The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Remembering Kevin Coats

A picture from Kevin's FB Account.

I was in Australia when I learned that Kevin had died.   I had had a dream about him a few weeks ago, and wish I had followed up.  

Kevin was the first person to call me pastor.  We were at Schoepf's BBQ in Belton, Texas.  “Hello Pastor!” he said.  I remember I was a bit shocked at being called pastor as I was still in seminary.

For the first four years of Foundation Church, Kevin copied the bulletin each and every Sunday, at the office machine store where he was their top salesman.  Kevin always had time to chat, or take me to lunch and explain how things worked in Temple-Belton, or in this young church.  Jack Riley, the church’s founding pastor, said Kevin was a person I could trust, and over time I learned to lean on him, and found Jack’s words to be true.  

Later he made it possible for the church to have its own copy machine, but still he gave us great support when things went off, ie a few 1am meetings at his office make bulletins when “his” machine wasn’t working.  

Kevin managed The Building Committee, the overseers of design and construction of the first building for Foundation Church.  I remember the long hours Kevin spent on what would later be called The Riley Center, as a tribute to Jack Riley.  Meetings before construction started, (including all the different UMC committees).  Once construction began, the early morning gatherings on the slab (we could see our breath), then in the shell, and finally as the finish out began.  He was so faithful in that project and The Riley Center served the Kingdom well.  

I remember stopping by his new office after he started his own business, how well Coats Insurance did (we left State Farm to support him), and the good customer service he gave.  I was proud of him and the courage it took to open up a new business.  

As often happens when a church builds a building, the chair of the building committee has to leave. Sunday becomes less a day of worship and more about explaining/defending the design/construction of new building.  After a year being in the building, this was still happening so Kevin and his family took some time off from the church family, but before doing so, Kevin stopped by to tell me. It was the honorable thing to do, and appreciated him telling me first.

The last time I saw Kevin was in spring 2006.  I wanted to tell him personally that we were taking a sabbatical year to work in Ghana.  I had been going around to all the people I wanted to tell in person, and even though it was supposed to be SPRC only, Kevin knew.  He also seemed to know (though I didn’t) that we would not be coming back.  I tried to say then how much I appreciated him, and all the work he had done for the church, and how grateful I was for his wisdom and support in the early days of the church.  To this day when I think of him, I consider him a life long friend.  I am sorry I never got to say good-bye.

Godspeed Kevin, you were a good and faithful servant and friend.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Two Years and Three Days: Home?

It has been two years and three days since Suzanne and I moved to the place we call home…

“So where’s home?” the usher asked as in the foyer of the church in Iowa. Suzanne and I had flown in early that morning and were still were bundled up like ticks against the 20 degrees and a blue northerner outside. The usher was new here (or new since I had moved away some 40 years ago), so he didn’t know Ames was my childhood home, and this was my home church.


[Steve * Suzanne outside in the snow]

Suzanne and I look at each other nervously, never certain how to answer the question our global nomad kids hate. “Maybe I should have asked, where are you guys from?” he asks, saving us.

“That’s easier,” I sound relieved. “I grew up in Ames, Suzanne is from Connecticut; we lived in Texas for 30 years, and now in Africa.”

That is our answer, however, ask a Ghanaian, and the answer will be to a nearby question.

“Where are you from?” I asked a student one day. For some reason it never occurs to ask about home.

“I am from Burkina Faso.” A French speaking country just north of Ghana. I hadn’t detected the trace of a French accent in her voice.

“Really, what is it like there?” I ask.

“Oh, I have never been to that place.” She was telling me where her family comes from.

“Your mother moved here from Burkina?”

“No, she stays in Nima.” A Muslim region of Accra; stays means grew up there too. Who knows when her family actually moved to Ghana, but that is where they are from.

