Monday, May 16, 2005

Third World Blues

Anyone who reads this blog knows I love my job. I am having a blast as a missionary! (That’s technical theological language, by the way.)

But there is a side to this work that is achingly difficult. There is an eternal thorn in the side of a missionary in a Third World setting. There is a dilemma that can never be resolved, an open wound that will never heal.

The problem is poverty. Not just “the problem of the poor,” or the plight of widows and orphans. But outright grinding poverty. And the accompanying hopelessness.

We live in it, but we are not of it. And we never will completely understand it.

The common American perception is that missionaries live lives of voluntary poverty to live in grass huts, eat nothing but rice, and re-use toilet paper to make ends meet. And I guess compared to most of you blog-readers, I don’t make very much as a missionary.

But I have never felt so wealthy in my entire life.

Compared to 95% of the rest of Yaounde, for example, we are living the extremely good life. We have disposable income, we can maintain a car, we come and go as we please. We can even afford to hire house help. The cost of living is low enough for us to cruise through the month on our paychecks.

I didn’t expect to have that feeling as a missionary. And, in fact, it only makes me feel worse as I look at what we pay our Mission pastors, what our church members make, and how people survive.

University graduates hang around on street corners, looking for jobs which simply don’t exist. Those who are still in university have recently begun a series of protests against the government, because they know they have nothing to look forward to once they graduate. A few weeks ago, in Buea, police fired into the crowd of students, killing two young people.

In Obala, where Pastor Simeon Nomo leads a vibrant, growing congregation at Sion UMC, a cholera epidemic has broken out in the very neighborhood where Simeon, his wife, and two children live. Over twenty people have died in the last month already. The problem is simply a lack of reliable drinking water. Both well water and tap water are likely sources of the problem. But Simeon told me that they don’t know what to do about it – they just drink the water and take their chances. Who can afford a water filter?

In the Extreme North, a famine threatens as the rainy season comes to an end. Even though we don’t have any churches or contacts in that area at this time, we’re already hearing stories of soaring grain prices.

I have had many Cameroonians confess to me that they dream of traveling to America, which is like “heaven” to them. But none of them can afford the plane fare.

And if I stay in my office for too long, eventually people begin to line up in the outer office to make requests for financial assistance. There are refugees from Congo, students who need help paying school fees, pastors needing help with medical bills, and street kids from Niger begging a few francs for dinner.

It’s frightening, maddening and extremely sobering, all in one.