Nipuhe almost never wears shoes. I've often seen him walking barefoot down the dirt roads near his village or shoeless as he works in his farm.
Our African friends spend huge portions of their lives barefoot. While Mozambique's improving economy has made wearing shoes more common, it is still very normal to see people working, playing, walking and running barefoot.
Surprisingly, the benefits of being barefoot has received a lot of attention in the developing world.
Over the past ten years or so there has been an increasing interest in barefoot running. Scientific studies have investigated how extra cushion found in most athletic shoes can cause problems and highlighted how going barefoot or wearing more minimalist footwear allows runners to move more naturally. Our bodies were created to run barefoot, so it makes sense that having too much padding, or the wrong kind of padding, on our feet has the potential to change the way we run and cause stress and dysfunction in the rest of the body.
The other day I was at a funeral and it hit me again how the lack of footwear made people more effective at digging and helping out at the graveside.
One fact that deeply effects our ministry here is that Christianity has only had a real presence in this region for less than 80 years or so. And in many villages that influence has often been significantly less. Now that back story creates all sorts of challenges - moral, ethical, and a serious lack of biblical literacy - to name just a few.
But I do sometimes find myself wondering... Are there some potential benefits from this history, as well?
To go back to our footwear metaphor, followers of Jesus in Western contexts grow up with certain Christendom "cushions" in place. These longstanding cushions affect the way believers walk, think and live. And just as a runner who spends his whole life wearing padded athletic shoes learns to run in a certain way, for many people Christendom's padding has reworked faith's physiology. Like a runner we have naturally become dependent on our shoes.
Symbiotic relationships occur in the natural world all the time. There's the way that rhinos and birds work together - the bird benefits by eating tics and bugs and sounds the alarm if something dangerous is nearby. Bees and flowers mutually benefit each other and certain bacteria are fed by and in turn help their host animals digest food.
We shouldn't forget that symbiotic relationships exist in human structures as well. Certain forms of Islam (and Christianity) fit comfortably alongside Animism. And Western Christianity has, in many places, become enmeshed with Consumerism and Modernity. Those symbiotic relationships are mutually beneficial, but they also come at a cost. Each system surrenders something to participate in the exchange. Western Christianity has accommodated itself in some ways in order to become an accepted member of that larger human "ecosystem."
The Christianity that is emerging here among the Makua-Metto is also affected by its environment. It is struggling to separate itself from Animism. It is impacted by neighboring people groups that are more predominantly Christian. It needs to find way to faithfully express itself in this matrilineal context - as well as appropriately address additional factors like magic, hierarchical leadership structures and fear.
The emerging Makua-Metto Christianity is barefoot - it lacks the cushions of Christendom. And that is both good and bad. Being barefoot is causing them and will continue to cause them some pain. Believers here will need to watch out for sharp objects in the path.
But while certainly recognizing the disadvantages that exist by not having the structures of Christendom, my hunch and my hope is that their Christianity has the potential to be a healthier expression of the faith because it is growing without the fusions of a symbiotic relationship caused by a history of Christendom.
Hopefully, Makua-Metto believers are learning to run in ways defined more by their feet and their terrain (context) than the inherited cushions found in "Western designed shoes."
May God raise up Mozambicans whose barefoot faith allow them to run in ways that are more healthy and reproducible expressions, ones well adapted to flourish in this context.
Grace and Peace,