Friday, August 10, 2018

August 2018 Newsletter

Greetings from Montepuez!

We’re emerging from our winter here in northern Mozambique, putting away our jackets and beginning to wipe layers of dust from everything and everyone.  We’re also just under the four-month marker for our remaining time in Mozambique, which carries with it a swirl of conflicting emotions!

Shortly after our last newsletter we hosted an “ikoma” for Abby; this is the ceremony/celebration in this culture that marks children growing into adults.  About 100 women spent the night at our house singing and dancing and sharing gifts and counsel with Abby as she ventures into adulthood; it was a bit of mash-up of Mozambican and American expectations, and it was so very beautiful to have so many friends here to celebrate our oldest daughter – many of them have watched her grow up here!

Just a few days after the ikoma, our team received eight interns from Harding University.  They spent six weeks job shadowing us, getting to know our friends and ministry partners, eating in our homes and out in villages, and getting a feel for life in this part of Africa.  While the interns were here in Montepuez, the churches we work with hosted a Women’s Conference on our team’s property.  

This was the first province-wide gathering for women since major leadership changes in the churches, and it was absolutely beautiful.  Over 230 women from six different districts came to enjoy each other and to worship, dance, and learn together, with the theme of the conference being the Whole Story of God-With-Us.

Starting back in May and continuing through September, Rachel is studying through the Sermon on the Mount in two different women’s groups; they’re in some pretty remote locations, and together with a few women from town they worship and study together, and they’ve made it about halfway through the text.  They are enjoying being together and wrestling with Jesus’ provocative invitation into this different kingdom!

This has been a season of travel for our team; both the Smiths and Westerholms have traveled out of the country, and we also were delighted to receive Brian and Laura Beth Oliver and their kiddos to visit us here!  We tried to take them around and give them a taste of Montepuez life; they got to meet a bunch of our friends and have some cultural experiences like frying bajias, worshiping with a village church, climbing our mountain, experiencing a local/famous singer/storyteller performance, and a couple days all together at the beach in Pemba.  We are so thankful they were able to come visit, and we treasured their time here with us as a precious gift!

At the end of July, I spent a weekend with church leaders from the Balama District. We spent one day in a workshop setting discussing initiation rites for boys and how the church could think creatively about this practice. Then the next day we had a mini-retreat together; we went to a waterfall about three hours away were we talked about the power of living water and the need to be “funnels” and share the blessing of living water with others as we make disciples of Jesus.  After that weekend I went on to a village on the other side of Balama where one of our students in the Theological School was doing a seminar with churches in his area.  It was beautiful to hear him using the materials that he learned in the school, making it his own and sharing it with others, which of course is our hope – that church leaders will share what they learn and to bless others in their neighborhood. 

Last week we hosted a sustainable agriculture seminar here with about 30 representatives of farming associations from 5 districts.  This seminar focused on how to make communal vegetable gardens (as opposed to the larger crop-farms) and we took a field trip to see some other associations growing cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc. It has been great to help connect people we care about with those who can teach them how to produce more in their farms and gardens.

Later this month we will begin the second semester of 2018 in the Theological Institute; I will be teaching classes on preaching and on the “Giants” (challenges facing the Church in Cabo Delgado) and Rachel will be teaching the class on church history.  The first semester was pretty intense for us; in a ten-week span, Rachel and I taught six week-long classes (and may have almost worn ourselves out…).  We were thankful for the stamina to make it through that stretch, and we hope that God will continue to use the school to bless these students and the churches they serve.

Our departure from Mozambique is coming up quickly on the horizon; it is a big transition, and we have never done this before!  Rachel and I have conspired together several times to dream and plan and figure out what it looks like to “leave well;” how to honor the relationships with teammates, churches, and friends that we’ve grown especially attached to in our fifteen years here.  Since our team works with over 70 churches it is a challenge to figure out how to say goodbye well to people spread out all over the southern half of this province.

Right now we are really, really (really!) grateful for wise counsel from mentors to “take a year to say goodbye” as part of healthy leave-taking.  We’re also making plans for packing up a container and stepping through the logistics of moving internationally, so our brains are going in multiple directions!  Our plan is to arrive in the United States in December and to spend time with family and supporters in the first few months of 2019 while also looking for jobs and discerning the direction of the next chapter of our lives.  We don’t know where God is leading us next, so please keep this transition in your prayers; thanks again for supporting us and this ministry!

Please join us in prayer:
  • For a good second semester in the Theological Institute
  • For resolution of our document issues
  • For wisdom and peace about wrapping up our time in Mozambique well and trust about what God has for our family in the future

Grace and Peace,

Alan and Rachel Howell

Friday, July 6, 2018

Stories Reveal Systems: Using Harry Potter as a pathway to understand The Ideal Team Player

A few months ago, I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues.  He uses a narrative to present what he believes to be the most important qualities for an ideal team player: Hungry (motivated or driven); Humble (not greedy, concerned with status or selfish) and Smart (in interacting with other people, empathetic and plays well with others).  These three virtues/skills can be learned and cultivated in everyone’s life.  The ideal team player is strong in all three of these behaviors and can be found where the three circles overlap. 

