Mission in Context: the Maji Experience

I was almost 12. The world was fighting a war, a beloved uncle and several neighbors off somewhere fighting yet, mixed in that disquiet, REA electrical workers fast approached our farm home. Poles in place, wires strung on poles and inside the walls of our home, the great day arrived, and we switched on light. Our farm life would not again be as before.

Workers install the first 50-watt solar system
in a Maji home.

That charged moment clicked back in place while reading Caroline Kurtz’s description of importing electricity to Maji, a village of south west Ethiopia near the South Sudanese border, not with poles and wires but solar panels, batteries, and other accessories for individual homes. Village life would not again be as before.1 Now that I’ve got to know more of Caroline’s story, I know that her helping to provide light in that remote village is but one remarkable chapter of a on-going story that began almost six and a half decades ago, still no ending in sight.

Caroline gave the sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland back in April when the day’s Gospel was Mark 3:31-35. There Jesus reacts to his nervous family: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Caroline related how the people of Maji have become her family, beginning when she, a young child, arrived with her parents in 1956, novice missionaries in that remote, mountainous village. Later after college and marriage and her own children, with her also-missionary-kid husband, Mark, and their young family she returned to Addis Ababa to teach, traveling to Maji now and then. Now, retired and living in Portland, she returns often to that much-loved village.

School boys bring the submersible pump
to the well.

Caroline’s superb story-telling skills shown splendidly that morning as she told this story: Not long before her leaving on her most recent trip a few weeks before that Sunday, a downhearted message had come from Maji that the village pump had died, the old, dirty spring again their source of water, the prospect of once-common diseases returning. The answer was simple, the logistics complex: A new submersible pump powerful enough to work near the bottom of a 190-foot well to be purchased, flown to Ethiopia, and delivered to Maji, plus required piping, meaning money to be raised and dovetailed arrangements made, most from afar, all of which hardly compared to the grueling procedure of lowering that hefty pump to the bottom of the well where it would work, firmly attached to many long sections of pipe coupled tightly together, and as well, a cable to conduct electricity from a generator at the top—an unnerving task.

The tripod and hoist used to lower
the pump and attached pipes.

I sat almost on the edge of my needlepoint-cushioned pew as, one by one, a pipe got attached to the previous one and lowered, each moment expecting that a slippery pipe had escaped a worker’s hands and all had plunged to the bottom—but no such commotion occurred, only intense and flawless work, and when the final pipe length had been attached, screwed tight to the spigot at the top, then the moment of truth, delayed briefly as a glitch in the smoking generator was repaired, the switch snapped on. From far away came the muffled sound of the pump spinning, then the wait. Tension grew as Caroline told the story, until after many gurgles, cold water trickled and then gushed from the spigot, and I could feel, really, not only cold, freshness of water on my own hands but also the glee of children and mothers laughing and successful workers jubilant and the crowd cheering, knowing from my own experience the awing respect for pure water in an African village. It was a magical moment, even there in that padded church pew 8,000 and more miles from the scene.

At that moment, my mind switched suddenly onto a side track, and Caroline’s talk grows hazy. I got to speculating about the fact that her trip involved a pump and pipes but not new hymnals for the church or new corrugated for its roof, or instruments for a praise band, maybe, and I thought about how missionaries somehow, intuitively, are impelled by a contextual gospel, seeming to know viscerally that the license to preach good news of Jesus is conditioned upon tending to daily, tangible, primal needs of people in situ, in that singular situation where by divine guidance one has landed and where the gospel has to be worked out in context, merging with the everyday lives of those specific people, their culture and customs and varied languages, their diseases, their tribal rivalries and prejudices, and the multiform needs that exist among them.

My sidetrack connected me with missionaries I’d known, doctors who went to forbidding sites knowing they would not treat familiar western diseases but the unique diseases of the people right there where they opted to work, of teachers, who understood they must teach what would enable children then and there to live and thrive where they are—and then I remembered Vanette Thorsell, a favorite of mine, who for most of four decades taught and managed schools in northern Congo/Zaire/Congo, earning the nickname Moving Van, who after retirement chose to return without pay again to work in those schools despite knowing she was seriously ill, and when her death came, thousands filled the church and lined roads, bidding goodbye to Mama Vannette.

Coffee seedlings hold promise of large plans
on behalf of the people of northwest DRC.

Similarly, a recent brochure from an NGO at work in that same area of DR Congo, the Paul Carlson Partnership, dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paul Carlson, a contemporary of mine, another of those committed to treating the diseases of the throngs of people who surrounded him, and in his mid-thirties dying from bullets shot by rebels within moments of being rescued by American marines, the Partnership now, in addition to extensive medical service, helping farmers restore coffee plantations, neglected during a more recent revolution, growing and setting out tens of thousands of now-thriving plants. Continuing the legacy of Dr. Paul Carlson, they know the gospel can only be considered in the context of those villages and the plain needs of those specific people.

