Ubuntu Unity

21 Aug

In May 2012 I travelled to Africa University in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe with a team of seven young adults and two other clergy. We journeyed as a Volunteer in Mission team under the guidance of the Mission Discovery program of the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. The goal of Mission Discovery is to raise a new generation of mission leaders. Basically, you take a mission trip to teach others how to lead a mission trip. Given the purpose of the trip and the newness of the experience for all of us (none of us had been there before) we went with an expectant attitude not presuming to know what kinds of service awaited us.

During our extended layover in London en route we crafted some guiding principles for our work. We decided we would give of ourselves and take what was offered. We would seek to transform lives and be open to transformation. We would teach and learn. Most of all we would listen carefully to any need before presuming we knew what was needed or how to help. And we would do everything in community, holding each other and our new ministry partners in prayer, in communication and in high esteem.

We had heard the word ‘ubuntu’ in our preparations for travel but came quickly to know its full understanding. Ubuntu is a Swahili word (and pan-African concept) that basically means “I am because you are.” Put another way it is a statement of interconnectedness. It says my life only makes sense when your life is also considered, that the value of my existence is enhanced by the value of your existence. In English we might use ‘togetherness’ or ‘fellowship’ or ‘commonwealth’ to express this idea, but ubuntu goes far beyond these. It expresses the intrinsic hope our team imagined in London.

I don’t know if it was because we had made several virtual and face to face friendships with those we went to meet before arriving, or if students and staff at Africa University are especially open and vulnerable, or if our purpose radiated from us, but we were able to participate in ubuntu from the moment we landed.  We learned of personal and corporate needs and were able to respond to them with our talents, our hearts, and our financial resources which I don’t believe would have been possible if we had presumed “they” needed what “we” had. It was ministry “with” in a way I’ve never before experienced, but one I hope to recreate whenever possible, especially on the campuses of Grand Valley State University.

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Greg Lawton was hired as Director of the Wesley Fellowship at Grand Valley State University in July 2011 after serving as the interim campus minister at the Michigan State University Wesley Foundation for a semester. He has served churches in the West Michigan Conference in youth and adult discipleship since 1997 and has degrees in Applied Science (A.A.S., Ferris State University), Hydrogeology (B.S., Western Michigan University) and Christian Education (M.A., Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary). He is also trained in Restorative Justice, Mediation, and other peacemaking techniques. He lives in nearby Wyoming, MI with his cat, Bob. Greg is an ordained Deacon in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church, loves to travel either on mission or for fun, and enjoys church camp and folk music.

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