“So you were raised in Nima.” I say, thinking I should remember to start with that question. It does get me thinking about the concept of home. Is it the place one grew up, or where your family came from? For me, I grew up in Iowa, but my family came from Kansas. Iowa formed my genetic dispositions into this person I became; and had it been another state, I would have grown to be a different person. That is where I’m from, but is it home?

home is the place they have to take you in

Another definition: Home: the place they have to take you in. Suzanne and I learned this definition a few months ago, when our son moved back into our house in Texas, a move his mother and I had not encouraged, and yet did not prevent. It is his home, so it has to take him in.

home is the place you take responsibility for

Another definition: Home: the place you take responsibility for. When one takes care of the place they stay in, it becomes home. Even the animals know not to soil the place they sleep (well not chickens, but who credits them with much intelligence).

home is where you know where the silverware is kept

Another definition: home is where you know where the silverware is kept. This came from my niece Mary Lynn. So home implies familiarity, which I understand. A few years back my father sold my childhood house and built a new one. While being filled with furniture familiar, this new house does not feel like home; it always takes a few drawers to find the silverware.


[Mary Lynn and our snow shovels]

What was weird about being back in Ames was the amount of Africa stuff I saw in the local food coop.   


[so secret we don’t even know about it in Africa]


[Authentic African Black Soap.  Have we been using the fake stuff?]


[Baskets for $39.  We buy them for $7]


[yep, these baskets are from Ghana and have the cool tag we don’t get for $7]


[The food co-op my mom helped start]

Suzanne stayed a week longer after I returned to Ghana, giving me airplane time to think about that question of home.  I should have told the usher, “Home is wherever Suzanne is.”   For me, she is what makes a place, home, and her staying that extra week has me thinking about where our home is. Perhaps, home is the place that needs you most. I know we certainly felt that being back when Suzanne’s mom and our daughter’s faced major and minor surgeries respectively, and our Texas house needed some work.

home is the place that needs you most

I’ve been thinking about home a bit because Suzzy Phonecard is homeless….(read about Suzzy).  Right before we left for the States, Suzzy moved out of her home, suffice to say there were family issues, and she felt safer to be out on her own.  I helped her move to an uncompleted abandoned house in the next village over. Ghana is filled with uncompleted construction, half built structures of concrete and cement blocks that look like an active worksite but truthfully, no work has been done since the money ran out. Workers just dropped their tools like it was Pompeii and the volcano just erupted.

home is wherever Suzanne is

I meet the main family squatting staying there and the mother is quite pregnant. Suzzy shows me her room and by room I mean a windowless closet and she asks me to buy her a door. The current one is cardboard. “How much will that cost?” I ask but she doesn’t know.  I leave it to her to figure out the details and get back to me.  She is disappointed I just buy her a door and we play this game for weeks, she asks for a door, and I ask some stupid question like where do they sell doors, or how much will they cost, or what happens when you move?  I want this to be her problem, and finally she figures out a different solution, and that door appears without me.  


[Christmas on the Hill, we left for Texas the next morning]

home is the place where you know people on the flight back

Home is that place that feels like you belong.  As I was waiting to board the last leg of the flight back to Ghana I see two different sets of friends from Accra and wonder if maybe home is the place where you know people on the flight back.  I so appreciate what Lisa McKay wrote in her grand memoir of travel and romance Love at the Speed of Email about the relationship between home and adventure, that there is no adventure in home; and no home in adventure.

there is no adventure in home; and no home in adventure.

On our first Sunday back at Asbury-Dunwell Church, Auntie Pamela greets me at the door and gives me a deep hug saying “Welcome Home,” and I almost tear up.    Home is the place where the people there claim you. 

Home is the place where the people there claim you. 

Ghana is our home now, but so is Texas, so is Iowa for me, and Connecticut for Suzanne and who is to say there can be only one home?  Maybe that is why we like Ghana so much, because here, we really can have them all: adventure, home and each other.


[At the Zilker “Tree” in Austin, Texas, one of our many “homes”]

we really can have them all: adventure, home

and each other.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The “You’ve preached long enough club!”