For a summary of Lencioni’s book and definitions for labels on the diagram, click here (link).

The Ideal Team Player material is fascinating and I thought it would be interesting to share with the older kids on our mission team (6th-9th grade).  I was pretty sure they would enjoy it, but I didn’t want to present it in a way that was merely theoretical or based on stories from my own experience.  I wondered if it would be possible to use a case study to lead them through a journey of discovery and wanted them to apply these ideas by exploring it from the angle of characters and stories they are all familiar with (I'm a big believer in leadership case studies and the power of fiction - see herehere and here).  After considered asking for examples from Star Wars or Ninjago or books they’ve read, it hit me that J.K. Rowling’s materials were a treasure trove of developed characters to choose from that all of us were familiar with.  It ended up being an even richer experience than I imagined!

I began by presenting Lencioni’s ideas, definitions, and his Venn diagram to them and then we tried to place different characters from the Harry Potter stories in their proper locations.  Check out what we came up with:

Some of the characters were easier for us to place than others.  Gilderoy Lockhart is obviously a “Charmer.” And Professor Umbridge occupies the position that Lencioni believes to be the most dangerous spot on the board: “Skillful Politician.”  But other characters were harder to place.  For example, we realized that Neville begins in the category of “Pawn” but learns to assert himself and moves towards the intersection of all three virtues (this led to a discussion on how people can grow and change for the better). Harry is in the center of the map, but was often tempted to move out of that space (here we recognized that it takes vigilance to remain an ideal team player).  The kids had fun noting similarities in the origin stories of Voldemort and Dumbledore and the differences in their life choices (we noticed that having good parents or a loving community could put someone in a position to succeed and move towards the center of the diagram). We even had fun guessing where the Hogwarts’ sorting houses would be located on the diagram (our guesses… Slytherin-Hungry; Hufflepuff-Humble; Ravenclaw-Smart; and, of course, Gryffindor-Ideal).

Using the Harry Potter story to reveal and better understand Lencioni’s system helped us then move into the practical questions of how the kids themselves would define what it means to be hungry, humble, and (people) smart in their own school setting?  The Harry Potter story helped us bridge the gap from Lencioni’s theory to practice – what it would look like to make use of these principles in a company, on a mission team, a group of interns, students working on a project together.  It led to reflection on how this knowledge not only helps us to be better team players but also helps us identify the kind of team players that we want to work with. 

After using the Harry Potter story, I gave everyone time to reflect individually on their own story:  Where are you on this chart?  Where are your strengths and weaknesses?  What circle has the strongest gravitational pull for you (Hungry, Humble or (People) Smart)?  How can you improve and move towards becoming an Ideal team player?  How can we respond to the challenge to cultivate these virtues?

I really like the way Lencioni’s book (which also, we should remember, uses a narrative to present these concepts!) ends with a reflection on the story of Jesus and how Christ’s story also reveals the truth in his system.  The Ideal Team Player ends with a final thought that points to Jesus as the embodiment of all of these virtues – especially the key virtue of humility.
“The most compelling example of humility in the history of mankind can be found in Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.  He attracted people of all kinds when he walked the earth, and continues to do so today, providing an example of humility that is as powerful as it is countercultural.  And so, it is my hope that readers of this book will take something else away with them and apply it in their lives: an appreciation for the true gift that it is to be humble and the divine origins of that virtue.” (215)
From start to finish, Lencioni uses stories to reveal his system, and Abby, Ellie, Maggie, Luke, Andrew and I found that the Harry Potter story was a helpful and enjoyable way to explore this material together. 

Grace and Peace,

P.S. Special thanks to Ellie Howell for the drawings of these diagrams! 

Monday, June 18, 2018

New Article in Missio Dei Journal!

The “New Perspectives on Paul” has shaped my teaching of the book of Romans in Mozambique. One way to think of it is as a re-contextualization of Western historical-critical scholarship for our setting in Africa... though it is not nearly as boring as that may sound to some... Check out my new article on this topic here:

Romans, Reconciliation, and Role-Playing in Mozambique: Benefiting from the "New Perspective on Paul" in Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 9, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2018).

Monday, May 21, 2018

New IJFM Article- Jesus as Mwalimu: Christology and the Gospel of Matthew in an African Folk Islamic Context

A Christological motif that has the potential to be especially powerful in African Folk Islamic contexts is the idea of Jesus as holy teacher, or Mwalimu for Makua-Metto speakers. Matthew’s Gospel is an especially effective guide for this path as it presents Jesus as the new rabbi, surpassing even Moses. A former intern, Andrew Montgomery, and I wrote an article that evaluates the usefulness and appropriateness of this Christological approach in northern Mozambique that was published recently in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology.  To check it out, click here.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Story Warren: Parent as Poet

This image has meant a lot to me as I've considered how the vocations of Preacher and Parent intersects with the role of Poet and how understanding the power of words to take flight in the lives of those around us connect us with the Epic Poets of old, like Homer.  To read more check out my post, "Parent as Poet" at Story Warren, here.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, May 3, 2018

May 2018 Newsletter

Greetings from Montepuez!

