Friday, December 23, 2005

God, can you gift-wrap that miracle?

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to do God's bidding. You say the prayers, you put His Will in motion, and yet the waves just don't part fast enough. You might actually get your feet wet crossing the Red Sea. Who can be bothered? Not Bruce Wilkinson, the world renowned author of "the Prayer of Jabez":

MBABANE, Swaziland -- In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

In October, Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland.

What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. Mr. Wilkinson won churchloads of followers in Swaziland, but left them bereft and confused.

He gained access to top Swazi officials, but alienated them with his demands. And his departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will.

The setback stunned Mr. Wilkinson, who had grown accustomed to operating on a larger-than-life scale, promising that God would enable him to achieve the impossible. "We're going to see the largest humanitarian religious movement in the history of the world from the U.S. to Africa to help in this crisis," Mr. Wilkinson predicted in June, when he believed his orphan village was about to sprout from the African bush.

Just a few months later, he found himself groping with his failure to make that happen. "I'll put it down as one of the disappointments of my career," he says.

Interesting choice of words. Most people would call saving the world from AIDS a calling. To Mr Wilkinson, it is a career option. Callings involve a total commitment of your life's energies and require a blind and unshakeable faith in your vision that will not be extinguished by setbacks and difficulties. Career options come with perks, benefits and personal growth opportunities, and have a half life equal to the time it takes you to realize that you missed the first on-ramp to the fast track.

Mr. Wilkinson's life has been all about miracles: He routinely asks God to perform them, and God, he says, routinely does. A solidly built 58-year-old, with silver hair and rimless glasses, Mr. Wilkinson led his nondenominational ministries to explosive growth over three decades, sponsoring thousands of Christian seminars and training battalions of Bible teachers.

But his life took a sharp turn after he wrote "The Prayer of Jabez," a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000. It is based on a passage in the Bible's book of Chronicles, in which an honorable man named Jabez asked for God's favor. "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain," Jabez prayed. In the story, God granted his wish.

The lesson, Mr. Wilkinson says, is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask -- by reciting Jabez's 33-word prayer -- unleash miracles. Those who don't ask, don't receive.

Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers. Stuck in traffic once, Mr. Wilkinson says he asked God to delay his flight so he wouldn't miss a speaking engagement. He made his plane.

God as personal assistant, mentor and conscierge! Who can't love a God like that? Seriously, if anything illustrates the narcissistic impulse that lies beneath the surface of much of the modern therapeutic religious movements, it is the Prayer of Jabez. There is much to be said for the power of faith in motivating people to acheive great things. Norman Vincent Peale, with his book "The Power of Positive Thinking", can be said to have begun the modern movement within Christianity toward a motivational, therapeutic, self-centered wish fulfillment approach to spirituality.

Positive thinking and personal success are good things. But religion isn't, or shouldn't, be about that. If religion is busy stoking the fires of desire and ambition, then it cannot act as the mirror of conscience, the brake on hubris and the wellspring of eternal, sacred values that transcend earthly material success. The Gospel of Success opens the temple doors to the moneylenders, motivational life coaches, agents and brokers of worldly advancement. It may be a good preparation for the world of business, but at the expense of an ability to deal with the inherent tragedy of human existence. As Jesus said, the poor will be with us always. We can help those that suffer, but the woes of existence are not amenable to a five-point strategy of elimination. You don't wipe out disease and poverty, put it on your resume and then move on to the next challenge.

Moving to Africa

Riding his global celebrity, in 2002 Mr. Wilkinson took a three-week preaching tour of Africa, where he felt the tug of the continent's 20 million orphans, most left parentless by AIDS. As he told soon afterward: "God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, 'Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa.'"

Within months, Mr. Wilkinson, his wife and their teenage daughter -- the youngest of three children -- moved from suburban Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. He launched Dream for Africa, a Christian organization aimed at solving the problems of AIDS, poverty, hunger, orphans and spiritual emptiness.