On Sunday, I was invited into an exclusive preacher’s club, the “You’ve preached long enough club” with the invitation coming in the form of a note passed to me in the pulpit.


[10 Minutes More Please]

“What about the Church?” was the topic for the day, and I had been speaking for about 25 minutes the note invitation came. I was about to introduce the bride analogy St. Paul developed for the church, calling it the bride of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians. Now for many of us guys, this bride analogy makes us a bit uncomfortable, being called the wife of Jesus.  It just doesn’t work for us.

Typically, I have heard this “church as bride analogy” explained as an ideal, where the God-church relationship is like the intimacy between husband and wife. The ideal is for a church to mirror that relationship, with God. Still not helpful.

Them, then ; Us, now. My mentor and pastor, Rev. David Gilliam taught me long ago when something in scripture makes you uncomfortable, seek to understand what it meant to them (who it was written to), to know what it could mean to us, now.

To know what it means to US, NOW

We have to know what it meant to THEM, THEN.

I looked at my invitation, smiled and explained how the people Paul was writing to might have understood a bride to be property, owned by her husband. Production of children was a primary value. If she did not or could not produce children, the bride could be dismissed, or replaced.

Instead of the seeing the church as a romantic love partner with God as his bride, the church could be the property of God, like a first century bride, who’s primary function was to create children of God, (aka new believers). If a church could not, or would not make and disciple new believers, could it too be dismissed I wondered?

Oddly, a few minutes later, it was time for announcements and we heard the third and final “Banns of Marriage”. For three Sundays in a row, we had heard these Banns for our worship leader, who is to be married in a few weeks.

Banns is an old word for proclamation and according to Wikipedia their purpose was to “enable anyone to raise any canonical or civil legal impediment to the marriage, so as to prevent marriages that are invalid.” These banns inform (or warn) the public via advert in the local newspaper, and three times read in their local church(es) saying:

If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it or speak with the pastor, or board of elders.

All according to the 1951 marriage ordinance of Ghana.

Therefore, it was interesting to me that on the last Sunday before Advent, we learned about the bride of Christ, heard the banns for the future bride to Fiifi, and I preached long enough to be asked to stop (in 10 minutes).



[Their Invitation]

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Three Times I Meet Thee – Applied Proverbs I


One of the situations our Ashesi students discover when studying in the States is a difficulty in making new friends. This complaint is typical:

We sat and talked after class for an hour or more, talking about all sorts of things, but the next time I saw her, she walked right past, like we had never met and I thought we were friends.  Americans can be so rude.

Rude - Is this how I am seen here, I wondered? I think about the people who have befriend us from the village, and admit until I’ve run into them a few times, I have trouble remembering their faces.    Often they come up to me, start talking, and I am wondering who is this?! Then they say something that triggers our previous conversation(s) and I clue in. Sadly, I know this will happen a few more times before I figure out we are friends.

Is this what happens to our Ashesi students in the States?

Is it me, or has the art of making friends in the States become a complicated two-step between chance and circumstance? Do we leave friend making to chance: If chance brings us together three times, and we build on that encounter each time, do we then become friends?

There is a saying here that a friend is someone you share the path with and I like that definition. Maybe new friendship is more complicated than it needs to be when apparently the only requirement here is a shared path. Of course, there is another saying: two footsteps do not make a path and I think this saying highlights more than our cultural differences. Americans just need more footsteps to recognize the path and realize it was not chance that brought us a new friend, but our shared path.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bolgatanga Regional Hospital and other stories

