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in Hope

Spirit, Burst Forth

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

Things are not good in Zambia right now. The election has messily split the country into two. The opposition has submitted a petition to the constitutional court in order to challenge the validity of the results. This is a provision that the ruling party shoved through late last year, I am sure out fear that they might need to use it because polls were so close running up to this election. Now that the results have come out in their favor, though, they are refusing to accept the challenge and crying foul. According to the constitution they pushed so strongly, the president is technically not allowed to be in power until the court rules on any challenge. Again, the ruling party has refused to follow their own rules. Instead, they are blaming the opposition party for inciting tribalism, as it essentially represents the Southern, Western, and Northwestern provinces of Zambia. These three provinces are largely made up of Tongas, Lozis, and their cousin tribes, all who have traditionally been at odds with the majority Bembas and their cousin tribes in the other provinces. They point to the fact that in those three provinces the opposition won by a hugely lopsided margin, even though it was the people themselves who cast the votes and not the party. The thing is, however, that there was an equally lopsided result in favor of the ruling party in their provincial strongholds. Neither party is really to blame, as this has just exposed the tensions and feelings that have been simmering for a long time. In my own analysis it seems that the provinces most strongly in support of the opposition long to have more of a voice in Zambia, as none of the six heads of state in the country’s history has come from this half of the population. The problem, though, is that instead of acknowledging a legitimate need for more representation and a fairer unity, the toxic rhetoric of blame is being flung around the country (with the muzzling of opposition in the press making matters worse). Previously unheard of post-election violence has erupted in these provinces and Lusaka. It has been minor in the grand scheme of the world, but it is a major deal for famously peaceful Zambia. On top of all of this, power cuts, inflated food prices, and a devalued Kwacha have come back with fury.

 

As I walked to church this morning I could really sense the heaviness that has settled upon the people in a way that I had never felt it before. There were more downcast eyes, more angry spates between people, more folks seeking alms, and in general more desperation. Everybody seems to be hurt by the situation, regardless of their political affiliation. And it was contagious for me. I felt profoundly sad on what should be the joyous amble to communal worship

 

Praise be to God, though, Spirit broke out during that worship! The ever-powerful Chosen Generation Choir of Chimwemwe Presbyterian Church raised such a joyful noise to God and the community that I couldn’t help but smile and dance.

 

I also couldn’t help but reflect upon the amazing strength and resilience of this great country. It is strength and resilience rooted in the remarkable communities that exist all over Zambia—communities defined by interdependence—interdependence marked by shared resources in times of abundance for one household and need for another, shared celebration, shared mourning, and shared accountability. They are residential communities, spiritual communities, and communities based on intersections of interest and identity…many of which defy any expectations of tribalism. To my eternal gratitude, they also defy the cross-cultural barriers that necessarily come with histories of colonialism by honestly engaging difficult conversations and honestly expressing a love that flows through the beauty and complexity of race and culture.

This strength of community never fails to knock me over in wonder. I experience it daily at the office.

 

Esther, my mother at the office

 

I experience it daily with all of the neighborhood kids who make sure I never have a dull moment at home.

  

Prince, Yamikani, Royd Junior, and Alexander always having a good time

 

I experience it daily with my many dear friends who come knocking at my door and who always leave their doors open to me.

 

 

With Esau and Jacob

And sometimes I experience it in ways that strike me at my core and force me to praise God for Creation, as happened at a dinner party tonight when a primary schooler blessed the food in flawless Italian. She was taken to Italy when she was younger to undergo surgery for severe foot and leg deformities, funded by the largesse of a community member who had resources to share. She even had an audience with the pope. She now walks. And plays. And studies. And sings. And bids me ado with a “Ciao!” Here she is in a pink sweater surrounded by her beautiful family (who have also become family to me) after schooling me in the differences between Zambian draughts and American checkers.

A mixture of Mozumders, Kaleyas, and a Mwila: Prince, Laya, Leah, Andy, Leah, Miriam, Andrew, and Akash

 

I don’t mean to imply that communities here are perfect, nor that they are all free of the injustices and oppressions that plague this world. Rather, I mean to uplift the incredible strength of people in relationship with each other in the face of and in defiance of those injustices and oppressions. In gloomy times when national unity seems to be ripping at the seams, it is these communities of actual people actually taking on life together that give hope to Zambia. They also give me hope for our broken world as a whole. I am learning to see that the Spirit of our living God is living amongst us, communing with us, and bursting forth even in the many ruptures. Let us breathe in this Spirit. Let us share ourselves with this Spirit. Let us share our Spirit-breathed selves with each other.

Posted August 28, 2016

 

in Hope

Democracy, Disillusionment, and Glimpses of Hope….Oh My!

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

To be honest, democracy has got me down these days. The overarching driving force of this down-ness is the bedlam of national elections in the United States and Zambia this year. Demagoguery crosses the world and mixes with ideologuery, creating a mess of roguery and violence—social, emotional, and physical—sometimes strategically targeted and sometimes aimlessly indiscriminate. It’s frightening and exhausting in a global sense. 