The rains seem to have finally stopped and the weather is starting to get a bit cooler.  That’s been a nice change as we’ve started wearing long sleeves and light jackets in the mornings and evenings this week. 

We’ve also experienced a big change in our ministry recently with the inauguration of the Theological School (“Instituto Teológico de Cabo Delgado” in Portuguese) facilities on April 13th.  Church leaders and government officials and friends all gathered (around 140 people or so) to cut the ribbon and celebrate this new stage in the life of the school and our team.  It was a beautiful day and went amazingly smooth. We are so thankful for all the hard work that went into that day – especially on the part of the Smiths who spearheaded the construction and the inauguration itself. 

Our first semester of classes kicked off a few days later as I taught the “Introduction to Theology” week-long intensive course with a great group of 31 students.  It was a mixture of new and returning students – made up of people from different districts of Cabo Delgado and a few from Nampula and Zambezia provinces.  It was such a blessing to use the classroom after meeting in an open-air pavilion for classes in 2016 and 2017.  Our ministry has shifted to spending more time giving formal training to church leaders with teammates teaching different week-long classes.  This week, I am teaching a class on “Evangelism, Disciple-Making, and Church Planting” then a few weeks later a New Testament Survey class and then a couple weeks after that, Rachel will teach Church History (a class she taught last year).  We recently realized that in a 10-week span, Rachel or I will be teaching week-long classes 6 times!  So please pray for us to have stamina and that God will use this time to bless these students and the churches they serve.

We had a chance to use these new facilities back in March even before they were finished in order to host the bi-monthly meeting of deacons of communication and collaboration from all over Cabo Delgado.  They were scheduled to meet in a more remote area but some washed out bridges meant that the location was changed to Montepuez.  These meetings are important times where representatives of the 70+ churches gather together to plan and give counsel to each other.  At that point the kitchen was still being run out of our family’s yard, but we were able to use the dining area and classroom to meet in.  Later that night I realized that the two main topics they had spent time addressing were deciding on what issue we all would choose to pray and fast about for the churches in Cabo Delgado and making a plan for supporting the upcoming women’s conference – Wow - how far things have come!  It is encouraging to see us shift from all the issues with the rogue church leader and dealing with the ramifications of his divisiveness in the past to meeting about more constructive topics regarding the future. 

During that first week of classes in the Theological School, Rachel left for Kenya to participate in a women’s retreat there.  She really enjoyed getting to fellowship with other women in ministry in this region of Africa.  She also left the girls in charge of our kitchen while she was gone!  Abby (14), Ellie (12) and Katie (8) did an awesome job making sure we all were fed and taken care of.  It is so amazing how much these girls have grown – we are so proud of them!

In just a few weeks our interns from Harding University will be here.  The eight of them will be spending six weeks with us learning language and culture and job-shadowing us.  At the beginning of June, while they are still here, the churches will host a women’s conference on our team’s land.  It has been a few years since they’ve had on a women’s conference – please pray that God would empower women to shine the love of Jesus in their homes and communities!

Another thing we would like for you to continue praying about is our team’s residency documents.  This issue has been prolonged and complicated and has dragged out for a couple of years now.  Please continue to pray with us as we are still working towards the resolution of this issue. 

The rainy season started early and went later than normal, but unfortunately
 crops have not done well this year.  Please be in prayer about that as well, our friends are not in crisis mode, but as so many of them live on the edge, having an off-year of production makes things more difficult.  Please pray that God would provide more than enough so people can share.  Back in January, Rachel went with some of her friends to work with them in their farms – it was a fun time to be together in our last rainy season here.

We mentioned back in January that after a two-year process involving prayer and input from American and Mozambican colleagues, we’ve decided to leave Mozambique at the end of 2018 and return to the United States following a calling to do ministry there.  It will be a big transition for the work here and our mission team – there is still much to be done among the Makua-Metto people.  Please keep this whole process in your prayers.  Our family wants to “leave well,” not underestimating the impact of stepping away from Mozambique after completing a commitment to serve 15 years here.  We plan to make return visits to remain connected to the work. 

That upcoming transition is affecting our lives more and more.  Our team has begun to shift some responsibilities off our plates and to others -which has been good, but also a strange experience.  We recently bought plane tickets and will arrive in the United States in December – so the reality is sinking in more and more!  We’re talking about it often as a family and are having a complicated mix of emotions as we finish out our final year in Mozambique.  Please keep this process in your prayers, both our leaving Mozambique and our moving to the States.  Thanks so much for supporting us and this ministry!

