Mark Gornik on Learning to Pray with African Christians: Ethnography, Theology and a World of Christianity

8 days ago, President Derek Halvorson, of Covenant Collegetweeted the following:

Looking forward to having @CovenantCollege alum Mark Gornik, author of Word Made Global, on campus next week: http://ow.ly/1S1MVd 

And with that, I knew that I wanted to attend Gornik’s lecture series this weekend (Thursday night, Friday night, and this morning – Saturday). Of course, other than my reading of Gornik’s book “To Live in Peace” years ago when I took the course “Principles of Community Development” as a sophomore at Covenant College, I had no idea what to expect from this particular course, nor did I have any time to prepare.

Since his time living and working in Sandtown among residents in this poor area of Baltimore and helping to start New Song Urban Ministries, Gornik left to live and study in New York City, and start the City Seminary of New York. He subsequently did his doctorate thesis on African Christianity in NYC, eventually focusing on three churches.  This was a work of ethnography, a work of learning from African Christians who now live in NYC, learning their theology, and learning how they worship.  Gornik’s doctorate thesis was then turned into the book Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City.

Gornik’s lecture series at Covenant this weekend partly reflected his doctorate thesis and book.

First, let me get it out of the way that I’m very glad I attended. It was free and open to the public, and although I wasn’t familiar with the book, nor did I really understand what the lecture was going to be about, the title of the course really intrigued me. I knew that Gornik has spent a lot of time thinking about (and living) intentionally with believers in an urban setting.

But this lecture and his work went way beyond his work and interaction in Sandtown, Maryland.

As Gornik spoke, I realized that here was a man who had devoted himself to anthropology work, learning about different cultures worldwide (and for his particular doctorate thesis, learning about African Christianity in NYC). He has spent time in Africa, Asia, and Central America also learning about Christian communities.

Gornik spoke from experience that in theology and worship, one size does not fit all. Time and time again, he pointed out that worship is by nature a representation of a culture. Each individual Christian has a particular story, and each community has a particular story that is unique.

Gornik concludes that we must be incredibly humble and cautious when we think about critiquing another Christian style of worship or theology. Certainly, all Christians share the same basic tenants of the faith (e.g. that humans are sinful and as a result that Jesus Christ died – and more importantly, rose – to save us from our sins). Despite these core truths, Christians worldwide (not to mention in just North America) have distinct theologies.

For example, while the Reformed (think Presbyterian) tradition formally believes that no human is without excuse to know God as a result of Creation (general revelation), it is also held that no one can be saved apart from Scripture. On the other hand, a different tradition (such as the Pentecostal movement) might believe that God works in wondrous ways to reveal himself to others, and that people can be saved apart from Scripture. (This is just an example, mind you – I have not explicitly stated what I personally do or do not believe).

So Gornik’s argument is that a Christian theology on which an individual or community holds is directly affected by that individual’s or community’s history and cultural context.

I thought a lot about Bryant Myers, who has similar thoughts to Gornik’s conclusions. Myers writes about theology in Christian Community Development at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Walking With The Poor:

…The development process is a convergence of stories. The story of the development practitioner is converging with the story of the community and together they will share a new story for a while. Because the development promoter is a Christian and because God has been active in the community since the beginning of time, the biblical story is the third story in this confluence of stories. This brings the development practitioner back to theology and the biblical account.

One of my favorite quotes, which affirms this idea, is by Duane Elmer, another Christian Community Development practitioner:

Love is culturally defined. When we truly love others, we love them in their own context, in keeping with the way they define love. We can’t express love in a vacuum. It can be expressed egocentrically (my way) or sociocentrically (as the other person would define love).

I whole heartily agree with Gornik, Myers and Elmer. We must be incredibly careful (and humble) in our critique of Christianity in other cultural contexts, which we may not completely understand.

Certainly the core foundations of our faith are essential. For the non-essentials (to salvation) however, it is better to err on the side of love, acceptance, and mutuality rather than pointing fingers and saying “you’re wrong, I’m right.”

FacebookGoogle+DiggDeliciousShare This Post

Filled With Awesome Wonder (And Excitement)

It’s 3am on January 1st, 2013. I just spent over 1 & 1/2 hours writing this blog post. I was planning on spending part of the night (after New Year’s celebrations) working on configuring a new a new server (yes, I’m a geek 24/7). I won’t go into all the details, but if you’re also a geek and curious, then here’s the summary: I’m building a new Postfix + Dovecot server. Postfix is done and working, but I’m still working out a few bugs with Dovecot. I’ll get around to (finishing) the configuration of this Dovecot server, but this blog post isn’t supposed to be geek-related at all.