"We asked the question, 'What does God want done with the orphans?' " he said in a June interview with this newspaper. "We don't set a goal based on resources, but on the need."
Mr. Wilkinson felt a special kinship for South Africa's poor neighbor, Swaziland. Years earlier, while they still lived in Georgia, the Wilkinsons had sponsored the training of Bible teachers in the mountainous, nominally Christian country of 1.1 million people, more than two-thirds of whom live on less than $1 a day.

In 2002, a group of Swazi pastors arranged for Mr. Wilkinson to have an audience with the country's king, Mswati III. "How can I help you?" he asked the king, according to people who were there. King Mswati listed the country's woes: poverty, AIDS, orphans and joblessness.


In Mr. Wilkinson's view, he was called to step in because village chiefs and traditional aid organizations had fallen down on the job. He bypassed small solutions and came up with one on a grand scale, which he called the "African Dream Village." It would provide homes for 10,000 orphans, who would live 20 to a house, with a volunteer Swazi couple in charge and elderly widows as grandmother figures.

Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme -- such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life -- to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.

The idea, Mr. Wilkinson said, was to "try to bring experiences to the kids they could only get at Walt Disney or a dude ranch."

The village would have schools, churches, medical centers and a "Mega Farm" to feed everyone. Mr. Wilkinson also planned a bible college, a cannery, a chicken farm, a bicycle factory and a truck-reconditioning plant, with water supplied by a new dam. "They'll be self-sufficient from the day they move in," Mr. Wilkinson said in June.


A $190 Million Price Tag

Dream for Africa put the price tag for the project at $190 million. His group projected the Dream Village would generate $12 million a year in revenue, and would create jobs for five doctors, nine firemen, 12 masons, one entomologist, two wildlife specialists and 68 pastors, among many others.


Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Wilkinson roamed the Swazi countryside until they found the right property: 32,500 acres near two of the country's best game reserves, home to white rhino, crested eagle, warthog, gnu, lion and other species.

Late last year, Mr. Wilkinson asked Ms. Jarvis to tell the king what he had in mind and what he wanted: a 99-year lease on the land and control of both game parks.

In the following months, Mr. Wilkinson pitched his plan to government officials and, he says, secured verbal commitments. In February, the king invited him to tour the small airport near the proposed orphan village. Mr. Wilkinson said an upgrade was imperative because he required an airport big enough to land Boeing 777 jets filled with Western volunteers and tourists.

It wasn't until Feb. 23, however, that Dream for Africa gave the government anything in writing -- a 34-page proposal.

Mr. Wilkinson gave the government five days to approve the plan. "They knew all about this for a long time," he says, explaining the short deadline. Mr. Wilkinson and his aides sent letters to government officials, threatening to take his orphan village to Zambia or South Africa if the Swazis didn't sign up.


Touching a Nerve

In a country where land ownership provokes deep emotions, Mr. Wilkinson's request for a prime tract touched a nerve. Colonizers offered previous royals mirrors and other trinkets in exchange for land.

In the 1970s, a British evangelist won the support of King Mswati's father, promised do-good projects that turned out to be hoaxes and ran off with the money people had donated. "Are We Really a Nation of Fools?" asked an op-ed in the Times of Swaziland, after the Dream for Africa plan surfaced.

The outrage spread to organizations that Mr. Wilkinson had accused of failing the orphans. "The history of these kinds of grand-scale 'social engineering' experiments is not very promising," Alan Brody, an American who headed the local Unicef office, told the Times of Swaziland. "So I have deep misgivings about Swaziland making itself the guinea pig for this kind of experimentation."


As Mr. Wilkinson's frustration mounted, Ms. Jarvis tried to arrange a decisive meeting between him and King Mswati during the monarch's visit to New York in September. Mr. Wilkinson, then spending a few months in the U.S., juggled his schedule and flew to New York. The king's chief of staff, Mr. Fanourakis, agreed to set up the audience, but only at a time that would have required Mr. Wilkinson to wait in New York a few extra days.

