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A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa [Hardcover]

John Donnelly
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Book Description

July 10 2012
American Christians, veteran reporter John Donnelly has discovered, are an ever-increasing source of aid in Africa, with some experts estimating that U.S. churches supply more resources to Africa than USAID. In A Twist of Faith, he tells the unlikely story of how faith and determination compelled one such American Christian to travel to Africa and open a school for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. David Nixon, a carpenter from North Carolina who had lived through his share of trouble, knew nothing about the small, land-locked African country of Malawi. But after having a religious awakening and hearing about a preacher's efforts to aid its impoverished and beleaguered citizens, he raises money from his church and sets off to do what so many well-intentioned Americans of faith do in Africa: build an orphanage. But as his plans are beset with difficulties, Nixon slowly comes to realize that helping others requires listening to and learning from them. And that means changing his preconceived ideas of what the Malawians need and how he can best serve them. A Twist of Faith is the story of one man who, despite personal struggles, a profound cultural gap, the corruption of local officials, and the heartbreak of losing an orphan he comes to love, saves himself by saving others in a place nothing like home. Nixon's story is representative of a growing trend: the thousands of American Christians who are impassioned donors of time, money, and personal energy, devoted to helping African children. 

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“Through the story of David Nixon’s faith-driven journey to save the destitute in Malawi, John Donnelly explores the tenets of true service to underserved communities and accompaniment of the poor, while focusing a shrewd reporter’s gaze on the efforts of various American aid organizations in Africa. He offers a compelling account of the great joy, frustration, and personal sacrifice inherent in addressing the urgent moral claim of the poor on a Christian conscience.”—Paul Farmer, author of Haiti After the Earthquake

“Donnelly sheds light on the faith-inspired armies of compassion who have responded to a call to serve in Africa. By telling the personal story of the founder of one organization, we learn the fundamental truth that regardless of the sums of money involved, service requires human interaction, humility, and an openness to otherness.”—Ambassador Mark R. Dybul, co-director, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University

“In A Twist of Faith, John Donnelly documents the twisting road traveled by many from a faith-motivated righteous commitment to Africa’s AIDS orphans to the far more difficult destination of doing the right thing. His protagonist David Nixon is an archetype for dozens of well-intentioned Americans I have met who triumphed or failed miserably in direct proportion to the degree that they were able to acquire humility, embrace African family and community values, and overcome the perception that they knew best what African children needed to thrive. An instructive and compelling read.”—Warren Buckingham, first recipient of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Lifetime Achievement Award
A Twist of Faith beautifully tells the story of an American Christian whose commitment to Africa’s orphans moves him from confidence, passion and determination to humility, wisdom and dependence. Along the way he slowly learns the best practices that can truly honor a culture and its children. An important book for anyone who wants to be God’s hands and feet in our broken world.”—Lynne Hybels, author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World

"A rousing good read and cautionary tale of one man's mission to help AIDS orphans in Africa–and how good intentions can pave the road to hell..."–Humanosphere, KPLU's blog

"Mr. Donnelly does a masterful job of slowly unraveling the troubled, complex, mutilayered Mr. Dixon."—United Methodist Reporter

About the Author

For more than thirty years, John Donnelly has reported in regions far from the United States, starting with the civil wars of Central America, delving into the political violence in Haiti, drawing out tales of conflict and peace in the Middle East and Asia, and then landing in Africa, where he feels most at home. In Africa, where he traveled as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe and later as a Kaiser Family Foundation fellow, he became intrigued by the steady stream of Americans with big hearts and big ambitions whose adventures are told in this book.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Making Sure You Actually Help June 26 2014
By Donald McKenzie TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa, by John Donnelly, Beacon Press, Boston, 2012

John Donnelly is a veteran reporter who has spent many years writing on the subject of AIDS and particularly AIDS in Africa. Twist of Faith came about because of his interest in the many faith groups in Africa who were dealing with the pandemic, but not showing up in official statistics and reports.


A Twist of Faith is the story of one man, David Nixon, who is on a mission from God to do all that he can to help children in Malawi, one of the poorest African nations, and among one of the nations hardest hit by AIDS. The book recounts Nixon’s experiences over a period of about seven years, from his arrival as a naive young man full of energy to one who has grown much wiser, but no less passionate in his desire to provide a future for the children in and around the area of Malawi where the school he helped build is located. We also get to see the challenges to Nixon’s faith that arise from trying to find the best way to help the children.

