On Employment – Stephen Ney in Sierra Leone

Stephen’s newsletter bio says:

Jen and I live in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she does inspiring work with an inspiring organization, Word Made Flesh Sierra Leone, helping vulnerable youth in a slum community that’s just 5 minutes’ walk down the hill from our apartment. I work under Global Scholars Canada, an organization that helps place Christian faculty members in universities around the world, aiming to provide Christian presence and spread the Christian message. I’m also working under IFES, a global campus ministry that includes Inter-Varsity in Canada; my work is coordinating the training for the Logos and Cosmos Initiative, a science-and-theology mentoring program for emerging leaders in Africa and Latin America.

We are in the process of adopting two wonderful Sierra Leonean toddlers, Ezekiel and Nathaniel, who are healthier and happier than we had dared to hope, and who have filled our lives with laughter.

Employment is a gift.

To employ used to have a broader meaning than it does today, meaning to put something to use. Long before English was a language, its Proto-Indo-European ancestor was a word that meant to weave or plait things together – an action that Sierra Leonean women know a lot about. The semantic shift isn’t as far as it looks, though. Doesn’t employing someone always mean weaving them together with you, with your team, or with your organization? This is perhaps more obvious here in West Africa than in other places where employment relationships are more contractual and institutionalized, but I think it’s true everywhere.

So it makes sense to view the money that changes hands when employment happens as a tool not just for ensuring that certain tasks get done but also for forging a human connection. Being in West Africa has helped me to learn not to feel awkward about this, since money matters are part of almost every relationship here. Since I have more money and formal authority than most people I spend time with, I more often play the role of employer than employee, and this role describes many facets of my life. Here’s a breakdown, which doubles as an overview of my life at present:

  • Hiring translators, tech assistants, guest speakers, and a part-time personal assistant as part of my work as the curriculum manager of the LCI (the IFES Logos & Cosmos Initiative). The LCI is becoming a large and complex organization, hard to summarize in a sentence, but essentially it equips young leaders and scholars across Africa and Latin America to see and to see and to show the relevance of the Gospel to scientific knowledge and academic institutions. And, like with other organizations, we get this done by distributing money to a lot of people.
  • Figuring out how much part-time employment (as a lecturer) to take at Sierra Leonean universities. I seek to make an impact on Sierra Leonean leaders, and I don’t want to lose touch with the academic world, but the demands of family and of the LCI mean I have little extra time.
  • Mentoring young adults who graduated from the Word Made Flesh youth program and now seek training that will lead them towards employability in this very weak economy. The first step for them is to take the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), which has for the past two years had a 4% success rate. So I also hire tutors to help them.
  • Assisting Jennifer to coordinate the young people who come to care for our kids, to cook, or to clean for a few hours a week. (Here’s a 3s video of one, our dear friend Ada.)
  • Hunting for someone who can haul buckets of water up 80 stairs to our apartment when the taps aren’t working, someone who can repair a leak in the roof during the monsoon, someone who can drive our family to the beach, someone who can repair Nathaniel’s ripped swimming shorts, etc.
  • Answering the knock at the door, finding it’s a young man from the neighbourhood who’s hungry or who needs money for school fees, then hurriedly seeking a task to hire him for. Jennifer and I wish to help him not just with money but also with dignity.
  • Struggling, as we’ve struggled for more than a year, with government and police officials to obtain the paperwork necessary for adopting Ezekiel and Nathaniel, wondering if and when it’s alright to hand over some cash to expedite the process, and impatiently wishing that some of the most lethargic among the officials had not received “the gift of employment.”

I tend to be on the employer side of the binary, it’s important for me to remember that employment is fundamentally a way of connecting people (as its etymology suggests) and fundamentally a gift (even though in the West it tends to feel more like a right).

I am grateful I have received the gift of employment from Global Scholars Canada, from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and before that from the University of British Columbia. It is a good thing to be able to work. This is why Paul urges new Thessalonian converts to be sure they’re earning their own living and why high unemployment in materially poor countries like Sierra Leone is such a tragedy. I am grateful for a high level of job security, which gives me a kind of stability that the majority of human beings do not have. I am grateful to be able to give the gift of employment to several people – more people, in fact, than I would be able to give it to if I had stayed in my home country, where salaries are so much higher and employment so much more highly regulated. Jennifer and I want to abide by one of the principles I learned from Praxis, a remarkable Christian training organization co-led by Andy Crouch, “Instead of accumulating power to benefit ourselves or exploit others, we use it to generate possibility for those who have less access to opportunity. We commit to the practice of gleaning – frequently sacrificing opportunities for our own advancement to intentionally create pathways for others.” This principle makes Jennifer and me want not just to hand off to others the tasks we don’t like doing, but especially the higher-status tasks that we’d prefer to hold onto.

