“Issues don’t move people,” shares United Methodist missionary Eric Soard. “People move people. And we need to be better at getting close to the people that are affected by the issues we are supposedly passionate about.”
Soard learned about the importance of 'proximity’—what John Wesley called “watching over one another in love”—while serving as an educator and the founder of Wesley College in Mwanza, Tanzania.
After weeks of quarantine and stay-at-home orders, we all have a renewed appreciation of the value of proximity.
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This episode posted on July 10, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is missionary Eric Soard. Because Eric is the founder of Wesley College in Mwanza, Tanzania and served as the school’s principal I expected to talk with him about the importance of education, which is where we started. But then we got into this really interesting conversation about what he calls ‘proximity.’ Being close to one another, knowing each other, or in the words of John Wesley, watching over one another in love. It’s something he learned in Tanzania but after all these weeks of quarantine and staying home orders, I think we all have a renewed appreciation for the value of proximity.
Eric: Proximity also moves things from issues to people. If you are talking about racism as an issue and you don’t know anyone who’s ever been affected by it you’re not gonna be as passionate. You’re not gonna be as effective. Issues don’t move people. People move people. And we need to be better at getting close to the people that are affected by the issues that we are supposedly passionate about.
Joe: Interesting to note: this conversation was recorded in February of 2020.
Joe: Eric Soard, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Eric: Thank you.
Joe: You are the principal of Wesley College in Tanzania, a school that you founded through the United Methodist Church. What led you to ministry and education?
Eric: I had a very early call in the ministry. I was 13 years old. And at the time, because it was a youth summer camp, thought that I was supposed to do, is youth ministry. So I did youth ministry for 5 years, from the time I was 18 until I was about 23. And then we went over to Tanzania, and my wife and I have done so many different things in Tanzania. We’ve done orphan care, community development, economic empowerment, church planting, conservation agriculture, a variety of activities. And yet the consistent thing was, how is it that we build capacity within others? How do we bring out their passion for their gifts and their call and helping them find their vocation? It was always working with other teams and with other people. So it never seemed like too much work. That led us really to looking at education. There was a consistent theme that everyone needed something a little bit more—help with their leadership, more education, how to mobilize resources, grant writing, how to work with the local government. There was always a piece mission that education could help them with. And so it came to a point we’re like, well, if this is what we’re really doing, why don’t we do it a little more effectively. And so from there came Wesley College.
Joe: And so education is an important piece of that leadership development and you’re just trying to formalize the path for people.
Eric: Right. And part of it is Tanzania is still a developing country, which means that unlike…I feel like where higher education in some ways is going in the U.S., which is less certificates, more knowledge. In Tanzania those certificates are still valuable because they…you may not come out of a background where your knowledge is assumed. You’re coming out of a background where your knowledge is questioned. And so having that certificate, having that official piece of paper that says, no, I did study this; I am qualified to do this, helps our graduates get a foot in the door. And it’s an effective way to reach a large group of people, lift them up. We do a residential program so that there are formational activities. It’s not just about sitting in the classroom. But it’s about daily formation, interaction with professors and lecturers, interaction with other students. Our students are all doing field practices with organizations in the community. And so that 2-3 year formational process really is then what we’re counting on to produce servant leaders, community leaders, business leaders, as they graduate and go out from there.
Joe: When you talk about formation what’s that look like?
Eric: So, it is a Christian school. It’s a United Methodist college. So there’s a 7:30 a.m. daily prayer time with all of our students before classes start at 8. Wednesday there’s a chapel where we bring in different speakers. Some are United Methodist. Many are ecumenical. We also are very careful in selecting our staff. So we want to make sure that our staff are not just going into the classroom teaching and leaving, but understand that they have a role outside of the classroom, to meet with students, mentor students, counsel students, from a faith-based perspective. And then we also have a servant leadership program that all of our students go through. And so at some point during their time at Wesley College they’re go through a 2-semester servant leadership program where they learn how to use their influence to really lead. And so all of our students have to go through that at some point before they graduate.
Joe: For many of us listening to this, I imagine that we take education kind of for granted. Right? It’s what we have to do. Is that similar in Tanzania or is education more of a luxury?