Last summer, Steve was on a tour of Ghana to visit our Mission Society Colleagues serving in northern Ghana and Togo. Having spent some time with Sue K [her blog], he is now in Bolgatanga, with the Bolga Bartletts, Dave and Ellen.  For some reason this post never posted, and suddenly it just showed up.  So here it is a year later. 
One morning Dave and Ellen take me to see the Bolgatanga Regional Hospital.  We are there to help along the process of a young man, Brother A., who has Hepatitis B. The process we are helping has nothing to do with efficiency.
The hospital has misplaced Brother A’s folder:1, and so orders are given to create a new folder:2, then to wait in long, slow moving queue, to create a new folder:3, and with folder in hand to wait to see the doctor:4,5. It could be a study in inefficiency, but Dave and Ellen know the system and somehow captured the doctor’s cell phone number. A quick phone call later, the doctor agrees to meet them and we join the queue to wait to bypass what could have been days of waiting, instead of just hours:6. Six hours.
Receiving the doctors news, and what is next.
It all would be a tragic situation, hopeless, without the evidence of God working through Dave and Ellen, and yet through it all Brother A’s mother is patient. Jolia’s son is the top student in his class, a strong good looking young man that is the picture of health. He is in contrast to the baby Jolia back loads all morning. Known locally as a spirit child, something is a bit off with Baby Y. His eyes don’t catch yours, and he fusses and cries even less than most Ghanaian babies, who are stoic, a back loaded passengers to their mother’s life.
It is believed that the birth of a spirit child’s coincided with some tragic event in the village or family , like a sickness or death of a family member. Babies born under these circumstances are believed to be a bad omen, cursed by the ancestors, and must be returned otherwise more bad things will happen. Yet Jolia has gone against tradition, and fought for the child to live, not letting the village elders take it to be left to die. Read more about Baby Y’s story.
Jolia is the living embodiment of a quote by Barbara Kartz Rothman:
“Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making mothers strong, competent, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength” [2]
And I would add that for Jolia, her inner strength, if evidence of a quiet faith in God. Read more of her story
Still the process takes all morning. Lab tests are ordered for Brother A, new prescriptions given, and by 1:30pm--we’ve been at this since 7:30am--we drop him off at school. Ellen gives him a cedi to buy lunch (thirty cents),and that how we learn this will be his first meal of the day.
Ellen asks “Jolia, do you have any food in the house?”
“Oh, no Mommie.” So it is off to the market to buy rice, oil and fish.
At the Market
Ellen’s compassion is so heartfelt. Dave has been so steadfast in his support of her heart’s longing, never complaining, or even rolling an eye. Later we meet another woman who runs a foster home, whom the Bartletts have been helping and Dave has to remind her that they can only help One by One. In fact Dave made her a T-shirt that says just that “1x1”, and she happens to wearing it today.
Bolgatanga Sunset
[2] Rothman, Barbara Kartz Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Religion, Beacon Press, 2005

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When my prayer life changed



Steve visits an ashram in Pondicherry, and his prayer life changed.

I had gone to the ashram skeptical, but wanting to experience the part of a devoted follower, praying to the part of God that is worshiped in this place, and hoping for something in return; a revelation from that place. Part of my concentration was praying through each item from my list: my brother Rod who is dying of liver cancer, for my children, for Suzanne and our marriage, and a few other situations that have since dropped off my prayer radar. My list is usually a list of 3-5, and since I did not know how much time Sanjay had allotted for concentration on this part of the tour, the prayer request flew by historical markers on an interstate highway.

Highway speed prayers should have felt unfamiliar, but looking back on it; I realize I had been praying that style for some time; a habit of setting the cruise control and praying from a time when I felt busy. Now I was less busy, but my prayers had not downshifted; they were still fast food prayers of obligation.

Read about the Ashram in Praying to the part of you that is worshiped.

Walking away from the ashram, I casually ask one of the young people on the tour if God had revealed anything. While thinking about her answer, she asked:

“What did God reveal to you, Steve?”

I was not begging to be asked, and didn't even know there was a revelation waiting for me until she asked. When God wants to reveal something to me, it usually is not complicated, or complex. God just hides it in my consciousness until something triggers me to look for it, or I trip over it like a stray toy in the dark.

WRITING 101 (1)

You pray too fast.

Those words did not form in my brain, they were just there, like they had always been there, waiting to be seen, or in this case uncovered when I tripped over them.