But it’s often very frustrating and tiring to be in a place where employment is regarded as a gift and an establisher of relationship rather than a right, where it is governed by grace rather than by contract. When I’d like a nanny to receive her weekly salary as what is due her for services rendered, she receives it as a gift indicating our love for her and for her family. And she is emboldened to come to us whenever she faces a financial need that her salary can’t cover, such as a hospital bill or a deadline for paying school fees. Holistically, she sees employment to be about people, whereas it would be simpler for me if employment were simply about tasks. Or, to use another example from my list above, the youth who are trying to pass their government exams see my hiring a tutor for them as a broad promise of my commitment to them rather than just as a good deed done. Their entire families, some of which don’t have a single employed family member, feel a deep debt to me and a fervent hope that I’ll find more and more ways help them towards stability. And they can easily feel heartbroken or even deceived if things turn out otherwise.

How does this affect me, as the employer? If I’ve given someone the gift of employment, how hard it is to fire them when they’re failing to render the services I was expecting! How wonderful it is to feel woven into a community of mutually interdependent daughters and sons of God! How tiring it is when I reflect on all that these “employees” are asking of me, and are likely soon to ask of me!

Yet how dangerous it is for employer and employed when I, the employer, start to think of myself as having everything to give – the jobs and the cash and the knowledge and the overseas connections that everyone is clamouring for – and nothing to gain!

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom?

The meek [not the pushy, who can use their resources and connections to accomplish whatever they want] shall inherit the earth.

There’s no conclusion to this reflection on employment. The joys of understanding and creating employment for Jesus’s sake in a materially poor country, the dangers of seeing this country as clay for me to mould according to my noble aspirations – they remain in profound tension. Thanks to a series of training discussions recently offered to us by Tenth Church in Vancouver, Jennifer and I have realized that the practice of Sabbath – moments of letting go of our work, trusting God, accepting the joys he offers – is a very helpful practice for thriving in this tension.

Instead of a conclusion, a missiological tangent:

I have noticed that whenever I write these updates I’m working hard to understand something new and beautiful about the culture where I’m living as a guest. There are selfish reasons for this, because the best way to avoid feeling homesick or frustrated as a foreigner is to find new and beautiful things. It will be good for me if I can discover that the judgments of “corrupt,” “uneducated,” or “disorganized” – judgements which Westerners often apply in places like Sierra Leone – are hasty and imprecise, concealing more than they actually describe. But the other reason I do this is the Christian one: since I’m hoping to help other people live as Christians, I am threatened at every moment by the danger of implying to them, by my disapproval with or disengagement from their culture, that it’s only by leaving their culture that they must live as Christians.

The better way is the way of conversion, the way that Prof Andrew F. Walls, best of all the good teachers I’ve had as an adult, helped me to understand. In gratitude, and in honour of his passing last month I will close with his words.

On many occasions since Galatians was written, good Christian people have tried to ensure that those they have brought to faith would become as much like themselves as possible; have the same priorities and avoidances, hold the same things important, take the Torah and circumcision of those who evangelized them.

And it is safer. If any conservative-minded Jerusalem believers read 1 Corinthians, they would no doubt have found all their fears about the decision of the Apostolic Council confirmed and would be doubly sure of the folly of leaving raw believers, newly brought out of paganism, without the guidance of the Torah. The way of proselytes is safe. They give up their old customs and beliefs and take up those of someone else. There is a sacrifice involved—they give up their national heritage and social affiliations. But once this is done, the guideposts are clear; there is a precedent for every eventuality, every situation has been met before.

Converts face a much riskier life. Converts have to be constantly, relentlessly turning their ways of thinking, their education and training, their ways of working and doing things, toward Christ. They must think Christ into the patterns of thought they have inherited, into their networks of relationship and their processes for making decisions. And new issues, cultural or intellectual, where it is necessary to make a Christian choice, are arising all the time and with no exact parallels in the past. Proselytes may walk by sight; converts have to walk by faith. The distinction between proselyte and convert is vital to Christian mission.

Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church
by Andrew F. Walls

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