The Birth of a Journey
It started with a visit to the headmaster of the primary school in an area where Africa Development Mission (ADM) had recently planted a church. The visit seemed natural to me, as the rural school was in my home area and a school I had attended as a child.
During the course of our conversation the headmaster wanted to make a note but couldn’t find a working pen in his office. You can imagine what it meant for the rest of the staff and students if their leader didn’t have access to needed resources. That’s when I realized we needed an empowering partnership with the community and the school to create an effective learning environment for both students and staff. Eleven years later our work in the Mhondoro area of Zimbabwe has expanded to include partnerships with 15 schools, involvement in medical ministry, micro-finance, well drilling, and the establishment of nutrition gardens. We’ve learned several lessons on this journey of community transformation.
The Needs Before Us
Jesus didn’t have to seek out those he helped. Like that headmaster I visited, the needs were right in front of him as he went about his daily life and ministry. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35, 36). “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). As individuals and as a Christian community, we need to pray that our physical and spiritual eyes will be open to see the opportunities in front of us. Opportunity is there in the grieving neighbor, the lonely coworker, and the children who are failing to make their grades at school because of an unstable home environment.
The Humanity and Deity of Christ
Christians are seen gathering in buildings, parks, and coffee shops every day. And it happens in the context of a world deeply divided, deeply hurting, and in need of genuine love for one another. To many people, Christianity is nothing more than a system, an institution, a religion. When our opened eyes move our hearts to action as individuals and as the body of Christ, those same people are encouraged to remove the institutional label and accept us into their lives as fellow human beings. When compassion is genuinely expressed, it communicates a message of unconditional love and acceptance, something that many find missing in other religions. It causes people to ask about us what they asked about Jesus: “What kind of man is this?” (Matthew 8:27). They begin to see us as people who feel, love, and hurt just as they do. People of compassion. Compassionate Christians.
Once people have removed the label they open their hearts and lives to us in a big way. This allows us to share the gospel of Christ in the context of a trusted relationship. When we perceive and meet the physical needs of others, will some of those we help follow the food and not the Father (God)? Absolutely. It happened to Jesus: “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick” (John 6:2). Jesus, however, did not call us to make converts but “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Being compassionate Christians will not automatically result in discipleship, even when it has resulted in conversion.
The model we use with Africa Development Mission is to do community transformation work in areas where we have started churches. This creates the opportunity for relationships and discipleship to be developed further as the church and community interact in community gardens, celebrating around a recently drilled well, and in home Bible study groups. Not every act of compassion accomplishes our objective of bringing people to Christ. Some people we help will feel used or trapped, resulting in artificial commitments. We do not simply carry out acts of compassion; we are compassionate Christians. What is the difference? Relationships. When acts of compassion are done apart from relationships, a major disconnect occurs between the church and the community. Disaster relief work is an exception to this rule. The urgency in disaster relief doesn’t allow for opportunity or time to develop long lasting relationship, and that’s okay.
When the church and the community remain disconnected even though acts of compassion are being done, it’s time to ask whether we are engaging in acts of compassion at the expense of discipleship.
Dignity Today, Eternal Hope Tomorrow
On a personal level, my greatest joy and fulfillment has been in seeing individuals, families, and communities embrace and own a vision for community transformation. This happens when people realize it is not about handouts from a temporary source, but about working side by side in the context of relationships and discipleship. In the process you see long-term transformation of life taking place.
Eleven years later we are seeing students, the headmaster, and many others at different schools enjoying the opportunities of a better learning environment and celebrating the joys of a better future. Our education ministry has enabled many rural students to enter universities, transforming not only their lives but those of generations to come. Today the headmaster praises God not just for the changes at his and other schools, but for the transformation he has seen in the character of the community around him. Another man testified that his dignity as a human being and a father had been restored. And in the end, many more people will hear the Lord say, “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) because they have also walked with him.
As a father I try to approach parenting in a holistic manner, not distinguishing between the times when I am playing with my kids at the play center, fishing during vacation, or leading prayer and Bible time before going to bed. It must be one thing. Being compassionate is not something we do apart from being disciples of Christ and discipling others. It must be one thing. When that happens, there is balance and there is discipleship.
Denford Chizanga is a graduate of Cincinnati Christian University. He and his wife, Shingirirai, are the founders and executive directors of Africa Development Mission in Zimbabwe, Africa.