Please join us in prayer:
  • For a good internship, women’s conference and classes in the Theological Institute
  • For resolution of our document issues
  • For wisdom about wrapping up our work in Mozambique well and trust about what God has for our family in the future

Grace and Peace,
Alan and Rachel Howell

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

On the Longevity of Bands and Mission Teams

I was listening to a podcast recently where they talked about how rare it is to find bands that are able to stick together for more than a few years.  They noted that music groups that can stay together for 10-15+ years while remaining relevant (the U2’s of the world, for example) are the exception, not the rule.  Most bands have much shorter shelf lives.  Since that amount of time is as long as our mission team has been serving together in Mozambique (!), that got me thinking about potential connections between the longevity of bands and mission teams.

After doing some poking around on the internet, I found that back in 2015 Dave Segal wrote two pieces on bands from Seattle that either stayed together or didn’t.  While unfortunately these articles have some bad language, I did find a few interesting quotes from the pieces that seemed relevant to the lasting power of mission teams as well: 

From “Why Do Bands Break Up? Seven Now-Defunct Seattle Groups Share the Stories of Money, Ego, Bad Luck, and Audience Indifference That Made Them Call It a Day” (click here)
“Bands are fragile, fraught things. They're like families, except even more combustible, because art is involved. So many things can go wrong in a band: Egos can spiral out of control, personalities can clash, drugs and alcohol can be abused, sexual intrigue can ensue, digestion issues can wreak havoc. There could even be skill envy. But sometimes the reason things end is more mundane, if no less emotionally wrenching.”
From “Why Do Bands Stay Together? Seven Veteran Seattle Groups Share the Secrets of Their Longevity.” (click here)
“If you think it's easy to hold a group of unstable egomaniacs together while creating music that everyone in said group can stand playing over and over, well, you've probably never been in a band.”
One of the band members “attributes punk and hardcore's ethos of egalitarianism as another key factor, ‘where everyone has an equal stake in publishing and money.’ Having no leader…, ‘helped keep any weird, out-of-control ego fights at bay.’"
“Dunn and drummer Don McGreevy cite communication and mutual respect as integral, too. Beyond that, Dunn says it's key to understand "‘what each member is good at within the context of the band. Everybody in this band has so many different skills. No one person is being satisfied 100 percent of the time. We try to play to each other's strengths instead of alienating people.’"
Nokes stated, “‘Like any healthy long-term relationship, it's about patience and knowing each other's quirks so you can approach conflict without a meltdown. Being in a band is absolutely insane and ever-changing, so I guess it's about finding comfort in what can be really uncomfortable and/or sharing the best moments of your entire life with people you actually like.’ Further, Nokes states, Tacocat are ‘democratic to a fault... We each excel at our own corners of band biz, but no one really wants to be 'the leader.' We're each 25 percent of this thing, and that is that.’"
“Not all bands can be the Stones or Rush. The center usually cannot hold. Dunn puts band dynamics into perspective: ‘We're all… dysfunctional, semi-nihilistic maniacs just to do this… anyway.’"
There was a lot in those pieces about the longevity of bands that I resonated with (from structure, to leadership, to buy-in, to basic human nature...).  In the context of a mission team, it can be a challenge to have to keep on playing the “same songs” and using the “same instruments” and to feel like you are always “on the road together.” I have heard a number of long term missionaries say that some of the best and hardest parts of mission work came from the context of the team.

I just finished reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues.  He talks about how the most important qualities for an ideal team player are that they are hungry, humble and (people) smart.  That is certainly true in the context of a mission team and my hunch is that it is true in the context of a band, as well.  For a good summary of Lencioni’s book click here.

It is good to recognize that some band members may need to express their creativity outside the team’s ministry and do something akin to a “solo album.”  Having an outlet for a different kind of expression can be really, really helpful. 

The basic truth, though, and the reason we’ve been at this so long in Mozambique, is that if a mission team can work effectively, the synergy they create allows them to make beautiful music together – producing something even better than what we could each accomplish alone.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Poverty: Then and Now

How should we think about poverty’s causes and effects?

That question has been an important one for us in our ministry here in Mozambique.  It led me to do research and interviews resulting in a project that examined the “Giant of Absolute Poverty” among the Makua-Metto.  You can read more about that project here.

I’ve been reading through the Edmund Morris’ trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt – it’s terrific! In his second book, Theodore Rex, I stumbled across a quote that succinctly encapsulates a part of the problem of poverty that my article didn’t address, its one I know others have been considering for a while, and I’m becoming convinced that it needs more attention.   In a discussion of both rural and urban poverty during Roosevelt’s time, Morris notes,
“A laborer might trade his hoe for a hammer, for a few extra dollars a week, but the increment was meaningless, given urban costs.” (37)
That sad summation – people who flee poverty in rural areas and can find a job in urban ones often find they don’t gain any economic ground because of increased expenses in the city.  I’ve seen this dynamic played out over and over here in the Montepuez area.  We have a number of friends who have moved from a village setting to leave behind subsistence farming in order to come to a city to make a living.  While they may find employment, the increased costs of an urban area make the improvement minimal at best.  The hidden expenses of “city life” swallow up the extra money that can be made in a town like Montepuez.