All along on this side trip, I’m contrasting American churches seldom getting it, that idea of contextual gospel, substituting instead a cloistered gospel, capsuled within a building where nearly all interest, intention, effort, and expenditure focus. In my own long career as pastor, I have worked in churches that fancied themselves to be preaching centers, located strategically to attract people from imposing distances to listen and socialize, then return to those distant homes with only a modicum of attention, if any, to that immediate community in which they parked for a couple of hours. Why such remarkable difference from a global gospel? I have no idea about the roots of that divergence, yet I know it persists. Caroline’s sermon ended, but my search for understanding that puzzle continues, a significant search, it seems to me, because it would appear to be connected to a plain decline of the church’s relevance to the changing world that pulsates just outside secure church doors.

Then came summer and Caroline’s new book “A Road Called ‘Down on Both Sides’,” telling her face-to-face story of growing up and living in Maji. Since I never forget the classic missionary story, “The Poisonwood Bible,” I looked for parallels in Caroline’s story but found none, for hers is a love story. The mystique of Maji, its mountain setting, its people, its embrace, prevails throughout the book, although never sleeking over the painful and sometimes horrible. It soon becomes clear as day that Harold Kurtz is an entirely different missionary than Nathan Price and that Caroline’s present contextualized participation in the life of Maji began long ago with Harold Kurtz.

The road called “down on both sides.”

The book’s title describes the route she’s always taken—has no choice but to take—coming and going, a cramped trail clinging to the sides of mountains, cliff on one side, precipice on the other, and in one place, over peaks with precipice on either side, “down on both sides.” Several jaw-dropping stories add to the mystique of that treacherous road, the Washa Wooha road that begins at Maji and ends after many hours at the airstrip where creatures must be frightened away before a pilot dare land their plane. It’s the road that brought Harold Kurtz in 1956, fresh from Amharic language school in Addis Ababa, with his wife, Polly, three young daughters and a baby boy, to the mystifying village called Maji in far south western Ethiopia, a long stone’s throw from South Sudan.

Harold and Polly Kurtz with their young family
about to board a plane bound for Washa Wooha and Maji.

Reading the book, Caroline filled in the blanks in my wondering, after hearing her speaking, about how that last unforgettable trip came about. Harold Kurtz had gone to seminary with a double undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics and combat service as a pilot during World War II behind him. Post-seminary, he became pastor of a fading Presbyterian church in Portland, his success there promising a bright future in traditional ministry, when a letter came from church headquarters inviting him to become a missionary in Ethiopia, a call he quickly affirmed. Polly, who early on had felt called to be a missionary in Egypt, had second thoughts, given three young daughters, but eventually she embraced the call to Ethiopia as well, and they were soon on their way.

Caroline writes of her parents’ faith and sense of calling:

Mom and Dad were not embarrassed to call themselves missionaries. They believed in a God who had created the heavens and the earth. They believed in Jesus—that he taught what the gospels say he taught, that his death had redemptive significance, and that he rose after being crucified. Presbyterians are trinitarians, so the Holy Spirit fit in there as well . . . It’s reasonable to assume that Mom and Dad were perfectly clear about their faith and the benefits of it, so they could commend it to others. . . .

And when they attended church services:

I didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand the hymns and prayers in other languages. They weren’t for our edification. They were for God. I absorbed the sanctity of time and place, even though it was really just the school auditorium, all dust and chalky whitewashed walls and reed mats. . . We were in church because that’s where families should be on Sunday mornings. In church. We were there to be an example to the families in Maji: Take your children to church. Men, help your wives with your children. This is the Christian way.

On the Washa Wooha road

Thus and more, traditional missions, but Harold Kurtz would soon discover different demands on his time for which seminary training had not prepared him. In fact, it was his growing up as a farm boy in eastern Oregon, his military training and experience, his math and physics degrees, that quickly got pulled into his day-to-day Maji business. That rutted, often muddy, Washa Wooha road demanded a frightful toll of jeeps and trucks driven over it, including not only mission vehicles but the few others in the district.. Soon he was calling on past experience as the only mechanic around. A corrugated-roofed building became his “megazin” (an Italian word left over from occupation before and during World War II), his garage, soon to have apprentices/assistants working with him. Caroline relives the scene:

The dim interior of the me-GA-zen smelled of benzin (gas). Dad kept his tools on his deeply scarred workbench saturated with old motor oil. There he might fix the gomo, tire. Or the fren, brakes. He would use his pinsas, pliers, to fix the makina, or vehicle. Italy had not only invaded the country, but the language.

It was not only, though, the megazen and broken vehicles that occupied his mind and time. Below Maji was a lovely waterfall where the Kurtz family picnicked (until they realized that their Dizin neighbors thought they worshiped the spirits of that spot) that piqued his creativity. With the help of a few of those neighbors, he soon had a ram jet working—from his background in physics?—to force water up the hill to a water tank, providing a source of fresh water for the village, and soon thereafter a water-powered turbine that provided mechanical power for a grain mill. (There’s a sweet description of men coming with grain to be ground, before then the daily, grinding task of women.) Presently there was a generator of electricity attached to the turbine as well.

