Understanding God’s Heart for Justice
An interview with Stephan Bauman, President & CEO of World Relief
Since its inception, World Relief has been a convening organization of the Justice Conference, which seeks to impact a generation for justice. It was my pleasure to sit down with World Relief’s CEO, Stephan Bauman, to discuss justice, the way we perceive people, and our contributions to the world.
I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the 2013 conference. One of the things you talked about was bending your knee to the wrong teachers, and why it is important for us as leaders to have the right people speaking into our lives. You also spoke about the importance of having a diverse group of mentors. Can you share a little bit about that for our reading audience?
Yes. I am a North American white male, and I am well-intentioned and I love people, and it wasn’t until I went abroad that I began to see things that I had grown up with that I never knew were there. That is often the life and response of those who live in the dominant culture. Initially, I learned from basically evangelical suburban churches—wonderful people. I had gone to universities and I had studied philosophy from largely European heritage. All of that stuff is not bad, but it wasn’t until I made friends with an African named Moses, in Sierra Leone, that I begin to perceive differently.
Moses and I developed a sufficiently deep enough relationship where he said candid things to me. Moses lives in a culture where the hospitality of wealth and honor is evident. The beautiful thing about most of the world is that honor to a guest is important. So until we move beyond that threshold of being a guest to the relationship of being a friend, we only hear what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. As a friend, Moses said, “Stephan, when you talk, we listen; when you give, we must receive; when you bring charity, we are the receivers; you are the benefactor; we are the beneficiary.” That statement really confronted my charity-mindedness. I mean, my intentions were very good, but I needed to rethink everything.
And I needed to think, “Well, what really is justice? What does it mean for me to learn from Africans? What does it mean for me to sit at the table as a peer, not the leader?” So when I say, “I bent my knee to the wrong teachers,” I meant I needed more diverse teachers. I needed to learn from Africans and Asians; I needed to learn in friendship with Africans like my friend Siprion, who we interviewed on the stage of the Justice Conference. That moment changed everything for me. And I still am working on what does it mean to lessen that power differential between dominant cultures. I don’t make apologies for who I am because God has made me who I am, but what is my role in lessening that gap so that people like Siprion and people Siprion represents—Congolese—have a place at the table.
Siprion shared a powerful story about a group of American women who came to speak with victimized women in the Congo. He said that under the conditions, the American women were moved to shame when they saw the Congolese women. Why is it important for Americans, and American women in particular, to not go about misperceiving people who are different?
Lynn Hybels, who is a leader and cofounder of Willow Creek Community Church, went to watch a friend run a marathon. As she was watching the marathon and looking for her friend, she saw another woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “Done Watching” on the front. And as that woman ran by, Lynn saw the back of her T-shirt and it said, “Doing.” So Lynn took that small message to heart. From that experience, she said, “I have to do something, I can’t just use the excuse that I don’t know what to do; it’s too far away; it’s too difficult.”
So Lynn, through a ton of prayer and on her own courage, decided to take on some very difficult issues like the Congo and Palestine and Israel. She led a team of 10 people to the Congo and she went with this attitude, which is chief to your question: We’re going to listen, we’re going to understand because we don’t know. We are leaders and we are going to do what God has called us to. We’re done watching, we’re gonna do—but there’s a way of doing that is postured in humility, it’s postured in listening. So they went and they listened.
In fact, they listened to 10 women tell their stories and shed tears for 11 hours. And they left with friendships that continue, prayers that continue, and a request from the 10 women to “please tell our stories.” Listening to someone’s story gives dignity to the other. It validates them. It humanizes people. And so what I’m saying is that in the work of justice, real change and transformation happened, as much to the women from the States as the women from the Congo. And again, it’s a flat table. We all need to learn in this together, so it’s not only what we do in the end, it’s about who we are, how we live it, and what we do.
There is great humility found in listening to the stories, heartbeats, and contexts of others. And there is also great humility in understanding who we are in Christ and knowing that whatever good gift we offer as a reasonable service will be well received by him, the giver of gifts. God will take our “good” and make it enough. In Elisa Morgan’s book She Did What She Could, Morgan references the ministry of Mary in Bethany as she anointed the feet of Jesus. It was a big sacrifice for Mary. Sometimes we look at big issues, particularly in relation to justice, and we feel that the issues are too overwhelming, but we can all do something. We simply have to make the commitment to do what we can, even when we feel it is not a huge contribution. God can and does use our small steps of obedience, along with the small steps of others’ obedience, as part of his redemptive story, which has miraculous implications for the entire world.
Sometimes all God wants us to do is listen, learn, pray, and then respond. How good are your listening skills? What are you learning? How will you respond?
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women’s Mentoring Ministry Leader, and student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (M.A. Christian Leadership, May 2014). Connect with Natasha through her website, www.natashasrobinson.com; blog, A Sista’s Journey; Twitter @asistasjourney and Facebook at NatashaSistrunkRobinson.