Eric: Education past elementary school is considered a luxury. Secondary education, high school education, only became free for students to go to government schools in 2016. Primary education, elementary school education, only became free for students in 2007. And so education is still very much not the norm, especially higher education. So most Tanzanians have been through 7th grade. But then if you don’t pass your exams in Standard 7 you won’t go on to secondary, or you won’t go on to high school. And so the percentage of students going on to secondary school or high school as much lower. And then the same thing at a high school level. It’s not your GPA; it’s your national exams that determine whether you go a university route or a technical school or a vocational school, or nothing. And so that’s also not necessarily a given. It’s one of the reasons at Wesley College we have adult education, kind of a GED equivalent program for students that didn’t make it through high school the first time can come and finish their secondary education and get a chance at higher education. But it’s absolutely not the norm for the majority of Tanzanians. And so we have a lot of first-generation college students. And we have a lot of people coming out of families that don’t necessarily have an educational background.
Joe: And so those exams you talked about, young people are taking them at 12, 13—somewhere in there?
Eric: So most people in Standard 7 are…. Tanzanians start school at 7, a little bit later. So most Tanzanians are taking those at maybe 13, 14; for high school maybe 19, 20. And then moving on from there.
Joe: It seems so crazy early to have those kind of decisions.
Eric: It’s very stressful on students who really struggle—not just with the exam itself, but with the level of stress that comes from having that much emphasis placed on something that occurs in 2 weeks.
Joe: And some of us are getting testing and some of us have all that anxiety, and it doesn’t go well for us.
Eric: It does. A lot of pressure on students from parents. A lot of pressure on students from their teachers who are obviously, just as we are here, graded on exam scores. And a lot of pressure on the students themselves to be setting up their future. And they’re not easy exams.
Joe: Shifting topic just a little bit…. When you had this dream, this God-sized dream of a school, how did you get from dream to now you have people that have actually graduated from the dream?
Eric: It’s been a long dream. I mean, the vision started a long time ago. You know, in 2014 is when we actually started talking about Wesley College, which was 3 years before we started in …. We launched in 2017. And those 3 years were spent really talking to people on the annual conference level, local pastors, community leaders as well as educators here in the U.S. and people at GBHEM—General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. And there’s so much support from the annual conference, from local leaders, from the Tanzanian government, from Higher Education and Ministry within the United Methodist Church. It seemed like everyone recognized the need. Wesley College is the first United Methodist college in east Africa that has a full-time residency program. And so it actually became bigger… The original vision in 2014 was really to educate pastors and to educate community leaders in a slightly more informal way. And through the conversations over the 3 years before we opened, that dream shifted to: we need a formal college and university because that’s what our people need to be able to really truly move forward. We can continue to do informal education, course of study and things like that, but that’s not gonna get our leadership to where they need to be.
Joe: Was education a passion of yours prior to this?
Eric: It really always has been. Even as a youth director there was a thought at one point that I would want to teach on the university level. And what it really came down to at that time was I wanted…I felt like my best professors for my Bachelor’s degree and this continued into my graduate work as well, were always ones that had experience in the areas that they were teaching. And so even in my early 20s I knew that I wanted to be involved in college and university education. I felt like at the time that I didn’t have enough to share. I didn’t have enough life experience. I didn’t have enough job or work experience to really truly be helpful in shaping professionals.
Joe: As a missionary, as someone who comes from somewhere else, into this area, what’s life like?
Eric: I mean, it’s an adventure in some ways. And some of that is just that it’s different. Things that we see as regular or boring or routine is gonna be different to them. My wife and I went when we were 23 and 24. The plan was to volunteer for 4 months and then come back and go to seminary. We’d already been accepted to a seminary, both of us, here in the U.S. And 10 years later we’re still in Tanzania. We never came back to the U.S. We did finish our education, mostly online and remotely. And so it was…it’s a different journey learning a new culture. But it has opened our eyes both to the diversity that’s in the world as well as some of the things we like and don’t like about our own culture. Being in Tanzania has been a blessing from the standpoint that it showed us there are some things we do here in the U.S. that we really like and appreciate, that we’ve found are a struggle in Tanzania. And there are things that we’ve discovered that Tanzanians do so much better than we do. And we’ve been blessed to learn from how they do things and how they think and how they interact. And so it’s been really a journey of discovery, of trying to see what it is we need to learn from them, and how is it that we can honor and respect those interactions through how we live our life.
Joe: What’s an example? What’s something you’ve learned that you think more people should know?
Eric: One of the biggest things right now is how to have relationships. I feel like one of the things we struggle with in major ways here in the U.S. is isolation, loneliness, lack of genuine accountable relationships. We struggle here with letting people get too close, and yet we all also struggle with not having people close enough. We struggle with the idea of other people maybe holding us accountable, even to our own ideals. And yet at the same time, we as human beings crave boundaries that community brings to help us understand what we should and should not be doing or what we should and should not be valuing. And there is a point to which maybe community, from my understanding…maybe community is almost too valued in Tanzania in that somebody that is extremely talented and has an opportunity to offer a lot, but may step out of line with what the community considers appropriate is brought back into line. And maybe they had something genuine to offer, and they’re not allowed to do that because it’s different.