I could have answered, “I pray too fast,” but didn't. On this tour, few travelers knew I was a pastor; the rest knew me to be a teacher, and I did not want to blow my cover. I was enjoying the anonymity; the break from people's expectations. It was good to just be a regular person, and relate to people like that.

In seminary they taught us a pastor can NEVER take off the pastor hat, even if you think you have taken it off, people still see its shadow (unless you're on a G-Adventures Tour, and don't tell anyone). Ha! Take that Austin Seminary!

If she told me about her revelation, I am sure I was not listening; I was too absorbed in my own revelation about praying too fast. I knew it was from the Lord; I knew it was true, so I asked, slowly, what needs to change?

Come into my presence. And with that, my prayer life changed.

I started to pray without asking God for anything.

There was still plenty, plenty (as we say in Ghana), to ask of God but those things were not driving the reason I was praying and that changed everything.

Maybe this is why I visit sacred places that other faiths designate as holy, I learn about my experience of God by seeking to understand theirs.


We Did It! Engineering at Ashesi is Happening!!!

Screenshot 2015-08-13 16.00.37
I was looking back at some notes I took when Ashesi’s President Patrick called me in the fall of 2013. I was in the car, on the way to our church, St. Phillips United Methodist Church in Round Rock; Steve was driving and Anna was in the back seat. I had some trouble hearing, but I got the gist: Patrick wanted me to lead the development of the engineering program. I reminded him that I wasn’t an engineer, he said that he didn’t think that was absolutely necessary, they had engineers giving input, I would coordinate the efforts. Gulp. Patrick wasn’t asking, he was informing me of what my first duties would be. And I was already committed, I’d already given notice at Southwestern University and we were already well into planning the move.
“Has anyone ever had more faith in you than you had in yourself?”
Has anyone ever had more faith in you than you had in yourself? Fast forward almost two years, and… WE DID IT! And by WE I really mean WE: the faculty at Ashesi who already had a first draft of the curriculum and had already consulted local industry; the faculty at Ashesi who helped me as I coordinated moving the project forward; the administrative staff who gave us the resources to plan and coordinate the work; the international engineering advisory faculty who looked at drafts of the curriculum and gave feedback, and came to a face-to-face meeting almost a year ago at Olin for an intense two-day review; faculty and administrative staff from our mentoring institution, The University of Mines and Technology, who also gave good and timely feedback and were willing to work with us on areas in which there were differing views; the National Accreditation Board (NAB) and the faculty panels who came as part of the NAB review teams to review the curriculum and facilities and ultimately gave their approval; and supporters who have helped fund me being here to coordinate the efforts. It may seem trite to also credit God, but truly, this task has had so many hurdles that were overcome, there just is no way it would have happened without divine orchestration and blessing.
“Suzanne, we can’t fail at this.”
When I got to Ashesi and took over leading the efforts, I was scared, to say the least. It didn’t help that Patrick would occasionally say, “we can’t fail at this.” No pressure! I quickly became at least conversant, if not an expert, on the state of the art of engineering education. Thankfully, I already knew Ashesi’s educational model very well. I was never very knowledgeable about our lab equipment needs, but worked hard to rope in others who did, both at Ashesi and internationally. I discovered a lot about myself, and other’s trust in me: I am not perfect, omniscient, or a superwoman; what I am is smart enough to learn what I need to know, and ask other people for help when I know I can’t do it alone. I did try to say, “no, I can’t meet that deadline, ” more than once – and sometimes the deadline became fuzzy, other times I worked long hours with quite a bit of stress and did the best I could.
And now: the programs are accredited; initial textbooks and lab equipment are in; a Dean has been hired; initial faculty have been hired; and students are being recruited. Classes begin for first year students September 14, and our official engineering inauguration is October 3. Hallelujah!!!
“When God expects big things, comfort isn’t part of the equation.”
One of my daily devotions recently was reflecting on Mark 6:35-44 in which Jesus and the disciples feed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. In the past year and a half, some of you have heard me lament that I didn’t have the credentials or experience in engineering to feel comfortable attempting to pull off the audacious goal of bringing the engineering program to fulfillment. But when God is expecting big things, comfort isn’t part of the equation. The Reflections author writes, “Too often when we can’t imagine how to do all that needs to be done, we never start…” Thankfully, I had the audacity to start, and God helped turn my five loaves and two fishes into an engineering program!
But, of course, I didn’t do it alone. A deep seated principle of Ashesi boils down to this: when the going gets tough, everyone pitches in! Thanks to everyone who helped make the engineering program happen.
“A deep seated principle of Ashesi boils down to this: when the going gets tough, everyone pitches in!”


