Building a Community Bridge across the World: The God-Engineered Link between Chicago and Zambia
As we got off the van and started to walk across the dusty African landscape, hundreds of Zambian adults and children chanting, singing, and dancing as one community of passionate and thankful people met our eyes and ears. A young group of girls sang a song of thanks mentioning Wheaton Academy in their native Bimba dialect. We were overwhelmed by a presentation of gifts of great value that included being handed a live chicken. Our small group of American students immediately became part of the Kakolo community as they hugged the people they’d previously seen only in e-mail attachments and PowerPoint slides. The Wheaton School in Kakolo Village, the first educational structure ever built by and for these people (funded with resources provided by students at Wheaton Academy involved in the One Life Revolution Project), helped to strengthen the bonds of a community devastated by the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa and a community of suburban Christian high school students struggling to figure out how to live a life of faith in the midst of great blessings. Over the past three years of relationship with the needs and the people of Zambia, I’ve watched God do something remarkable in our midst and in my own heart. Here are some snapshots from the story of what God has done in two communities thousands of miles apart, and my reflections while observing God move among us.
Act 1: The Loss of Community
Over the last decade at the school where I teach and serve as the Dean of Spiritual Life, I’ve watched us grow bigger and busier as an educational and faith community. The student body has almost doubled in size during that time, and scores of new programs have been added to meet the needs of our more diverse and demanding student population. The challenge to develop real community as our high school grew much larger and our students got even busier became central to faculty and students alike. People no longer knew everyone’s name, and they seemingly had less contact with even those they did know. We began to notice and then worry about students falling through the cracks, and the business of more and more activities being added each year—along with greater pressure to succeed in the public forums of music and drama and athletics—reduced the time and emphasis on the relational nature of our small school.
As Chap Clark highlights in his book Hurt—which takes a look inside today’s teenage world—our students were becoming about as busy as humanly possible (p. 136), and the business they embrace kept them from “having to reflect on their dreams, their relationships, and their lives” (p. 144). And community was no longer viewed as a priority or even a possibility while the pace of their personal and school lives shifted into overdrive as they simply tried to hang on and make it from place to place alive and successful.
Act 2: The Attempt to Restore Community
As we began to get feedback from both students and parents about this loss of the small school feel we once esteemed as one of our endearing qualities as an institution, we began to regain and rebuild our relational dynamic through several different initiatives. Our various attempts included the American panacea of high school athletics with their pep rallies, student cheering sections, and even the installation of new lights on our soccer field so we could all come together for night games. We held all-school events like worship nights, met twice a week for chapels as a whole school, and started lots of small groups including senior/freshman mentor groups during lunch periods. Yet there remained in the midst of the flurry of events, a nagging sense of isolation and division among our student population.
Act 3: A Vision Focused on another Community
One sunny afternoon in the mountain peaks of Colorado, I listened to the prayers of a team of students who were all going to be seniors in the coming school year. They longed for God to give them something that would give the needed purpose and unity in the high school they attended. They specifically asked God to make it something big enough that it would change and impact the way in which students were living as a community of believers. This group of anxious teenagers actually ended up waiting several months before God poured out the answer into their lives at a dinner meeting held in the basement of one of the team member’s houses. I happened to get an e-mail about a new idea called One Life Revolution that was designed to initiate a student response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa. The goal was to make a difference in one particular African nation: Zambia. One of the girls on the leadership team had spent the first 12 years of her life in Zambia, and she shared how she’d watched many of her friends’ and neighbors’ lives destroyed by this disease. It was at that moment that we figured out something profound—perhaps the way to bring about community at Wheaton Academy was to look outside of our own school setting.
The response to this idea of rallying our student body to change the world, the very future, and the lives of people clearly dealing with enormous pain and suffering, was nothing short of overwhelming in our little group of a dozen high school kids. It became an obsession of sorts with them to engage others in the battle against the devastation this disease had brought to south central Africa. Their simple faith allowed them to believe that they could bring life and change to their own evangelical church communities that were ignoring the issue. We were inspired after reading that folks like us were statistically one of the people groups least likely to give their resources to this cause. James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”) became a team mantra they shared with hundreds of other students in the hallways and auditoriums and classrooms in our school. The power of a vision to change a generation of African kids, along with our school’s group decision to try and respond to the AIDS crisis in one nation, gave our own community new life and energy. This new calling ended up drawing us together as underused and unfulfilled Kingdom workers in the body of Christ.
Act 4: An Opportunity for All to Engage in Community Life
The desperate state of life in Zambia allowed for our response as a community to be so grand and sweeping that every student in our community was invited to (and needed to) participate. We discovered that the average life span in Zambia is about 35 years of age, that more than 50% of Zambian children are malnourished, that more than 20% of the high school age population in Zambia is infected with HIV/AIDS, that there are over one million orphans in a nation with a population of only 10 million people, and that close to 70% of the orphans living outside urban centers don’t attend school. Our hearts broke, our spirits stirred, and we were compelled to do something big to respond to the numbers and needs that were almost beyond comprehension.
My core team of student leaders decided they’d take on the challenge of providing the funds needed to build a new schoolhouse for a community that had never had an educational structure in its midst before. As they went public with the vision to raise $53,000 in the next six months (about $100 from every kid in our school), I was personally full of both doubt and excitement. The financial figure seemed staggering; leaving no doubt that this project wouldn’t be completed unless the majority of people on our campus responded to the vision laid before them.
