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 non-Jew or non-Samaritan to become a Christian was not 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,