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Praying to the part of You that is worshipped here

Steve was in India to teach at a training event.  Before the training started, he joined a G-Adventures tour of South India. 

I hadn't thought of her in years, my voice teacher from Berklee College of Music. The last time I spoke to Jessica it was the early 90s, and I learned she was following a guru.  In fact she had just returned from that guru’s tour across the United States, where she had been his assistant.  Thinking about Jessica makes me feel old, that was several lifetimes ago, and now back to the here and now, it is this ashram which brought her to mind. The tour has come to gawk at a large utopian golden golf ball, and I'm wondering could Jessica be here?


[The Matrimandir]

Officially this golf ball is called “The Matrimandir” and is for "those who want to learn to concentrate," which sounds like their word for praying. In Sanskrit, Matrimandir means "Mother Temple", which according to the literature, "is what helps the humanity to overcome their limitations to the supramental consciousness". I expected to be weirded out and cynical, but instead I feel curious. Not so much with the golden golf ball, but with the reaction of my fellow tour-ists. The Matrimandir is off limits to tourists, and even those who live in Auroville, the community surrounding it, can wait years to be allowed inside for concentration. On the walk back, I try to engage anyone in a conversation, but they go nowhere. Tour etiquette requires us not to speak much about our lives back home. I can know where people are from and what they do, or did, but speaking on matters of faith is as protected as The Matrimandir.


[Sign to the Viewing Point]

This region of former French India is Pondicherry. The architecture could be reminiscent of New Orleans but for the occasional Hindu shrine. Three story red brick buildings with wrought iron grill work, markets with elephants waiting bless you, priests blessing new cars, and then suddenly an absurdly quiet street. No honking, or hooting of horns. So quiet in fact I see twenty or more very mellow dogs in various stages of rest scattered on the street like rose peddles from a flower girl.  Normally aggressive Tuk-tuks slow down, and swerve around the reclining dogs like tires on an obstacle course. Like tires, the dogs do not flinch nor move. 

In the market at Pondicherry, former French India

[Elephant Blessings]


[Car Blessings] – I’ve prayed over cars, motorcycles, vans, trucks, and homes, but never used fire, nor flowers and dry paint. 

The source of this intense mellowness is Sri Aurobindo Ashram, of Auroville. Its the outfit that lau – I’nched The Matrimandir and if the street outside was mellow, the inside is nearly catatonic. Hundreds of of devotees or maybe jet lagged tourists sit in forms of the lotus position, meditating toward what I assume is the guru's grave.  There are flowers everywhere, and their smell is maybe what the poppies smelled like in Wizard of Oz, promising eternal peace and slumber or apathy and complacency.  I’m not sure which. 

Sri-Aurobindo-Ashram-Pond-001 (1)

[the grave people seemed to be praying toward, from] – sorry cameras were not allowed.

I join in the prayers, I mean concentration, but feel like an imposter. I go through the motions of praying Lord, I worship the part of you that is worshipped in this place, and appear to be in deep concentration until I look up and see someone watching me, and she winks.  Busted, and my concentration is gone.  I get up and poke around the bookstore until the everyone else is done doing whatever they are doing.  

Descriptions of this place  promise to transport your mind to a heavenly feel as if the eternity is here, but pretenders like me can’t reach that level of concentration, but maybe my old voice teacher had reached that place of heavenly abode.  I wish her well.