SENKOBO, Zambia - I wrote last week about the choice one Maryland church made to build an orphanage in Namibia, rather than put in air conditioning. Here's a story about the hard choice made during the mid-'90s by Damascus Wesleyan Church, located just north of Washington, D.C.
The church at that point had a small sanctuary and a growing congregation. It had to divide into two services, and most people didn't like doing that, especially since the sanctuary wasn't even big enough for the second service, which had to meet in a local school. But when church members and associates donated and pledged $287,000 in a special offering one Sunday, it didn't go toward a new building.
Instead, the money went to purchase a 99-year-lease on 10,000 acres here in Senkobo, 15 miles north of Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. The land came with a beautiful farm house, 2,700 fruit trees, cattle and other animals, four deep wells, three dams, a tobacco-curing barn that could be turned into apartments, and other farm buildings that could become orphanages and classrooms.
Because of that church decision, this part of the vast African bush country now benefits from:
•An elementary school with 300 students and five teachers, all men, who receive $120 to $150 per month from Sons of Thunder, the Christian nonprofit organization behind the effort.
•An orphanage to which motherless children close to death are brought; one, named Hope, was born two months prematurely and weighed less than 2 pounds when she arrived. She survived, as have 34 others in the home, with the oldest not yet 4 years old.
•Teams of volunteers who pay for the opportunity to come for two weeks to three months and help with Sunday worship at four village churches and daily activities.
•A three-year course in Bible study and improved farming techniques that is already changing surrounding villages spiritually and physically. In the agricultural/Bible program, each family receives for three years 25 acres (with a water source, oxen and a plow) of the 10,000-acre spread. Except during peak planting and harvesting periods, the men study the Bible from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., three days a week.
•Two- and three-bedroom homes for teachers and students that cost $7,000 to $8,000 to build.
It's great to have good worship spaces here in the United States, but some cathedrals are over-the-top - and what if more churches gave priority to mercy?
The great explorer/missionary David Livingstone wrote in 1866: "Though there is antipathy in the human heart to the gospel of Christ, yet when Christians make their good work shine, all admire them. It is when great disparity exists between profession and practice that we secure the scorn of mankind."
Good work does not stop some sneers, since the cross is a stumbling block to many, but Livingstone's analysis is often accurate. Ministry evangelism - showing people that Christ dramatically changes lives of both those needing help and those moved to offer help - is often more effective than words alone.
Last month, we heard calls to forgive debts owed by African dictators, but it's more important to emphasize true compassion: The word literally means suffering with those in need.
Those who give of themselves rarely regret it. Livingstone gave his life for Africa and said, "Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?"
Jerry Beall, Damascus Wesleyan's pastor in the 1990s and now the head of the ministry it funded, noted as we scampered up a rise in Zambia that his church never built a new sanctuary. Then he looked around at land being farmed, watched some of the children playing and said, "See how much more we got."