Eric: At the same time, in the U.S. we value difference to an extreme point to where we’ve lost our ability to give up something of ourselves in order to gain a better community. We’ve lost, I think sometimes, the ability to sacrifice, not just our rights, but our comforts, for the sake of the community.
Joe: You mentioned how in the United States culture we can talk about being too close. And I think that’s probably a foreign concept in other parts of the world.
Eric: Oh, it absolutely is. I mean, physically, for one. You know, there’s no personal space in Tanzania. And so you can get on a public bus. So think of like a 15-passenger church van, and it’s holding about 30 people. And that’s how you get from place to place sometimes. And so there’s no personal space. With that, though, (and this is kind of where I’m going from the relationship standpoint)…with that, though, people get on and there’s this communion, this comradery. If an elderly person or a handicapped person or a nursing mother gets on, you know, they’re given a seat. Youth and teenagers are expected to stand if it’s standing room only, or they’re expected to squeeze more and give more space to those that need it. And there’s just this trust that they’re gonna take care of each other. And here we like to keep people at arm’s length, in part because we want to maintain our independence. We love to drive cars and not take public transportation so we can be in control of our schedules. We want to make sure we have everything figured out with our kids, or anything going on in our lives so that we don’t have to rely on other people because that brings us too close to them, and we don’t know what they’re gonna do and how that’s gonna affect us. And that’s not community. You know, for you to have community you have to have trust.
Joe: Somewhat related to this, I think, I’ve read some things that you’ve written about, the importance of proximity when doing mission work or evangelism. Can you speak more to that? What do you mean by proximity?
Eric: Proximity in its very simple for is being close to people. And we can’t know what needs done, we can’t know who all is maybe even engaged in a specific issue or relationship without proximity. And that can be evangelism. And evangelism at its core is talking about taking the good news to people. Well, if you don’t know them, you don’t know what good news is to them. Good news is gonna be different for every person. And I’ve been in situations where we’ve been doing house-to-house evangelism for a new church plant. And you can’t talk about salvation from a heavenly standpoint if they’re hungry. And they’re not gonna have the time or the capability of listening. And then they don’t know the God that you know. And so having an understanding of who you’re working with and who you’re talking to and what their life looks like is so important. And we’d like for the most part to bring solutions. And bringing solutions is not bad. I know there’s been a push back lately about, well, if you’re going into a missional context you just go to listen or you just go to be. And to an extent that’s correct. You can’t always just be. You can’t always just listen. That’s step one. And that proximity, once you have it, then you’ll know better how to move into steps 2 and 3 and 4, because you’ll know who to listen to. Proximity also moves things from issues to people. So if you are passionate about the issue of racism, but if you are talking about racism as issue and you don’t know anyone that’s ever been affected by it, you’re not gonna be as passionate. You’re not gonna be as effective. Issues don’t move people. People move people. And we need to be better at getting close to the people that are affected by the issues that we are supposedly passionate about. And that can get messy. That’s the relationship part. That’s not always clean. And if they’re real people not only are we going to be pushing on them a little bit, but they’re gonna be pushing on us. When I’m here in the U.S. people are like, Oh, you’re a missionary in Tanzania and you speak the language, and you’ve been there for a long time. And there’s a respect for the cultural knowledge that I have. But it goes two ways. I was sitting in a Bible study one time in a church and we were trying to help the church see what their resources were, to do ministry in their community, to get out of this idea that because we are materially poor we don’t have anything to offer. And so we were studying the story of the talents. And my goal in studying that was to help them understand that we have talents and when we take our talents and add it to what God is going to do in the community through the Holy Spirit, that miracles can happen, that ministry can happen, but that there’s an expectation of God on us to use those talents and to put those out there. And without that maybe God’s gonna say, Well, if you’re not gonna do anything, then I’m not gonna move either. He works through us. So this was the point of the Bible study. This is what I was trying to do. And it gets to the part of the passage where it says, the last servant was asked, why did you bury the talents. And he says, I know you are a harsh master, that you reap where you do not sow, that you take what you did not build and just kind of talking about the ways in which he’s seen his master or his Lord really be harsh to people and be almost unjust in some ways. I mean, the accusations are pretty harsh. We don’t always pay attention to that part. I had not really paid attention to that part before. And that part was read out as we were sitting in a circle. And the guy next to me turns and looks at me and said, Oh, it must be a white guy. And I took a step back and it’s like…. But in his context, in his experience talking about people that harvest what they don’t sow and talking about people that take what’s not theirs….
