Hungry Westerners, Hungry African Orphans

“Those who follow Jesus will be hungry along the way. They are filled with longing for forgiveness of all sins and for complete renewal; they long for the renewal of the earth and for God’s perfect justice.

But the curse on the world still conceals God’s justice; the sin of the world still falls on it.”  –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What happens when Bonhoeffer’s hunger comes face to face with the fruit of the curse? This longing for renewal and justice can also serve as an aching reminder that our appetite as followers of Jesus will never be fully satiated in this life. Despite our best efforts our plans are thwarted and our sacrifices are insufficient. The need is greater, the barriers are higher; the angry get angrier, the sick grow sicker, and death’s hunger proves more insatiable than our own. The discouraging reality of waiting on deferred hope proves to be too great an obstacle for far to many of us.

And so our longing subsides as our hunger dulls; we adapt, learning to mute our disappointment by settling for less.  We encase ourselves in the protective armor of growing jaded; it hurts less to assume others will let us down than to be surprised when they actually do.

But, somehow, this is not true for all of us. Some of us are able, somehow, to fend off insipid passivity even in the face of our greatest disappointments. And their stories inspire the rest of us to follow suit. On such example is John Donnelly’s A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa. (video promo here)

It’s easy to read a title like that and think (as I did and a friend of mine said out loud) “That’s just what we need–another white guy trying to save Africa!” It would seem that Donnelly (former Boston Globe staff writer) had the same impulse, as he tells David Nixon’s story of attempting to help orphans in Malawi against the backdrop of Western aid to Africa. Refreshingly, he warns against attempting to counter drastic human needs with mere earnest ignorance. He speaks even more sharply against the hubris of thinking money can purchase renewal and justice. Yet, he is practical enough to realize the Western resources can be helpful. It is of huge significance that Nixon’s story urges one to ask “How?” instead of “How much?”  What makes this book significant is that it refuses the pendulum pull of either serving as call to arms (“Go save the orphans!”) or waving the flag of surrender (“Africa doesn’t need any more meddling white people!”).

Donnelly’s overarching message is deceivingly simple: listen before you do, learn before you walk, love before you reach.

Nixon’s story is powerful precisely because it refuses to descend into a sweetly saccharin fairytale. He begins his quest on an earnestly ignorant short-term missions trip, and ten years later is responsible for a school and feeding center that reaches hundreds of children. But the real story is what happens in between: the development of wisdom, the reliance on locals, invigorating successes, foolish missteps, tragic deaths, fruitful partnerships and devastating betrayals. Moreover, the story has not ended. Nixon’s ministry (the NOAH Project) faces an uncertain future due to economic hardships and Nixon’s own family needs in the US.

Donnelly and Nixon both seem to say that their chief weapon against the dulling of their own appetites for renewal and justice was to remember that humility is more powerful than money, and ‘better’ is only ‘better’ if it helps. And that God never stops fighting the curse, despite all evidence to the contrary.

There is a good chance that Nixon has felt the weight of the curse in more tangible ways than most of his Western audience. But, his story is a paradigm-bender; his ability to inspire doesn’t stem from his ‘success’ (still in question). His story of helping orphans is inspiring simply because he refuses to let the fruit of the curse devour his hunger for renewal.

If your own hunger has been dulled, you should consider this as a helpful appetizer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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