This will be more personal. This post originally started out as a short Facebook status, and then it turned into a Facebook note. But now as I’ve continued to write, it has turned into this blog post of over 1,000 words!

I was listening to some worship music (specifically the CD Songs 4 Worship Ultimate) and thinking about all of the different interests and passions that seem to pull me in (what I feel are) completely different directions and feeling a bit confused, as I’ve felt for a while, in a number of areas.

As the CD was playing on my iPhone, I pulled out the devotional “Daily Light” and the first verse for January 1 is  also one of my longtime favorite verses, and was exactly what I needed to read tonight (morning now): Philippines 3:13-14, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Each time a new song came on this CD, I’ve been renewed this evening (morning, now) a little bit more. I’ve also been closely following the Tweets that people are tweeting from the triennial Urbana (Student Missions) conference for the last few days, and as it has wrapped up tonight in St. Louis. (Urbana is an international missions conference, made up primarily of students, that meets every 3 years the week between Christmas and New Year’s, in St. Louis, MO. I’ve never been to the conference, but heard about it from a good friend of mine when she and I worked together in Boston in 2009-2010).

Sometimes, I feel that I have two incompatible interests (technology and community development). On the one hand, I’m a geek, I know server administration,  I know Linux, and I find myself in front of a computer more often than not. On the other hand, I love to travel, I love different cultures (and the study of different cultures and cross-cultural communication). I strongly desire to build long-term relationships with residents AND those who “doing” development and missions in developing countries.

As many of my readers know, I am working very, very hard to launch my own business. Develop CENTS will very soon be launched into a full time venture.  2013 is going to be a very interesting and exciting year. As some of my close friends know, I will be shortly leaving my current full-time employment to attempt this launch into a full time venture. Develop CENTS exists to provide affordable technology consulting services to nonprofit organizations transforming underdeveloped communities worldwide, and to provide technology education and jobs to members of communities in which these NGOs work. The mission and vision of Develop CENTS meshes with the interests I have, which I outlined earlier.

However, sometimes I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. One of my biggest fears in launching Develop CENTS has been that I would “get stuck” behind a computer 8 hours a day. While computers and technology are a big passion of mine, they are not my deepest passion, nor can they fulfill me. My deepest desire is to help people all over the world, both in developing countries and in developed countries, in two areas:

  1. The first desire I have is to help people meet the same Lord & Savior that I have been given the grace to know. I believe in the God described in the Bible. I believe that he is a loving and everlasting God. I believe that I – and everyone else in this world – are messed up (“sinners”). I believe that one day, by God’s grace, through faith and not through any other works of my own, I will spend eternity with my Creator. And I firmly believe that anyone’s decision to make that faith their own is the most important decision that person can ever make. The alternative is not pleasant. However, while I believe God is sovereign over all, I also believe that God has given us free will and will not force this decision on anyone.
  2. The second desire I have is to help people become empowered so that they can support themselves. I firmly believe that there are ways we can help people (the materially poor), but I also firmly believe that there are ways that Outsiders try to help “Insiders” (the “poor”) that actually do more harm than good. I believe that anyone who seek to do “missions” or “community development” work have a responsibility not to do more harm than good. (I studied “Community Development” for my B.A. in college at Covenant College. Two of my professors, who also work for the Chalmers Center have written a book called When Helping Hurts. If what I’m writing resonates with you, and you haven’t read this book, then go read it).

But I know that it is not true I will sit behind a computer 100% of my time, and become a recluse. I have a vision to partner with Community Development and Missions organizations worldwide, and build lasting relationships. I have a vision to work with people. I firmly believe that technology is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself.

I firmly believe that Develop CENTS can and will help nonprofits worldwide. I am very, very excited to see that happen, and to see my desires and passions flow through the business model. The road may be hard and possibly lonely at times.

But for now, my Lord is saying to me “This is the way: Walk in it.”

With excitement, I start 2013, and I greatly look forward to seeing the ways in which my passion for missions, community development, and technology will mesh.

Happy New Years!