Eric: …out of a country that’s been independent for less than 50 years. That’s a fair understanding of the situation. That was not the point. That’s not where I was going. And had I been in a situation where my understanding of my role was to come and teach and my understanding of their role was to listen, I never would have received that. It was a hard comment to take. It was hard to accept and it was hard not to want to push back. But that proximity allows me to understand better how maybe…maybe it’s that individual, but maybe it’s a little bit wider—how maybe they see me a little bit. And able to accept that and just take it because I know the individual as well. And the thing is we have a great relationship. Had a great relationship at that point. It’s somebody that I always consider a friend. Years later we’re still communicating and working together. And yet, he felt confident enough and comfortable enough to say, This is how that makes me feel. And so proximity is important to move us from issues to people, from groups to individuals. And if we can’t make that journey, then the solutions will never come, or they’ll never be appropriate. And we talk all the time in ministry about earning the right to speak. We understand that we go in front of congregations and places to preach or to speak that our previous actions will oftentimes speak louder than our sermon, that people, if they know that what we say we’re also living—if there’s an integrity in how we’re presenting our message, if there’s an integrity of how we’re living our lives, then they’re gonna listen. And if there’s not an integrity with that, then they’re not gonna listen.
Joe: I think I hear you say, too, there’s this physical proximity which leads to this…not to force the word on it, but kind of a spiritual proximity where you allow yourself to be open and actually be with the person that you’re physically with.
Eric: Well, and to build an understanding. You know, I can tell you that people live on a dollar a day, or I can tell you people live on two dollars a day. If you don’t know what that looks like that doesn’t mean anything. We can nod our heads and say, That’s really hard, and we can understand that our income is a thousand times that, but what if I tell you that, you know, there’s a family of five and there are 3 daughters and 2 sons. And 2 of the daughters don’t get to go to school ‘cause they have to get up at 5 a.m. and walk 3 hours to get water and bring it back. And they have to do that twice a day in order for their family to be able to water their garden so they can have food to feed the livestock. Or, if we talk about students going home at night and doing 2-3 hours of chores and then studying by an oil lamp—kerosene lamp—that is providing fumes that are gonna cause health issues to them later on, that that’s the cheapest option that’s available to them. None of that is encapsulated with the idea of two dollars a day. Two dollars a day is a number. Just a statistic. The rest of the examples start to move us towards understanding the significance of two dollars a day. And so proximity takes us from statistics to understanding realities. If you’re talking to somebody else that lives in Nashville and you’re talking about traffic, they understand what you mean. And you share an understanding of that. You can commiserate over it. And you can talk about it because there’s a proximity. If you talk to somebody in rural Tanzania about traffic and how stressful commuting can be, they’re gonna have no idea what you’re talking about. And so that’s what proximity does, is it takes us towards understanding. And it does become a spiritual thing, to your point, because you have to understand what gives their spirit life. And you have to understand what takes away life from their spirit. You have to understand where they are when they come into worship. One of the things I’ve learned….. Worship in Tanzania is very charismatic. And people that go over talk about how joyful worship in Tanzania is. We take teams and we take individuals. And always, without fail, people talk about the joy that is found in worship in Tanzania. And it’s absolutely true. But it’s important to understand that the joy in worship doesn’t come out of the same type of joy that we think of. When we talk about joy in worship it’s like, Oh, it’s a good Sunday. We’ve got a special music. Or we’ve got a special preacher. Or the message was especially enlivening. Or maybe I’m coming as part of a celebration of a special service. Or those kind of things. Those are the things that bring us joy—the good things, the abundance. The joy in worship in Tanzania is in counterpoint to the sorrow, counterpoint to the grief. They’re not worshipping with that amount of joy because of all the amazing things that have happened. They’re worshipping with that much joy because they are protesting against the challenges that they encounter in their lives. And without proximity you can’t understand that spiritual stance. And if you don’t understand the motivations of what somebody’s doing it’s hard to be in relationship. It’s hard to move them with them in a specific direction. It’s hard to create anything that’s gonna be helpful to them. And so understanding their lives and understanding who they are leads us to a spiritual proximity because whether or not we think about it a lot there’s no separation between body and soul. We like to separate those things, but the reality is they are contained in the same vessel. And so understanding their physical experiences will…are a necessity to understanding the spiritual.
