WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO TO SIERRA LEONE FOR YOUR INTERNSHIP?
I decided to go there because of Kennedy, who’s from my formation group. He’s from Kenya and he was like, “Richard, you should go to Africa and have a tough time for your cross-cultural internship!” It was just on my heart because I’ve been working with refugees from Sudan teaching English at my church and Kennedy had brought it up—so it just kept coming up. I was learning more about African culture and meeting more people from Africa, and I thought it might be cool to actually go. And then Geoff Vandermolen actually just caught me in the hallway one day, and was like, “Hey, want to go to Africa?” I said, “Sure!”
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE INTERNSHIP FOCUS AND GOALS?
Sierra Leone was the option for the Timothy Leadership Training Institute (TLTI), which gives church leaders basic leadership skills, pastoral care, and theology. The whole point is the three-day trainings. Leaders from all over will come to the training. We do the materials for free and give them food and lunch, and the whole hope is that they use that material back at their churches to train the whole congregation in the material. So we were training leaders to train others. It’s kind of like grassroots multiplication.
GOING TO A NEW COUNTRY INTRODUCES US TO A NEW WAY OF LIFE AND CAN BRING OUT SOME CULTURE SHOCK. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCES YOU HAD?
I wasn’t with any Westerners! I traveled there alone; it took two-and-a-half days to travel there and then I got there and I didn’t know anyone—which also speaks about the tremendous hospitality that I was shown. I was totally dependent on my host family, Reverend Bahago and his wife. They’re Nigerian missionaries to Sierra Leone. They did everything for me like exchanging my money, cooking, laundry—everything. Reverend Bahago assumed that I loved Coke because I was an American, so whenever he could, he bought me a Coke. But I loved it because whenever I was having a bad day, he would buy me a Coke! But not having anyone that kind of understood the culture shock that I was going through and that I could talk to about some of the anxieties of living in a culture where they have different views was hard, especially during the trainings. So for example, someone might show up late, but that’s not offensive. In a linear time like ours it’s offensive to show up late because the way you honor someone is showing up on time, but in a circular culture the way you honor someone is completing the task and being with them for literally as long as is needed to talk about whatever you’re talking about. So we had early mornings and really long evenings. It’s not like one perception of time is better than the other, but for a Westerner like me who wasn’t part of that culture, it’s a little anxiety-producing.
WERE THERE ANY RELIGIOUS OR HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDS YOU HAD TO BE AWARE OF FOR EFFECTIVE MINISTRY?
There’s a question in the TLTI that asks, “What do you do during crisis?” and there was plenty of material because people would mention things like the Ebola outbreak in 2014. The image of that is still very much alive—it really affected kind of how the church functioned and met, but at the same time the church was able to be a huge help with the community and providing for people who were suffering. Or they’d mention the Civil War, which ended in 2002. So it’s distant, but there are still a lot of unspeakable things that happened during the war: tons of murder, tons of rape. Whole villages were destroyed. The rebels would just burn down all the buildings. Christian Reformed World Missions had so many churches burned down. And Sierra Leone actually didn’t gain their independence until 1961; they were a British colony until then. So there’s this history of slavery—there’s a whole people, the Krio people, which are descendants of freed slaves that were transferred back to Sierra Leone. They have their own language, which is a mix of like five different languages. Some of them have Nigerian names, or even English names, because they felt so burned by their own culture; sold into slavery by their own brethren, so they don’t like to identify with their former tribe. It’s all a very intricate background.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST SURPRISING THINGS YOU DISCOVERED ABOUT LIFE AND MINISTRY THERE?
While listening to the sermons there, I recognized the theology in them was pretty much similar to Grand Rapids’ CRC churches. But the preaching style there was totally deductive, totally “this is how it is,” three-points; and the worship style, obviously, was different. So I saw how you can have a church with the same theology halfway across the world that has a different cultural expression of their faith—but it’s the same faith. I also took away that evangelism is central for the faith. There’s definitely a correlation between that and Christianity growing there. So between restarting in 2002 and now, church membership in CRC Sierra Leone has grown tenfold. Some people might say, “Maybe the soil is a little more fertile!” There’s definitely an aspect where there’s almost not a secular culture there: everyone’s spiritual. 60 percent of the population is Muslim, 30 percent is Christian, and the other 10 percent is indigenous beliefs. You get very little of what we call “atheist freethinkers.” But there is definitely a correlation between evangelism being central to their faith. Reverend Bahago said in one of his sermons that he thinks when the Church gets to heaven, they’re going to be asked by Christ, “Okay, did you share what you learned about me with others? Did you impact others with the Gospel? Did you reach out?” and if the answer is, “No,” then we’re going to have to answer for that. So the answer, hopefully, is, “Yes. We stepped out in faith to share the Gospel with communities that don’t know Christ.” Kind of comparing this to the more insular faith of North America, where it’s a communal, yet personal, thing that we believe and maybe we don’t want to push it on others—maybe it’s not polite public conversation—that’s just not an idea in Sierra Leone. It just doesn’t compute.
ANY LAST WORDS ON SIERRA LEONE?
Even if there were some hard things about it, it was just such a great experience for me to witness a different culture, being shown such hospitality, and seeing a different cultural expression of faith. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go to Sierra Leone for five weeks and to live there among the people. They really want someone to come back next year for a cross-cultural internship, so I hope someone from Calvin Seminary goes to Sierra Leone! ∞
Richard Britton III is a 2nd-year M.Div. student from Brookfield, Wisconsin. He is seeking ordination in the CRC for parish ministry.