The journey over the next 150 days was difficult, discouraging, and life changing as we watched the spirit of a compassionate and powerful God work in the hearts, minds, and pockets of a generation of students. By all accounts they were individualistic, materialistic, and unlikely to give to meet the needs of a people who had AIDS—a disease that was viewed with disdain and judgment by many of their own churches. And yet God’s leading and a new understanding of the core issues related to the AIDS crisis enabled them to do that which was unexpected. A re-examination of the commands found in Scripture to meet the needs of the poor and sick spurred an unprecedented ministry movement among a group of teenagers in West Chicago, Ill. And as that group of a dozen seniors walked down the center aisle at their graduation, a new school was being constructed in a place called Kakolo Village far away on the African continent. Over $78,000 had been given as a visible representation of a community coming together to share the love of Jesus Christ with a community in desperate need of that expression of the Savior’s love.
Act 5: The Development of Authentic Community
There were some remarkable results when we entered into this act of choosing to give to others. The corporate cause and commitment to do something significant in Zambia gave us an all-encompassing identity and purpose as a student community. The Zambia Project offered a place for every type of student. Every extracurricular group could use their talents and events to help raise awareness and money. Each of the four classes of students could get behind their own kind of response to the crisis. And even the students who didn’t always seem to know where they fit in at a Christian college-prep high school served and led in roles usually reserved for those with better looks and people skills. More than one hundred different Zambia fund-raising events were run by our students—ranging from car washes to forsaking Christmas gifts to faculty weight-loss contests to soccer tournaments to prom dress exchanges to guest grilling for tips at local restaurants.
The realization for our community that “we’ve been blessed to be a blessing” has altered the way we view what we have and the people God has placed in our lives. As I’ve watched over 400 students wear orange on National AIDS Awareness Day and I see most of the wrists in our school donning an orange World Vision Hope Bracelet, I’m reminded of the verse in Acts 4:32 where the church was described in a similar fashion, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…” And across the globe, there has been the unmistakable unifying impact of hope for an African community in desperate need, receiving the gifts of education, food, medical attention, and a future from a group of students on the other side of the world.
As we were part of a magnificent celebration of thanksgiving and dedication of a schoolhouse in the Zamtan region of Zambia, the community leaders spoke eloquently of the reality that this gift from the Wheaton Academy community was, in fact, desperately needed in the midst of a loss of life and hope and meaning. They confided that many villagers had been praying specifically for several years that God would bring them a school to help change the future of the young children in their village. Their corporate faith was strengthened as they saw God answer their prayers through a group of rich kids from Chicago. The words from Hebrews 6:19 (“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…”) were a bedrock for them even in the midst of their everyday battles to live and believe while everything was seemingly falling apart.
The long-term connection built between Wheaton Academy and the people of the Zamtan area of north-central Zambia continues to be nothing short of divinely inspired. We’re in our third year of the Zambia Project on our campus, and each year hundreds of new students have chosen to participate in the activity that now in many ways defines—in a literal and spiritual capacity—what and who our school is all about. To be honest, I have no idea where it’s going or when it’ll end. Only God’s Spirit can both begin and end this type of movement in a body of believers.
When it was announced to the people of Kakolo Village that we’d raised the resources needed to fully fund the building of their new schoolhouse, they spent two days praying for our school’s students and faculty and families. Our current student leadership team put up a prayer board in the school atrium where over 300 of our students signed up for half hour spots in order to pray continuously for the people and needs and future of Zambia for one week—seven full days, 24 hours each day—the last week of April 2005. And I’m headed back in January with a group of former and current Wheaton Academy soccer players who love the beautiful game that is adored in Zambia as part of World Vision Zambia’s comprehensive AIDS education program targeting the future generation of Zambian Christian leaders.
I’m convinced after watching what’s happened in Chicago and Zambia that community is more than just talking together and swapping stories. It truly develops when actual life experiences are shared and real needs are expressed and met as the body of Christ gives to one another. The reason for my belief in the role of meeting the needs of others as a catalyst in building community is ultimately very personal. The teams of student leaders I’ve worked with in overseeing our Zambia Project have been the most intimate discipleship groups of my 15 years of ministry experience. The shared passion I’ve had with these students has enabled friendships and the mentoring role to go far beyond what I previously viewed as the norm in pastoral relationships. I’ve never been more bought into the mission and values of Wheaton Academy as when the school together responded to the needs of some beautiful and sick African children. And my personal community with the living God was and continues to be deepened as I engage the heart of Jesus and come to partner with him in reaching out to the poor and needy and broken who are desperately loved by God. My heart has been transformed by the chance to enter into the lives of others with the students and fellow ministers God has placed around me in this season of my own life and student ministry calling.
The community that started between the students of Wheaton Academy and the people of a small rural community in Zambia over 30 months ago very much continues today. We’ve seen a schoolhouse built and are now involved in constructing a medical center in the same region that will fight to stop the AIDS virus from being passed from mothers to the next generation of Zambian kids. We can’t believe the passion and purpose this project has brought to our lives…our little Christian high school community has raised over $225,000 to fight the battle against the virus that rages in an African country the size of Texas. We are in some small way changing the future of our own lives and the lives of a generation of African kids—drawing us together with our peers and our African friends in a way only God could have designed and helped to make come true.
I’m convinced that we’re getting just a little taste of what life was like in those early church days following Pentecost, days of great unity and community in the body of Christ as they did what is recorded in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-34: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.… Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”
This is my dream for our community at Wheaton Academy; this is the dream of the people of Zamtan in the AIDS-ravaged nation of Zambia; and this is the dream of the head of the universal church, our Lord Jesus, who has given his life so that people in Chicago and Zambia can revel in his forgiveness and love. Together we can build the bridge of community between God’s people to the world, even a world threatened by both an American culture that is sometimes seemingly devoid of God’s character and an African world staring down the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. May we continue to be the community of Christ as we share and experience community in our worlds that are indeed now forever connected.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.