When we came to Cameroon on our vision trip in 2010, I asked our colleagues for their highs and lows of Cameroon living. Without exception, each person told me that one of the hardest parts of living here was dealing with money. Knowing about these challenges we read a ton about the subject before crossing into a new culture. We found that most books written for Westerners moving to Africa deal extensively with the question of finances. We have already written about some of what we have learned from books like African Friends and Money Matters (read HERE) and When Helping Hurts (read HERE and HERE). Overall I would say, my primary goals arriving in Cameroon, as it relates to finances, were: 1) to make sure I was not being taken advantage of, and 2) that we were not creating dependency.
Well, we have begun our fourth year of living in Cameroon, and my perspective is continuing to be refined with both good and bad experiences. I have been taken advantage of. In one case a man asked me for money to buy food, I gave it to him, and while I watched he went and bought a beer. I have paid money for workers to travel to my house and dig a well, and they never came. As far as I can tell, we have not created any specific dependency, but there is always the tension. However, while I thought these concerns would be greatly burdening, I can honestly say I care very little about them.
My default stance has now changed and I my new mantra is: prefer generosity. This principle is founded on two main observations:
1. Jesus Calls Us to be Generous
As I read the New Testament, I tend to gravitate towards Paul’s epistles. I like the logical argumentation and the theological content. I have a much harder time with Jesus’ words. Why? Not because they are hard to understand, but because they are hard to obey. Regarding money, here is one of Christ’s teachings:
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)
Man, have I tried to qualify this. I have tried to find ways around it. I have tried to re-define “needy” in such a way that I don’t actually have to sell any possessions. But at the end of the day, I cannot get away with it. Jesus told me that I need to sell my possessions and give to the needy. Someone once challenged me, saying, “Sure we need to think about being good stewards and not creating dependency, but in what way are you obeying the command in Luke 12:33?” And to be honest, at that point, there was no way that I was obeying that command. And in being honest, I was confronted with the reality that I was storing up my treasure on earth and not in Heaven.
I have also been struck by Jesus’ foretelling of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. In it we find the Son of Man sitting on his throne and all the nations are being brought before him. And he is separating out the sheep from the goats. And by what standards will he separate them? By how they have treated the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, strangers. He does not mention stewardship, he does not mention dependency avoidance (not that these are unimportant), he does not even mention faith! Jesus is going to separate believers and unbelievers based upon how they treated the poor. (NOTE: this is not works salvation. Jesus is judging people based on their works, but the Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by grace alone. For a more thorough explanation, see my sermon on this passage HERE).
Since we have begun to prefer generosity, we have also noticed something about the culture…
2. Generosity is Love
Among the Kwakum, we have found that there is an expectation that those who have more are expected to care for those who have less. This expectation is repulsive to my American individualistic values. I honestly do not feel like they should expect anything from me. I am a foreigner in their country with the sole goal of trying to help the Kwakum. So, why should they expect me to take care of their other needs? But the reality is that people here genuinely do not have what is needed in order to survive.
When their children are sick, they often do not have the resources to seek out medical help. Often times there is not enough money to send all the kids to school. So, they choose one kid that they think will do well, and everyone will work together to put that one child through school. Among the Kwakum, they see their friends and family as a resource and when they are in need they have no shame in asking for help. Most of the time they are not trying to abuse me, but are genuinely just in need. This interdependency is, I believe, more in line with what the Bible says about how we should live as a Church. It is not a perfect system, and it is very hard on my cultural sensitivities, but I am thankful for it nonetheless. In observing this system I believe that this almost entirely unreached people has taught me how to be more like Jesus.
But the point is not to be generous for the sake of generosity. In this culture generosity communicates love. I read a quote the other day from a man named David W. Augsburger: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” I like this quote because I think it is true. And I think it could be re-worked for the Kwakum: “Being generous is so close to being loved that for the average Kwakum, they are almost indistinguishable.” This is so true that I believe that if we brought the Gospel, slaved for 20 years to translate the Bible, spoke words of love the entire time, but were seen as stingy, it would all be for naught. We would be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Unbeknownst to me, the Lord was planning all along to give me an opportunity to put this to the test…
When I first arrived back in the village after furlough, my goal was to get the house liveable again. We had left my wife and the girls in the capital, and I wanted to be back with them as soon as possible. I was not here to study the language, I was not here to minister, I had a task and I wanted it completed. During the week I was here, a mother came up to me with her child. His head was huge! I thought he was around 2 years old, but she was carrying him (they usually only carry kids here until they can walk). She later told me he was about 3-months old, his head was continually swelling, and she didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know either. But I told her that I would talk to my doctor friend and went back to fixing the plumbing.
To be honest with you, I just forgot. There was a lot on my mind, I was feeling sick, and the task of repairing the house was overwhelming. But Natalie came back with her baby. This time I sent a picture to my friend immediately so that I would not forget. I got a response back pretty quickly: the baby probably has hydrocephalus and he probably needs to go to Bertoua (a city close by) if not the capital. This family is as poor as they get, and I knew they would not be able to save up enough money to go to the city anytime soon (let alone pay for an operation). We gave them some money to go consult with a doctor. Long story short, they were told they needed to go to Yaoundé (the capital) and they needed more money.
What would you do? They were not offering to pay anything at this point. Should I offer to pay part? Should I turn them away for fear of dependency? If I pay, is everyone with a sick baby going to come to my house for help? I don’t even know this couple. As far as I know, the first time I had ever seen this woman was the day she brought Patrick to me while I was plumbing. Well, as I said, my default stance is now prefer generosity. It is about a month later and I am over $1,000 into this thing. The child is in Yaoundé and they put a shunt in his brain to remove the fluid that has built up. And I just got a call that they need more money for medications! To be honest with you, in spite of their expectations, I can’t do this with every baby in the village. $1K is a lot of money for us. And I feel a bit of anxiety about the decision.
But after the surgery a woman in the hospital sent me a text message with a picture (seen above). I took it to the father who is still here in the village. Today is the presidential vote and this whole week everyone in the village has been out talking about the election. So, not only did he see it, but the whole village saw baby Patrick and his mother. And they told me that he would have died. There was no doubt in their minds. They told me they needed us, they were thankful for us, and there is no way the family could have paid for it on their own. They showed me that they believed that my generosity was the fruit of love. And I walked back home believing that we made the right choice.
I wish that was it. I wish I could say that I can just be generous all the time and that all that will ever happen is love. However, just the other day a Kwakum woman asked me for $800 for a surgery on her arm and I had to turn her away, and she was upset. But at this moment there is nothing I can do. Further, Patrick’s aunt was mocking me last week for stopping a man from beating a child in the street. She said I have no right to tell them how to raise their children. So, it is not all butterflies and rainbows. Most of the people are still not following Jesus and their lives show it. But, I do believe they know that we love them. I believe that they see a generosity in us that is not natural. And I pray that such generosity and love will lead them to Christ one day.
So, I wanted to end by asking you the same question a friend asked me: “How are you obeying Jesus’ words in Luke 12:33?” I still struggle with it, it makes me uncomfortable, and to be honest I just mess it up a lot. But I am happy to see that even my small obediences have brought fruit. I encourage you to consider your default setting when asked to give. Is it “avoid being taken advantage of”? or “don’t create dependency?” If so, I would encourage you to consider the priority of generosity. What an amazing thing to learn from a lost people group in Cameroon!