"How was Africa?' - Sue Divin

So yeah, if you’ve been near me or my Facebook, you probably know I was in Togo for a week in February with Christian Charity Compassion.  It’s been great that so many of you have asked me the ‘How was Africa?’ question but it’s a question easier asked than answered. Capturing it in a two minute sound-bite is a struggle.  If you want the creative day-by-day account of what I experienced, probably best to read my Facebook where I splurged thoughts and images via a dodgy intermittent WiFi connection from a hotel in Lomé before collapsing exhausted into bed each night. For my reflections a month later, interspersed with a few Cornerstone/Compassion facts, read on.

FACT 1: Cornerstone members currently sponsor 55 children with Compassion. YAY! 

 For me, going to Togo wasn’t a missions trip. Not in my perception of how Christians usually mean that. It was about a boy. He’s 10. His name’s Dogbeda. I’ve sponsored him for 2 years since the Cornerstone women’s conference focused on it. Maybe you sponsored a kid that weekend too? I picked Dogbeda because his family reminded me of mine. At home there’s just him and his mother. I write to him every month. Send a photo. He writes back. Sends a drawing. His photo’s on my mantelpiece. I sent a bit extra. He buys a goat. Later, it dies. Maybe I’ll buy another one. It’s all good. Kind of limited though. Then last September Compassion sent an email, ‘We’re taking a trip from Ireland to Togo. Anyone in?’ 

Yes. Me. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, chances like that don’t come round too often. I was intrigued. I wanted to meet him and his mother. Encourage them. Connect with them. Dogbeda is like the extra child I never had the chance to have.  Secondly, if there was any sense of this being a missions trip, the mission field was not Togo. It was me. If this was purely about helping Christian mission in Togo, I’d have been better to just send the money. My motivation was not angelic altruism. Sometimes it’s hard to sense God when you’re burnt out with the daily grind. Going, seeing, experiencing, doing something different, often helps me find space to think. It changes, stretches and challenges my perspective. When’s the last time you did something significantly beyond your usual boundaries?

FACT 2: 46 of the kids Cornerstone Members sponsor are in Togo.

 I suppose, this being a church article and that, I’m supposed to write how it was a deeply spiritual experience. Truth be told, for me, it wasn’t. Exhausting, intensive, moving – yes. A retreat? No. It was however a deeply human experience – one where I felt God move in the ordinary.  In the practical. In the seamless blend between faith and action. What I saw in Togo with Compassion, was that churches don’t do occasional community projects, churches lead community development. The difference is significant.  That, with support from Compassion, is what puts churches at the heart of community. How many churches here would sign themselves up for a 9 month community capacity building training programme to see if they might get picked by a Christian charity to lead on transforming their communities? That’s the step churches take in Togo to work with Compassion. That impressed me. 

Let’s take a step back for a minute. I’ve worked in community development and reconciliation in Derry~Londonderry for about 15 years, yet it only occurred to me after Togo that Jesus frequently asked the most basic personal and community development question. Even when the answer looked obvious, Jesus, who knew everything anyway, still asked people ‘What do you want?’ (Matthew 20 v.32) I sometimes wonder if as Christians and as churches, we’ve forgotten to ask that question to individuals and communities before we decide how to help. But when you ask people the question, it changes what we do from charity to empowerment. One assumes. The other asks. One gives temporary help. The other gives longer-term worth. One creates dependence. The other creates dignity. I saw Compassion and churches in Togo get this right, again and again. 

FACT 3: 37 children Cornerstone members sponsor are in the SAME community project. (TGO135 CD Perseverance ad Ando Kpegbe) There’s also a smaller cluster of 7 in TGO137.

 Before going to Togo, I could see the point of sponsorship connecting on an individual or family level. What I’d missed completely was the value of the community level in their work. When I write to Dogbeda online, there’s an option to add a gift. A birthday gift. An individual gift. A family gift. I’d done those on occasions. There’s another option though – A community gift. That, I’d never clicked.

All the kids we sponsor get the chance to go on Saturdays to their community project run by the ‘FCP’ (Frontline Church Partner). Yes, they have a spiritual/Christian programme. They also have a social/emotional; physical/health/hygiene and personal development curriculum. Those church led community projects are building hope spiritually and practically in their community. 

They’re starting with sponsored kids, but many of them dream of Pre-school Child Surival programmes, water, roads, electricity, toilets, entrepreneurial support for women, health provision... So here’s the thing. I can’t answer their prayers for that on my own. But Cornerstone sponsors 37 kids in the one community project. Could we work at it together? Could we think of our links as not just family-to-family but church-to-church? CCI has already linked us nation to nation, Ireland-to-Togo. The missing link is the middle bit. In TGO135 Perseverance - $25 is the average persons MONTHLY income. Our money could go a long way. 

FACT 4: Cornerstone members used to sponsor 85 kids. We ended 30 sponsorships. 1 in 3.

 Did you read the 4th fact? When I heard it I had three reactions. Firstly, why is our dropout rate double the usual dropout rate Compassion sees with child sponsorship?  Secondly, if you’re currently sponsoring a kid please Please PLEASE know how valuable it is. Be encouraged to keep going. Thirdly, if sponsoring a kid is too expensive, maybe there’s an opportunity to collectively sponsor a community so that even if our circumstances mean we can’t give £25 a month consistently, we can still make a radical difference.

Churches in Ireland and UK raised £25,000 for a water bore (well). Water isn’t just about water. Water means kids don’t get sick – so they can go to school and pass their exams. Water means women don’t have to walk hours per day carrying buckets – so they can volunteer in their community project or begin a business. A water bore can irrigate fields – and lift communities out of poverty. £25,000 is a massive ask. But why don’t we ask project TGO 135 Perseverance if there’s something smaller on their prayer list we could help with? All it takes is for us to ask ‘What do you want?’

PS. I’m not buying Dogbeda a goat. Sure, it would be cute. It would meet a need. Nothing wrong with that except that what he wants, is a bike. Why? In September he’s starting secondary school. The daily walk under hot sun, is a 3 hour round trip. 

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