Joe: One of the things, as I’m listening to you talk about that, is that anybody can do that and be in physical proximity with their neighbors. I mean, we share culturally. But sometimes some of us don’t know the person who lives next door or across the street. And we can take the time to kind of meet people where they are wherever we are.
Eric: Absolutely. And it’s important to…. You know, the thing of meet them where they are. One of the things in church ministry, to be honest, is a little frustrating to me watching American churches do this, is that we like to create programs that bring people into the church. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But we should understand that people clean themselves up before they come to church—physically, emotionally, the way that they speak, the way that they act, the way that they treat their children or their spouses. We have this tendency, all of us, even if you don’t…you can think of people that don’t. You want to think they have anything to clean up, and they still present a different version of themselves at church. And so if you want to talk about being in ministry to our neighbors, or being in ministry to our community, we absolutely have to go to them. We have to meet them in areas where they are comfortable, not invite them into space where we’re comfortable, because inviting them into space where we’re comfortable means we don’t get to meet them, the real them. And so it’s important to understand that inviting people into the church is not inviting them into proximity. Leaving the church and going out from the church and visiting them where they are, that’s where proximity starts. Absolutely anybody can do it. The biggest barrier to mission is a desire for comfort. And the biggest thing that we do in order to be in mission with others is to be willing to be uncomfortable because crossing boundaries and being in proximity with people different from us is not comfortable, will never be comfortable. And yet if we’re willing to overcome that and move through that period… It doesn’t last forever. Then we can be in ministry with people.
Joe: As we begin to kind of wind down a little bit, the question I ask every guest is how do you keep your spirit in shape?
Eric: So, if this is a big thing in Nashville right now and in the U.S. in general is enneagram. And so for anyone that cares, I’m enneagram one. But that relates to that. So enneagram ones in stress go to force, which are personality types (for those listening that are not following the jargon.) That’s a personality type that kind of likes to sometimes to brood, to be alone. I’m an introvert. And so spiritual health to me oftentimes is being willing to sit in that space. So for me it’s a lot of journaling and writing. I think through my writing. I communicate with God best through writing. Not always…. A lot of it never gets published. It’s not for anyone else. It’s just for me. And I think people look at me, I have 3 or 4 journals in my backpack at all times, which is a little excessive. They’re all divided in different ways that are important to me. But that is…that’s probably the number one thing. I have conversations with God through writing. And I’m able to express my feelings and right down questions and occasionally answers that I get. And that is a necessity for me, to be able to work through challenges and questions and wonderings about faith. And so I would say that that’s a very natural one for me. One that’s less natural that I’ve also come to really appreciate is devotionals and prayers in small groups on a daily basis. So it’s very common for Christian families in Tanzania to either in the morning or in the evening sit down, read the Bible together, pray together. And this can be sometimes a long period of time. Ours are shorter ‘cause we have kids. But we’ve found value in this, and we have a guest house in the back of our house. There’s maybe 2 or 3 weeks a year we don’t have a visitor.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Eric: And they join in this. If you are in our house, if you are part of our community at the time of day in which we pray together, then you become part of this group. That’s not natural for me, being an introvert. But sharing that faith time with my wife, with my kids, with visitors that are coming in and out of our lives has also become a very important time that helps me be willing to express myself more fully, and to remind myself that other people are going through different challenges and different struggles, and that I can pray for them as well. And I have time that’s for me that’s very important to my spiritual growth. And I have time to spend with others. That’s also very important to my spiritual growth.
Joe: How can people connect to your ministry and support the things that are going on.
Eric: The easiest way is absolutely our website. It’s wesleycollegetzfoundation.com. And it has student stories, staff stories, all the regular stuff—mission, vision, and it tells you what we’re doing in our programs and all of that is good. My favorite part of our website is the videos and biographies and testimonies of our students and our staff that really start to give you a picture of who it is that’s working at Wesley College. And so it’s a great place to check it out and to see some of what’s going on and who… Again, it’s about people, not programs. And so who it is that we’re working with and who it is that we’re doing this for.
Joe: We’ll have links on the episode page for this podcast so that people can go to us and not have to write down the URL. We’ll make sure that we can just click on it. And you can get over there.
Eric, thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful conversation.
Eric: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Joe: That was Eric Soard, missionary and founder of Wesley College in Tanzania. Today Eric is working in the United States raising funds for the college, as the Executive Director of the Tanzania Wesley Education Foundation.
To learn more about Eric, Wesley College, missionaries and education, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape titled ‘Proximity: From Issues to People.” There we’ve put some helpful links in the show notes. From that page you can also email me, subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape and find other United Methodist podcasts to enjoy.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.