"Symptoms or Systems" is an occasional series that delves into the general complexities of life, particularly as they relate to the role of the church. The phrase “symptoms or systems” mimics the natural and ongoing dilemma faced by those active in the world’s hard places, of which Africa has more than its fair share. Like many organizations, we find we need to exist somewhere in the awkward middle – called to respond to the suffering of the overlooked and undervalued (those who suffer the symptoms of a fallen world) while at the same time being committed pursuers of biblical justice (going upstream to take on the systems that perpetuate the symptoms). This series serves to examine and embrace the tension that lives in that awkward middle. Ready for a big number? Okay, here it comes… 90%. That’s the percentage of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS that live in sub-Saharan Africa [1]. In Zimbabwe, 16% of those under 17 have lost both parents due to AIDS [2]. Look around your kid’s school -- in a typical classroom, four kids of the 24 would be without parents because of a preventable scourge. If ever there were a classic symptom/system conundrum, this would be it.

Orphans occupy a special place in the Bible. They can work on the hearts of even the most jaded. I’ve seen so many people go to Africa simply to explore, but then come home with a baby or a child. They see the symptoms of a broken world surrounding them and they react with compassion. They rail against a system they cannot change, even while they revel in the joy of sacrifice and love that is becoming a parent.

This juxtaposition reveals undeniable value in taking a step back to identify and address both the symptom and the system. As an organization, we have learned firsthand how important it is to keep kids in families. When such intrinsic community is combined with accessible education and caring teachers, you can begin to heal the hole created by the symptoms that linger long after the child’s parents are gone. Knowing this, we have to participate in their lives; God put them in our path and put resources in our hands.

While this may be true for the symptom, perhaps it is not our participation that best reshapes the system. Just as we’ve seen how important it is for children to stay in family units, we’ve seen how important it is for local leaders, be it pastors, teachers, or mentors, to speak into the systems that bring the symptoms to bear. African pastors discipling eager young pastors, African teachers discipling eager young students – children and young adults, orphans and non-orphans, learning to live out of the life-changing and live-saving truth of their adoptive Father - so that they become the agents of cultural change, going upstream of the symptoms to amend how we live, act and love.

This is the African Leadership approach. It is practical and strategic, building faith and future, addressing both the symptoms and the systems of an untethered world – one we may not be able to fully comprehend, but one we can certainly work to change.

Come with us to Africa, won’t you? And see for yourself why you might need the continent more than it needs you.


[1] It should be noted that sub-Saharan Africa is the predominantly Christian part of the continent.

[2] UN AIDS Global Report, 2010, p.114