This is a reality that we need to consider carefully – it is an old problem, and one that is certainly not going away.  Urbanization affects how we think about poverty and how we should think about ministry.  In his book, Understanding Christian Mission, Sunquist notes, “In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas; by 1900 the percentage had grown to 14 percent.  Over the next fifty years the number grew to 30 percent, and today it is over 50 percent. Thus, most of the people who are in need of Christian mission and ministry live in urban areas.” (344)  Urbanization is not inherently bad, instead it can be empowering when we realize that it “creates traction… God is scooping the masses and placing them carefully together, making it easier for the gospel to get to them.” (McManus, An Unstoppable Force, 47).

Our team’s work has focused mostly on unreached or under-reached villages, but it is important to remember that “earliest Christianity was mostly urban” (Sunquist, 355).  The way of Jesus has found a way to thrive in cities since it's beginnings.   

The rural/urban difference offers challenges to the way we think about both poverty and ministry.  I want to keep chewing on these connections and their significance for our work here…

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Chickens vs. Rubies... and the importance of telling One Story

Chickens are a part of everyday life here in northern Mozambique.  Their behavior really is puzzling.  I never fully understood the origins of jokes made at their expense until I began living among them and had to learn to dodge them with our car (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”).  They wander all over the place, pecking here, scratching there, obtaining seemingly insignificant bites to eat as they scramble haphazardly around.  It often seems to me that they must expend more energy rushing around looking for food than they actually consume...

Digging for rubies, on the other hand, is a process that looks very different.  Rubies were discovered not that far from our town and the methods that independent miners use for locating and acquiring them is something that our friends are very familiar with.  It involves picking a spot, digging deep, painstakingly transporting the dirt, and diligently sifting through that dirt to find something of value.

We work with mostly first-generation Christians here in Mozambique and a common trap for preachers is attempting to try to say too much and/or try to use too many biblical texts in one sermon.  I teach the Preaching class at the Theological Institute here in Montepuez.  So, I often reference this comparison between the way chickens eat vs. digging for rubies to encourage the students to pick just ONE BIBLICAL TEXT and ONE IDEA to share with the church.  We talk about the importance of not preaching like a chicken (wandering from biblical text to biblical text, from idea to idea, picking here, pecking there in a futile attempt to feed on God’s word).  Instead we focus on learning how to encourage the church to follow the preacher in, using the right tools, digging deep into God’s Word and finding beautiful, life-changing rubies.      

Another example that illustrates this dynamic well, in my mind, comes from “Phineas and Ferb.” Unfortunately, our Mozambican friends have yet to discover this amazing show(!)… so this example would be lost on them… but I will share it with you.  In the episode, “Norm Unleashed,” our heroes have created nanobots and have used them to do one amazing thing after another. Their sister Candace, who in every episode is doing her best to catch her brothers in the act of inventing or doing something incredible, corners their Mom, attempting to tattle on the boys: 
Candace: MOM! MOM! Phineas and Ferb are making a giant tape dispenser, but it's also a faucet, and a rowboat, a baseball hat, and gingerbread man with a fist for a head, and a pig face -- 
Linda: Stop. Okay, your stories are always full of holes, but it's usually just one story. Here, let me demonstrate. I'll be the "Candace" and you will be the "beautiful mother". (Clears throat)(Imitating Candace) Mom, Phineas and Ferb have brought Genghis Khan back from the past and he's teaching the neighbors to throw hatchets from horseback. (Normal voice) You see? One story. 
Candace: (long pause) They'll probably do that, you know.
One story!  Candace’s Mom gets this right.  This key is telling one story… digging deep into one text.  That is how you share a message that is meaningful and powerful and resonates with hearers.

Instead of teaching and preaching that wanders around like a chicken, powerful preaching looks more like digging for rubies and focuses on One Story, inviting the church along in the discovery process to find life-sustaining treasures.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, January 5, 2018

January Newsletter and an Announcement

Happy New Year from Mozambique!
Many of our friends have moved out to their farms, the rainy season is off to a healthy start, and we are so grateful.  Ripe mangoes are everywhere, mosquito breeding season is in full swing, trees are lush and green, and the roads are full of potholes! With the strong winds and almost daily rain, though, we’ve had some problems with our power lines – I’m writing this newsletter to the rattling and humming of our family’s generator (we are thankful to have a back-up power supply when the electricity goes out so often and so unexpectedly!).

As seems to happen every year, October through December were over-full, and it felt like a sprint for Rachel and I to make it to the holidays.  So many projects and programs are concentrated during the dry season while the roads are still passable and before our Mozambican friends begin tilling, planting, and hoeing in their farms.