The more specific democracy blues I have, though, are the result of TEEZ’s biennial organizational meeting this past weekend. We have been facing some significant mountains in the office over the past several months (financial woes, a botched leadership transition, and subsequent loss of confidence by stakeholders), and we had perhaps naively placed our hope in this meeting to move those mountains, or at least help us to summit them. This meeting was attended by high-level leaders from our member churches as well as a couple of former TEEZ directors and training managers. In other words, these should have been the people most aptly placed to help us work through our difficulties and come to some healthy resolutions.

It quickly became clear, however, that the scourge of institutionalism would plague this institutional democracy. There was a lot of passion in the room to tackle the aforementioned mountains by debating what had befallen the organization in order to address the causes and develop solutions. The chairperson of the meeting, though, had a direct interest in blocking this conversation; the botched leadership transition and loss of confidence by stakeholders could ultimately be laid at his feet. So, masterfully exploiting parliamentary procedure, he stopped the debate in its tracks. He used a strategically vague agenda to punt contentious questions to other parts of the meeting and then used time constraints to cut them short in those punted-to other parts. When debate did break through his barriers he maintained a strict “speak through the chair” method that silenced natural conversation. He would listen, nod, and then say that there were no motions presented and therefore no actions to be taken.

In my life I have been to many such meetings in which the exact same thing happened. Rules that are meant to ensure equality of representation and input for the sake of a just and fruitful discussion in a meeting with the sole purpose of serving the mission of a certain institution are manipulated to do the exact opposite. The result is that those with regularly disproportionate power control what is presented and what is resolved. Other voices are marginalized and brushed off. The status quo is maintained. The leaders insulate themselves from criticism and blame. All others feel trapped by the rules but don’t know how to respond because we place so much faith in these rules. Unreasonable plans and demands are placed on the implementers of the organization’s mission by those who make decisions but have no clue whatsoever about the actual goings-on of the organization. The real issues go unaddressed. Afterwards everybody smiles and congratulates each other on the success of the meeting. It frustrates me to the point of rage every single time.

This time was no exception. I was furious. Weeks of hard work by our office to facilitate this meeting seemed wasted and unappreciated. It was a slap in the face for our staff who have dedicated themselves to this ministry for decades. And all of this was so that those with power could dodge responsibility and still maintain their power. At the end of the meeting the quorum nearly unanimously voted to keep him as chairperson for the next two years. Ouch.

Obviously I am still riled up about this meeting. I recognize that this is so because I feel such deep passion for this organization, its staff, and its mission. It is also so because it is a microcosm of what goes on in the macrocosm. Disenfranchisement and impunity are very real phenomena in all democratic institutions. People with institutional power exploit the system for their own gain. The voices of those without power are drowned out or even stopped before they can be vocalized. We have given the name “democracy” to a process that is fundamentally undemocratic. Because we have idolized and idealized democracy, we then see any challenge thereof as blasphemous. Such is the case even though the thing as it is practiced is not actually the thing that we have christened it to be.

My disillusionment is all the more potent because the democratic institution is what makes Presbyterian polity…well, Presbyterian. Our distinct form of governance is exactly this system of committee and assembly meetings that make decisions for the implementation of the mission of the Church. So, in order for me to exist in this specific expression of the body of Christ, I will need to come to terms with the polity. It is something in which I deeply believe theoretically. My lived experience, though, makes me doubt the possibility in practice. 

I am thus learning that I need to explore creative expressions of true democracy. I need to seek out the Holy Spirit’s movements through and in spite of current democratic systems. I need to find more examples of people breaking through the exploitations and manipulations of those with power. I need to experience rules of discussion that maintain equality rather than reinforce power relationships. Maybe this will require a radical restructuring of the very institution of a meeting. Maybe it will simply mean getting back to the spirit that created the rules to begin with…before they were mastered and monopolized by an oligarchic few. Maybe it will be an entirely new creation.

And I have had glimpses of hope. In the U.S. movements like Black Lives Matter are challenging the very systems of democratic institutions, breaking through inscribed barriers. Judges are finally striking down draconian attacks on voters’ rights in many states, re-enfranchising thousands. In Zambia there is a history of single party rule moving to a multiple party system. This year there will be more positions chosen by popular election than ever before. In the Presbyterian church our assembly-based decisions are slowly marching us towards progress. I have seen Sessions and committees that operate with love as a foundation rather than power. Even in this TEEZ meeting I saw hope in a few individuals who refused to back down from challenging the chair. I saw hope in especially the women representatives who stood up and said, “Nope. We know what is happening and we know what should be happening. This isn’t our first rodeo. We will make this organization great again.”

I pray that these glimpses of hope along with exploration of effective and creative action will get me through. Please do let me know if you have experiences of democratic systems that work for all the people involved, especially in the Church. 

Posted August 2, 2016

 

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Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8