[From The Times Online]
"AS an ATHEIST, I TRULY Believe AFRICA NEEDS GOD"
by Matthew Parris
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest
problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as
a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times
Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there.
Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting
people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities.
But traveling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been
trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to
avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological
beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has
embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous
contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply
distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and
international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and
training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's
hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The
change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical
work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that
salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white,
working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and
write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission
hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I
would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to
help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the
missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that
matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries,
and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with
my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we
had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong
believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having
cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have
liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an
engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with
others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They
At 24, traveling by land across the continent reinforced this
impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the
Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda,
Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land
Rover to Nairobi. We slept under the stars, so it was important as
we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the
sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall.
Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had
to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people
we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they
approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away.
They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in
some ways less so - but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You
do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels
discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the
big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most
impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from
Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. "Privately" because
the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so
much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked
up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was
studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went
off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and
optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their
work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What
they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place
in the Universe that Christianity had taught....
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Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of theFather, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost Matthew 28 : 19
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