In October, I spent a week in Nampula participating in the translation check of the book of Acts in Makua-Metto.  The full translation of the New Testament into Makua-Metto is still incomplete, and our teammate Chad Westerholm works regularly with the translation team.  Spending a week observing and assisting with the consultation was an eye-opening and stretching experience for me; I really enjoyed working with translation team.  To read more of my reflections on this experience check out the blog post "Acts and Allies".

You could say that long term transformation of individuals and communities into new creations really is the ultimate goal (here and everywhere!) – and this makes mentoring leaders so crucial.  A few months ago, one deacon serving in the area of communication and collaboration for his church cluster was removed from that role for stealing church funds for his personal use.  So, on a recent Sunday those five churches from that area worshiped together in Nikanda and chose a new deacon to serve in that role.  We first met Pedro, the man they all agreed on together, years ago when he became a Christian as a teenager; please pray for him and other leaders, that they will not cultivate selfish power but instead to grow into servant leaders.

The sustainable agriculture program has been going well.  After the training seminar in September Jessica Markwood put together a report using the participant data to help us decide what future directions to take; eventually we decided to buy high quality seed for distribution to the different village associations this year – we’re hoping that will not only increase their production but also improve seed quality in their areas.  These associations are spread out over five different districts and are our primary avenue for teaching and encouraging conservation agriculture principles in local farms.  Jessica also has been organizing short videos in Makua-Metto about sustainable farming practices for us to share on SD cards.  The long-term teaching potential of these videos is exciting; having short training videos available for people to watch on their phones and share with their neighbors can help spread the information about increasing crop production to reduce the yearly hunger season and increase the church’s capacity to share.

In December, I was able to reconnect with two young men that we’ve been discipling over the years; they both have had scholarship sponsors to begin university study in nearby cities, so it’s difficult to see them except when they are on school holidays.  It was a blessing to get to work with one of them who took the initiative to put on a youth conference in Montepuez for students on school holidays.  That same week I got to study through Ephesians with the other young man, and also spend time exploring the ways God is working in the Makua-Metto culture.  Helping students to further their education is an important investment for the future of the church in Mozambique.  We still need to find scholarship sponsors for these two young men and another young woman (between $1000 and $2000 for each of them – that amount covers all their school fees and room and board for the year – pretty good deal!).   If you are interested in helping with any of these scholarships, let us know and we can send you more information.   

The bulk of our team’s time and energy these last three months, however, has been invested in the Theology School (“Instituto Teológico de Cabo Delgado” in Portuguese).  Jeremy Smith has been working hard on the construction of a classroom building and cafeteria/kitchen; construction is almost complete and should be ready for inauguration right before classes start in April.  It is amazing and encouraging to look back over the development of this school since its beginning a few years ago when our team recognized that it was time to begin offering more formal training for church leaders.  In year 1 (2016) of the Bible school, we had 51 different students. Including the data from year 2 (2017) our total number of students is 121!  These students come from 8 different church backgrounds, 5 districts from Cabo Delgado as well as students from Nampula and Zambezia Provinces.

Over the past two years our team has taught 22 classes (offering 10 out of the 14 required courses).   I recently taught the New Testament Survey class in September, a class on “Giants: Challenges Facing the Church in Cabo Delgado” in October, and a Preaching class in December, and Rachel taught a week-long, intensive Church History course; she had 15 students and they loved her class.   

Over the past three months Rachel finished up studying through the Sermon on the Mount with women in the Ancuabe district as well as a few other studies in other villages and in town.  She also juggled an online theology class from HST, participating in young women’s initiation ceremonies, teaching some science and some Portuguese in our team school, as well as taking our team kids through a survey of the Old Testament culminating in Advent.

We mentioned difficulties with our team’s residency documents in the last newsletter; thank you for praying about this with us! This issue has been prolonged over more than two years now, and has been further complicated by some religious violence in a city about five hours away, and then additionally delayed by leadership changes at the provincial level.  Please continue to pray with us as we are still working towards the resolution of this issue. 

The big news for our family, though, is that after much prayer and seeking input from American and Mozambican colleagues, we have decided to leave Mozambique in December of 2018 and return to the United States.  It is strange to begin wrapping up this chapter of life for our family – we love our work here, and our girls have grown up knowing Mozambique as home. We’ve begun to experience a swirl of emotions as we try to intentionally plan our final year in Mozambique; hope for the future and also grief in the upcoming goodbyes.  That decision to leave is popping up in more and more conversations with Mozambican church leaders as plans are being made for this year and beyond. 

Please keep this process in your prayers, both our leaving Mozambique and our moving to the States.  We want to “leave well,” not underestimating the impact of stepping away from Mozambique after 15 years.  We also want to move forward in trust; we don’t yet know where we will be going or what we will be doing next, and we are waiting on God.   Thanks so much for supporting us and this ministry!

