At the start of February a rebel column moved in on the capital of a large landlocked country in North Africa. Fierce battles raged through the streets of it’s capital as militants shelled the presidential palace attempting to topple the leader. The city was N’djamena, the country was Chad. These events which occurred recently drew international attention briefly, but shortly the world’s media turned their eyes away. Other stories with more exciting visual content from more newsworthy places soon filled our screens.
On the Sunday that the story of Chad broke, I stayed in my home even when my wife, our son and her family went to the beach. I tuned in on the hour every hour for the headlines from CNN and the BBC. I had the computer up with a dozen websites–email and news feeds mainly–keeping me plugged into anything that was registering on the radar from this parched expanse of African desert. The reason for my unusual interest was simple: my parents were there.
Not many people know very much about Chad. It has some better-known neighbours such as Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Sudan. Chad is a forgotten land in the middle of nowhere, the sort of place you might pass through on your way to somewhere more interesting. It’s top half is barely inhabitable Sahara desert. The Chadian population consistently feature among the planet’s lowliest on most indicator’s of human wellbeing such as literacy, infant mortality or health. The Darfur crisis in the east of the country is most outsiders´ sole reference point for what’s going on in this part of the world.
Mum and Dad have been missionaries to Africa almost their whole adult lives save for a stint in London. They have considerable experience of coping with Africa’s frequent political crises. On this occasion my mother was evacuated to the UK and my father remained to help and oversee the evacuation effort of other missionaries. As I write, the situation has stabilized – at least temporarily – and Mum is due to fly back to Africa to join Dad in the next few weeks. Their house was not looted as they expected although so far there is no sign of their stolen vehicle.
When I relay this story to people I get various responses. Most folks don’t really know how to carry on a conversation which begins – “My parents who live in the Sahara desert have been caught up in a coup”. What I find is that among Christians I usually get three types of response – all of which are well-meaning and understandable, but, I would argue, differ in “quality”.
Let me explain what I mean.
The first response, and the one that grates me the most, goes something like this: “Is this that thing in Zimbabwe?” or “This is to do with that situation in Kenya, isn’t it?”. It would be unfair to criticize people for being ignorant about Africa. The endless stream of bad news – of natural disasters, of disease, of civil wars, of political instability, of aching poverty – that pour out of this continent, and its depiction through our media as a great monolith of barebacked and malnourished children living in mud huts, numbs us to the detail of Africa.
Chad is a unique country with a unique history. Its people speak different languages and have alternative cultures, worldviews and norms to other Africans elsewhere. The political crisis happening in Chad is unconnected to anything happening in Kenya or Zimbabwe (even though those two countries occupy more newsprint column inches). The political crisis in Chad will affect it’s citizens in dramatic and personal ways as they attempt to build a future in the midst of bitterness and the loss of life. It’s not enough to file everything we hear under “Africa’s problems”. Each situation involves real, living human beings and I believe we should respect them by at least attempting to grasp the reality of their world instead or reaching for the nearest category to slap across their situation. This is part of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
“Your parents are so brave. I could never do that”. This is probably the most common response I get from people who hear about my folks in Chad. Of course, I appreciate the sentiment and, yes, my parents are exceptional people who I am very proud of. Even so, I think this response contains all kinds of problems. In the process of being evacuated Mum and Dad had little choice about whether to be brave or not. There was a procedure already in place, they followed it and the French military did the rest. They both have the experience, training and know-how to cope with the situation far better than most of us, so to say “I could never do that” is somewhat glib and irrelevant. It also unhelpfully buffs the image of missionaries as super-spiritual folk “on the field” versus little old me with my insignificant ministry “at home”.
If my parents are “brave” it might be in their decision to go in the first place in answer a call God put on their heart. They left for Chad fully aware of the health risks, the insecurity and the separation from comforts and loved ones. But then the God they have faith in promises to fully supply all their needs in Christ in this life and the next. In this respect “I could never do that” becomes “with God’s help I will”. Mum and Dad would say that resting in the promises of God made obedience to God’s prompting in their life an attainable reality. And that truth equally applies to all of us.
The third response is the one that I love to hear: “How can I pray?” This question demonstrates humility on the part of the asker. It offers an openness to learn. It shows a desire to transform our limited human understanding into intercession to the one who understands all. It’s a personal challenge to me to live out this question in how I relate to others – other real, broken people in their unique contexts.
In answer to the question itself, we need to be praying for Chad’s church. Most ex-patriot missionaries were evacuated safely and efficiently with international military support. For those born inside Chad’s borders there is no respite. The problems are right on their own doorsteps. There are countless untold stories of how God is at work in the lives of Chadian Christians through their attempts to heal, bind up, repair and uplift in the wake of chaos, destruction, uncertainty and despair.
My prayer is that the light of Christ in them will transform their land.