Caroline’s piquant description of the megazen draws a picture of her father in oil-smeared coveralls, his tools in greasy hands, set beside, in my mind, her description of his “dog-eared, much-underlined Bible and margin notes in his spiky, unreadable handwriting,” his preaching in Amharic, waiting for his Dizin interpreter to make his words fully understood by his neighbors, the Bible studies and prayer meetings, that focuses for me the unique ability of many missionaries to be contextual, driven as much by economic conditions and physical need in their surroundings as by the gospel imperative to be witnesses and grasping fully the indispensable, seemingly seamless, blending of those distinctions, which again provokes questions about why this seems so difficult, or superfluous, or perhaps simply undreamed, back home.

Polly Kurtz and her children in front of their
Maji gojo house, Christmas 1958

Meanwhile, “A Road Called ‘Down on Both Sides’,” continues a fascinating account of Caroline’s childhood in that scene, her early school years home schooled by her mother, at 10 moving on to boarding school and the broader world of Addis Ababa, adolescence and away to high school in Alexandria, her senior high school year back in Addis Ababa after her family had moved to that big city from Maji with tearful daughters and a son who loved Maji beside them, their father, despairing of his own success as a missionary, to be the newly-chosen district leader. It is then that Mark enters her life, eventually to be her husband and father of her children. The story is beautifully told, full of life and loves, sadness and joy, faith struggles, hopes, and disappointments.

That personal and family story integrates with the changing politics of Ethiopia, the benevolent dictatorship of Haile Selassi, then revolution, nearby gun fights, the ouster and death of Selassi, hangings in the public square, communist dictatorship, the Derg, economic disaster, more revolution, through much of which the Kurtz family stayed put in Ethiopia until finally in 1977, they evacuated, and Harold Kurtz returned to pastoring in North Portland, his ministry here naturally spilling over into a contextual activism in his surrounding city situation. Mark and Caroline, after living briefly in Chicago, also return to Portland.

Caroline and second-grade girls in her class
in Addis Ababa, 1990

Ten years later, with three children, they are invited by the Presbyterian Church to return to Addis Abba. Caroline becomes a primary girls’ school English teacher, the task she continues for six years. They move on then to a new assignment in Kenya and beyond that, to South Sudan, before again returning to Portland.

Caroline writes deeply moving words about returning, alone, to Addis Ababa in 2013 soon after Mark’s death, of her grief at being back in the places she’d shared with him and their growing children, all of whom were adults and away on their own, of friends gathering around her there, caught up in her grief, sharing her tears. She is at home again. In the years since she’s returned often to those places, now with pumps and pipes and solar panels and books, but always to be among friends.

Church dedication, 2018

When she comes to Maji now, a new church building, triple the size of the one constructed with her father supervising a few years after their first arrival there, dedicated in May, 2018, and named for Harold Kurtz, never the failed missionary he once imagined. Furthermore, that church has a daughter congregation and three other preaching points—if my experience means anything, one or more of those might be under a tree—and leadership for the church is home-grown, with funds Caroline has helped to raise providing for training in a nearby bible school. In American church growth shorthand, it’s a level 5 church, growing, replicating itself—and meanwhile water flows, homes are lit up, and children learn to read with colorful books in their familiar languages,2 and perhaps broken cars still get repaired. I’m struck and thrilled how here again a contextual gospel grows the church with no imposed bifurcation between worshiping God and community care.

In a telling paragraph on the next to last page of her book, Caroline writes of her persisting affection for the people of Maji:

Why do the small ways I fit in Ethiopia still mean so much more to me that all the thousand ways I am thoroughly and completely American? My bond with Ethiopia is mostly mysterious . . . I can see shadowy outlines though. When our family went as strangers to Ethiopia we were welcomed and loved. . . . When I went back to Ethiopia to work, the school and church communities opened and took me in again. Why wouldn’t that warmth draw me back over and over?

Which gives us a clue to that seemingly disrespectful statement of Jesus in Mark 3 that was the subject of Caroline’s sermon. In her writing Caroline draws for us an image of deep, lasting connections within the Kurtz family itself, not the least diminished by the love for and among Ethiopian friends, rather in fact, enhanced by their shared lives in a remote, unlikely spot like Maji in which they were planted so long ago and remain deeply rooted.

Caroline, with her sister Jane (left), high above the gorgeous Maji valley in a recent photo
with a puzzled bird standing by.3


1 Later on I’ve discovered that Maji Development Corporation, which Caroline directs, cooperates with NRECA, a not-for-profit bringing American skills in rural electrification to developing countries. I noticed familiar letters REA, and sure enough, there’s a connection. NRECA is grounded in that war-time REA, and among its U.S. members is Southwest Iowa Electrical Co-operative that after many mergers includes the original Nyman Electric Co-operative—Nyman, a tiny settlement one-half mile from our farm—which my family joined in 1942, a hard wire connection of sorts with Maji through eight decades and more.

2 Jane Kurtz, Caroline’s next younger sister, provides books and literacy services in Maji and throughout Ethiopia through the non-profit Ethiopia Reads which she created in 1998.

3 All photos in this essay are used with with Caroline’s generous permission.

2 thoughts on “Mission in Context: the Maji Experience

  1. Jim, this really needs to be published! I was captive from the first sentence and brought to tears by the story you tell. And yes, it is absolutely relevant to the crisis the American church is facing today.


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