Please join us in prayer:
  • For healthy farms and healthy people during the rainy season
  • For church growth and maturity
  • For resolution of our document issues
  • For wisdom about wrapping up our work in Mozambique and peace about what God has for our family in the future

Grace and Peace,

Alan and Rachel Howell

Friday, November 17, 2017

Into All the World

The Harding University Alumni Magazine asked a few missionaries serving in different parts of the globe to write a letter to the people they serve.  It was a difficult prompt for Rachel and I (hard to be concise!), but it was a good exercise. You can check out the piece, "Into all the world," here.

Review of Canoeing the Mountains

Check out my Review of Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory in Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 8, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 2017).

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Team Missions as a Collective Game

Game playing has been a part of our mission team’s culture from the beginning.  While we were still living in the USA in 2000-2003 we would meet regularly to do team formation activities, work out details about where and how we would serve in Africa, meet with missions teachers and mentors… and have fun together, too! 

Even now, after being in Mozambique for almost 14 years, game playing is still part of our team culture.  Every Tuesday night we share a meal, worship together, put the kids to bed, and play games.  Each family has their own collection of games and depending on whose house we are at that week, there’s a bunch of different game options that we can bring to the table.  

There are basically two kinds of games.  There are competitive games, where individual players, or a team of players, is trying to beat the other participants (like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan).  In contrast, collective games, on the other hand, are different in that all the players are working together to win as a group (like Pandemic, Forbidden Island or Flashpoint).

While our team enjoys playing both kinds of games, we function best when we remember that what we are doing here in Mozambique is not a competitive game, it is a collective game.  When we get distracted and start thinking or worrying about which one of us is “winning” (who gets the credit for this or that), then we’ve begun playing the wrong kind of game.  If we forget the truth that we all win or lose this thing together… that’s when things start to fall apart.
Often that means that team members end up “taking one for the team” and do things behind the scenes that could often go unnoticed.  So, one of the keys has been remembering to name and celebrate together our collective wins. 
We win or lose this thing together.

In my mind, Romans 12 may be the most underrated… and yet the most important chapter in Paul’s letters for team missions.  It provides a powerful vision of what it means to serve and minister together.

May God help us see clearly that we win or lose this thing together in Jesus’ name.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, October 23, 2017

Story Warren: The Soundtrack of Childhood

Check out a new post I wrote for Story Warren, The Soundtrack of Childhood, for some thoughts on what it means for the Islamic Call to Prayer to be a part of our lives here in Mozambique. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Acts and Allies

Lately, the story of Philip has captured my imagination.  Acts 8 tells the story of his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It is a powerful story of the first convert to Christianity outside of Abraham’s family.  And it is a fun story to teach here in Mozambique.  The area we live in is predominantly Muslim and a critique often leveled by people here against disciples of Jesus is: “Oh, Christianity, that’s a European religion… the true religion of Africa is Islam.”

So, it is inspiring to walk through this text with our Makua-Metto friends and point out that the first story of an individual non-Jew or non-Samaritan to become a Christian was not of an American, Portuguese, Korean or Chinese… he was an African.  AND his baptism and subsequent return to Ethiopia happened roughly 600 years before Muhammad was born and about 700 years before Islam eventually made its way to Africa.  So, Christianity existed on this continent for around seven centuries before Islam did.  That fact may not mean much to you, but it does to them.  It has been fun to see how moving it is, both encouraging and empowering, to tell first generation Christians in this area that Christianity is THEIR religion!  An African paved the way for the rest of us Gentile Christians, myself included, and they should be proud of that!  

Another reason why this story has been appealing to me is that I have found myself identifying more with Philip.  Philip is called outside of his normal realm of experience to play a role that he surely didn’t expect (he’s already moved from Jerusalem to Samaria and now this?).  Philip certainly isn’t the hero of this story and it would be difficult to prove that the Ethiopian Eunuch is the main character either.  Instead the real protagonist is the Holy Spirit.  It is God who is primarily at work to save and to bless.

I’m in Nampula this week helping out with the consultation check of the translation of the book of Acts in Makua-Metto.  Now, I’m not a linguist or a translator so it has been a stretching experience – a challenge to know how to help appropriately.  On my first morning working with the translation team, our friend Domingos Aurelio shared a devotional thought from Mark chapter 2, the story of the four friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.  He talked about how all of them had to work together to carry the person. They even had to break a hole in the roof to lower this man down to the Lord.  In the same way that they had to be careful to match each other’s speed and follow each other’s lead to effectively work together to meet a common objective, we too needed to pay attention to each other and find a way to collaborate to bring this translation work before the Lord and the people of Mozambique.

I recently read Drick Boyd’s book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice.  As someone who has struggled to understand my role as an outsider working to be a blessing here to our African friends and neighbors, I have hungered for appropriate models of what it looks like to do that well.  Boyd tells the stories of white Americans who resisted the pull of their own cultures to participate as partners or allies with African-Americans to make a more just system.  It was encouraging and challenging to read about how these men and women allied with neighbors of different backgrounds and skin colors at, sometimes, great personal cost.