The perceived snub was, Mr. Wilkinson says, his snapping point. He left New York without seeing the king and soon afterward let his inner circle know that he was done with Swaziland, done with Africa and done with Dream for Africa.


Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn't materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

"I asked hard enough," he added, his gaze drifting upward. "All we can do is ask God what to do, ask him to help us in the doing of it, and work as hard and wisely as we can. Somewhere in this it's got to be all right to attempt a vision that didn't work and not to make it an overwhelming failure."

Did you catch that? He doesn't blame God for his impetuous decision to quit when the going got rough. How very magnanimous of him! But when you are accustomed to having flights delayed by the Almighty, it is hard to expect someone to deal with that level of difficulty. Apparently that little voice in his head that cried "think of the children!" was drowned out by the one that complained "I didn't get into the salvation business to put up with indecisive kings and skeptical bureacrats!".

Even Moses had to present God's demand to Pharaoh seven times before he released the Jews from captivity. Apparently Bruce Wilkinson considered his time more valuable than Moses'.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I shall keep this in mind the next time someone decides to tar areligionists with the Dawkins brush.

December 23, 2005 7:26 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The "African Dream Village" would provide homes for 10,000 orphans, who would live 20 to a house, with a volunteer Swazi couple in charge and elderly widows as grandmother figures.

Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme -- such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life -- to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.

The village would have schools, churches, medical centers and a "Mega Farm" to feed everyone. Mr. Wilkinson also planned a bible college, a cannery, a chicken farm, a bicycle factory and a truck-reconditioning plant, with water supplied by a new dam.

Dream for Africa put the price tag for the project at $190 million. His group projected the Dream Village would generate $12 million a year in revenue...

Like the Swazi, I am extremely skeptical that this grandiose proposal had even a minute chance of working.

It's virtually certain, for instance, that the revenue projections are wildly overstated.

Why not a pilot project with 100 orphans, a regular-size crop farm, and a poultry farm ?

If that works out well, then expansion should be popular, and easy to arrange.
And, such a venture should be easy for a rich American to finance out-of-pocket, especially in a place where most folks live on $ 500/yr.

December 23, 2005 11:55 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skeptical is an understatement, the plan is bonkers. It is a good thing that Wilkinson caved so easily, the implementation of this plan would have been a debacle.

This is the danger in thinking that every pie-in-the-sky idea that pops into your head is a direct message from God. Critical thinking is turned off, you don't second-guess God. I had to laugh at the Disneyland/dude ranch reference. The guy's a whacko.

Africa doesn't need grand/radical projects imposed from without, it needs to bootstrap itself up from within. Lets send people to teach them how to fish/farm/manufacture, but let them take on the responsibility for their own success or failure. Lets not make them into another cargo cult.

December 24, 2005 7:55 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

This may pertain:


Published online: 24 August 2005

Africa urged to create more fish farms - Experts warn of imminent collapse in stocks.
Andreas von Bubnoff

Diminishing returns: two hundred million sub-Saharan Africans rely on fish for nutrition, but stocks may not keep up with rising populations.Fisheries experts are this week meeting the leaders of 25 African countries in Abuja, Nigeria, to call for urgent investment in aquaculture across the continent.

Africa's rapidly rising population means that it will need to produce significantly more fish to provide the same amount of food per head as it does now. But wild fish stocks in the continent are already on the verge of destruction.The warning comes from the World Fish Center, an international research organization based in Malaysia, which has carried out a series of investigations into the state of Africa's fisheries. It finds that Africa is the only region in the world where per capita fish supplies are falling.

In Africa, only Egypt has developed aquaculture fast enough to match population growth, says Daniel Jamu of the World Fish Center. "The rest of Africa still has a long way to go."
The situation is especially serious in sub-Saharan Africa, where the per capita fish supply dropped from 9 kilograms a year in 1973 to 6.6 kilograms a year in 2001. Worldwide, that number increased from 12 to 16 kilograms a year over the same time period.

