  How can we claim to love someone if they don’t feel welcome at our table?).  Alternatively, perhaps it was just a success of national politics and culture in Tanzania, or some combination of factors. It’s impossible to know.

Regardless, the result was a joyous meal at the end of a long day in Songiwe, where clean water was just one of the outcomes that brought glory to God.


–written by Kevin Linderman, Facilitator of Health and Community Development


Widows, Streetkids, Injustice, and Transformation


Widows, Streetkids, Injustice, and Transformation

Mama Ntonda is a church leader in Bundilya, a mother of 5, and a widow. For the past three years she has struggled valiantly to provide for her family. Her church family has farmed her fields for her, and other church leaders from the Magu cluster have contributed to help her financially. Through it all, her hope and faith have remained strong.

But two weeks ago, she was put in jail. Why? Because her two sons, Amos (16) and Paulo (13), have not been attending primary school for the last year. Tired of their hard life and the extra burdens placed upon them, they have run away, perhaps to the city of Mwanza. So the head teacher from the village school had the authority to round up some police, put her in jail for two days, and fine her an amount equivalent to half a year’s income. No one seemed to know or care what God spoke in Exodus 22:22; there was no recourse possible, she has to borrow the money from the local savings group, and make her first repayment by selling the only thing she had: a large gunny sack of rice. Her food to last her family until spring.

It could have been worse; she could have been named a witch. Then all of her children would now be orphans. Such is the plight of a Sukuma widow.

I used to think poverty could be solved by shopping at Ten Thousand Villages, buying fair trade coffee, and wearing a white bracelet. Sadly, suffering is not so easily undone; the prince of this world is underwriting it, after all. And though many amazing things have been done to promote justice for the oppressed (I think of my friends working with International Justice Mission or World Renew), at some point we cry out, “Maranatha!”… “May your kingdom come!”. Because we need something, someone, to transform society, to lay down the weapons of exploitation used against the defenseless, and instead to show love, honor, and protection to the least of these.

However, my first gut reaction was not so holy (besides helping financially, which I and the other church leaders have done). Inside, I wanted to see Exodus 22:23-24 fulfilled, wanted to go find everyone involved in this injustice and find a way to expose them, cause them to lost their jobs, whatever it took. But not only would success have been unlikely, I might have found myself deported, and unwittingly increased the persecution faced by Mama Ntonda.

Instead, we prayed, pleading for God to bring his justice. And praying for God to bring these boys home. And praying that this community might be transformed. And that our churches might have some role to play in that transformation. Please pray this along with us.

by kevin linderman


John Magida, at far right, enjoying an in-depth bible study

When someone loses a child here, it is customary for friends and relatives to return to the bereaved parent’s home at some later date.

Such was the case last Friday, when church leaders in the Kijima cluster invited the missionaries to join them in comforting John Magida, one of our most influential church leaders here, who sadly lost his son on New Year’s Eve. Together with about twenty other church leaders, we provided comfort in the traditional manner here–by sitting all day with the bereaved, eating together, being together. Being fully present.

But being present with these other leaders was even richer than usual, as we engaged in conversations about the bible, about ministry, about spirituality. One simple question, “what is a sacrament?”, led us to a two-hour discussion about holiness, christian leadership, confession of sins, funerals, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer–a discussion that led us throughout the scriptures–leading us all to a richer understanding of the concept, “Priesthood of all Believers”.

And it is humble leaders like John and those with him, subsistence farmers who sacrificially serve the Lord without a salary, that minister to all those around them. They have received great comfort, and now share this comfort freely.