This language of “allies” is controversial.  Some find it patronizing while others believe it is appropriate.  I don’t have the answer to that question or know a better label that should be used.  What I do know is that the language of “being allies” has been a helpful way of framing our engagement with the work in Mozambique – both in relation to what God is doing and what Mozambicans are doing themselves.  Philip was an ally to the Ethiopian Eunuch – helping and blessing as he could.  The four friends were allies to the paralytic – doing what it took to bring about his healing through Christ.  

There is a debate in missions about where the vision for ministry or development should come from. Ideally it should come from insiders, correct?  Does it invalidate a vision then if it comes from outsiders?  And what if insiders have yet to recognize the need or don’t have the resources to respond?  And if insiders and outsiders do work together what should partnership look like?  

Those are challenging questions without simple answers.  But, I find it instructive that in the biblical narrative we see the vision for change in a given region coming from both insiders and outsiders.  For example, the prophet Amos was an outsider. He left his home in the southern kingdom of Judah to go to preach a message of repentance to the wealthy in the northern kingdom of Israel.  But, Micah was an insider who preached his message to the people of Judah, his own region.  God can use both insiders and outsiders to cast a vision for what life should look like.

Going through the book of Acts this week, considering Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Tabitha and others, I’m reminded that whether we are insiders or outsiders what matters most is allying ourselves with the mission of God and finding others who are on that path, who are partnering with God as well, listening well and allying ourselves with them, too.  It won’t be easy, like Philip we may end up way outside our comfort zones, but it is there that we will likely see the power of God.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Charcoal and Rejection/Redemption

I remember clearly the day that we learned the word for coal in Portuguese - carvão. Our mission team was in Lisbon to learn to speak the national language of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony.  It was pretty early in our language study and when we saw “carvão” in class we pictured large train cars full of coal that had been mined underground. “Well, this little word certainly won’t be useful,” we thought. “We should be learning more meaningful, practical words.” Our team joked that this was an insignificant word, unimportant, and not worthy of remembering.  Little did we know that charcoal or carvão would be a common things we encountered in northern Mozambique - it is everywhere in Makua-Metto culture. 

Early in the morning, here in Montepuez, you can hear men walking through town yelling out: “Makhala, Makhala.” They are announcing in the Makua-Metto language that they have charcoal for sale as they carry their big sacks on the back of their bicycles.  It plays an important role in the local economy - Mozambican men go out into the woods and spend days making the charcoal to then sell it to others. 

When we go out to villages for visits or teaching, people often ask us to transport sacks of charcoal for them.  When we do, the fine, black powder of charcoal dust covers the back of our truck and gets on my hands and clothes. 
Charcoal, Carvão, Makhala – whatever you want to call it, it is everywhere! 

In John’s Gospel, the word for “charcoal fires” seems insignificant.  But it plays prominently in the story of Peter – at his betrayal or rejection of Jesus at the house of Caiphas as well as his redemption on the beach having breakfast with the risen Christ.  Eugene Peterson summarizes the story well:
“It was a cold night, and Peter and others were warming themselves at a charcoal fire (anthrakian, 18:18).  Peter was questioned by other spectators in the courtyard that night about whether he knew Jesus.  Peter answered three times with a denial… Now on the Galilee beach, Peter has just eaten a breakfast cooked by Jesus over another charcoal fire (the same word, anthrakian). When the Galilee beach conversation started, Peter couldn’t have known where it was going.  But when Jesus put his question to Peter a third time, Peter’s three denials the week before, while warming himself at a similar charcoal fire as Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas, pulled the memory of that awful night of shame into the present.  So that’s why there are three.  The three Jesus questions on the Galilee beach reverse and redeem Peter’s three denials at the trial the week before in Jerusalem.  The three affirmations of love harness Peter into continuing Jesus’s work – ‘Feed my sheep’ – a change of vocation, no longer a fisherman but a shepherd following in the steps of the great Shepherd of the sheep. It is a remarkable story. Peter… is now forgiven, is restored to continue Jesus’s work. Peter, for as long as he lived, never forgot the link between the night of denials and this morning of grace.”  (Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 355)
The word for charcoal (anthrakian in Greek) could justifiably be perceived as insignificant in the New Testament.  If my counting is correct, it only occurs these two times (Jon 18:18 and 21:9). But my hunch is that this word is anything but insignificant for Peter. His rejection happened in conversation around a charcoal fire at night and his restoration and rehabilitation occurs in conversation around a charcoal fire in the morning.

It makes me wonder if every time Peter smelled a charcoal fire or got charcoal dust on his hands or clothes he remembered those charcoal conversations and how Jesus could even use seemingly insignificant things to help turn rejection into redemption.

Grace and Peace,