Fish is one of the most important sources of nutrition for Africans — it is much cheaper than meat, and almost 30% of the 690 million people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on it as the main part of their diet.
A third of sub-Saharan Africans are already undernourished: vitamin A deficiency contributes to the deaths of around half a million children each year and up to 20,000 women die annually from iron deficiency. Doing nothing about fish production would make these problems much worse, says Patrick Dugan, deputy director-general of the World Fish Center.To maintain current consumption levels as the population rises, sub-Saharan Africa will need 32% more fish by 2020, says Dugan. Wild fish stocks could collapse if fished any harder — in some areas, such as Lake Malawi, that is already happening. So most of the increase will have to come from fish farms. This means that sub-Saharan Africa would need to produce 3.6 times as many fish from aquaculture by 2020 as it does now — which would require the construction of thousands of freshwater ponds.

At least eight of the governments attending the Abuja meeting, including Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, are expected to sign a declaration on 25 August calling for help from the international community. Dugan says that US$30 million every five years should be enough to support an annual 10% increase in fish-farm output. The idea is that manual labour should be sufficient to dig the ponds, and the fish living in them can be fed with organic waste from the farmers' gardens.

The United States, Canada, Britain, Norway, Germany and Japan are already supporting similar efforts in countries such as Niger, Malawi and Uganda, says Richard Mkandawire, agricultural adviser for the New Partnership for Africa's Development, a continent-wide development initiative set up by the African Union. But he says he hopes that the conference will lead to increased efforts. "We see this meeting as a turning point for the revival of African fisheries as well as aquaculture development," he says.

If it's only going to cost $ 6 million a year to increase production by 10% annually, then I think that we should spend $ 60 million a year, which is far less than pocket change to the U.S. - for instance, Americans annually spend hundreds of millions of dollars on downloading cell-phone ringers, which for me defines "frivolous".

While we'd want strict oversight to make sure that most of it actually does go into digging dirty swimming pools, I can't think of a better, cheaper, or more effective way to help them than to "teach them how to fish", and to vastly increase their protein intake at the same time.

December 24, 2005 8:23 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


(Aside: can I call you "O"? It would be quicker to type.)

I'm not sure, by the description, that we really would be teaching them to fish. It isn't clear who would own the fisheries, it looks like the governments would.

The Africans need a social revolution in the way they treat land - they need private property rights and a focus on an individualistic, entrepreneurial profit oriented economy. Much of the aid gets frittered away because it merely provides fish. Fishing isn't the question, building and retaining capital wealth by individuals is. As long as communal, village based tribalism is the social paradigm, such projects will be seen as "cargo" provided from on high.

December 24, 2005 9:14 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

You may call me whatever you like, I'm not fussy.

While I agree that they would prosper more by having societies that more closely resemble Western ones, I'm not sure that they can get from there to here without enormous upheaval and suffering.

If the government/tribal leaders own and/or control the fisheries, and there's some waste, corruption, and inefficiency, but most people get fed, then I'll call it good enough for now.

As African nations gradually come around to a more democratic way of governing, it seems extremely likely that capitalism will mature there, as well.

Wanting to do it all at once was the "African Dream Village" mistake.

December 24, 2005 7:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. So how was this project in Swaziland different from Heritage USA or whatever Jim Bakker called his scam? Aside from the extra added attraction of live but moribund AIDS children.

I'da kinda liked to see it open, so we could have had miles of commentary about the rightness, or otherwise, of taking a vacation in an AIDS orphanage.

There's way more wrong with this picture than just one Georgia redneck with delusions of grandeur.

December 26, 2005 6:26 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I'd say that taking a vacation in an AIDS orphanage is the moral thing to do, assuming that the kids are going to suffer from more neglect if there aren't any tourist dollars.

If the kids get the same level of care regardless, then the deciding factor must be whether the kids are enjoying being rodeo entertainers and tour guides.

December 26, 2005 10:57 PM  
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