One thing that sets this book apart from a lot of others, is that we get to see glimpses into Nixon’s life, from his childhood right up until present day. As a result we get to relate Nixon’s actions to his own upbringing, to his relationship with church leadership and his own personality.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Premise. Mildly Flawed Execution. Aug. 17 2012
By lovedrunkbliss - Published on Amazon.com
"The outsider must learn how they can help before they start working."
For the last 20 years Americans have been giving and going to African nations is record numbers. One of the largest groups to do both has been Evangelical Christians. Some academics estimate that evangelicals have given more money to Africa than the United States and various relief organizations. The major focus of these Christians has been the children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic of recent memory. John Donnelly, a former journalist, became interested in the attention Africa was receiving from the U.S. in general and grew curious having discovered that much of the efforts are coming from private evangelical citizens and faith based groups.

Donnelly's book is a combination of statistical date, personal anecdotes, and biography of one of the Christians working on Africa's ground level issues. The book sticks with one of those countries by talking almost exclusively about Malawi. The major thesis of the book is that many secular and faith based organizations arrive with lots of money and good intentions but have not taken the time to learn the subtle nuances of a foreign culture. Furthermore, the author hints that perhaps "outsiders" and "whites" may never fully understand the cultures of Africans.

The major biographical subject of the book is David Nixon. Nixon is a southern loner who after a life of drugs and hard living finds Jesus. Upon conversion he develops an almost self-taught dogma while living in a tent with only the bare essentials. He comes out of his self-imposed exile with a few simple revelations. Mostly, he takes the Bible as literal as possible and begins looking for his own personal destiny to help others. Early chapters about Nixon seem to be written with a certain emotional distance. The author tells us how Nixon feels and what those feelings mean in a dry and matter of fact way. For a book about the need for outsiders to understand the nuances of foreign people, Donnelly seems to miss the mark in his ability to communicate the personal faith and motivation of David Nixon in the first half of this book.

The chapters cut back and forth between Nixon's journey and empirical data. While the chapters that deal with empirical data are necessary to build the case that most foreign aid efforts are wasting money and creating more bad than good. They also don't fit as well in the overall narrative. Those portions read like extended articles in Newsweek rather than book material. After Donnelly and Nixon meet the book takes on such an intimate and intense feeling that the first half to three quarters are quickly forgotten. While it's a novel idea to intersperse personal and biographical narrative with empirical and broad research it gives the book an uneven feeling.

Donnelly does succeed in telling a story that is not so much faith based as it is about someone else's faith. He manages to show evangelicals in a positive light. If anything, the Christians in his book come off as incompetent through naiveté rather than ill will. He also deals fairly with faith based groups, local chieftains, and local politicians. All who have an agenda and all who feel that their way is right. Donnelley doesn't shy away from the ugly facts that some of the problem is the people of Malawi themselves. He is able to point out their susceptibility to corruption and entitlement as much as their plight. They are not painted in broad strokes of white guilt. Nor are the Christian's painted as colonialists who are seeking to further enslave a pure and noble culture. As far as Donnelly is concerned the cultures are different. Neither one is inherently more pure than another he is quick to add. However, if no time is taken to understand those differences it is easy to assume that the other side is evil. This assertion is equally false.

The incidents that seem to receive the most negative judgment from the author are pop singer Madonna's charity Raising Malawi, the negligence of local hospitals in Malawi, and the efforts of a short term medical missions team that while sincere were also unethical. As for the main subject David Nixon, Donnelly never seems too sure of what to make of him. The finally fourth of the books is as much about his attempts to understand Nixon as they are about Nixon's attempts to understand the people of Malawi. In the end Nixon and his faith are neither over idealized or overly critiqued. I'd like to add that this book is not an overly optimistic one. It is more of an attempt to understand and inform the public in a realistic and semi objective way. As such, it recounts the personal and missional struggles of a normal man wanting to do something incredible for God and the orphans of Malawi.

I'd recommend this book to pastors and missionaries. As well as any person seeking to live on mission both locally and globally. The lessons are not just applicable to those living overseas but also to people and churches stateside that want to reach their own communities. Is it possible that the millions we spend yearly on reaching our own cities could be better spent? Should we start by asking the community what it needs rather than assuming? Can local mission be equally cross-cultural? As results and dollar oriented as we Americans can be perhaps there is a better way. A way that is more relational, long term, and interested in generational results and not immediate ill conceived ones. As the Malawi minster of child affairs puts it, "They have to know that money cannot do everything. They have to understand that."

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR,Part 255.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a much needed book in the christian "orphan care" world Dec 14 2012
By Mary C. Hoyt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've been immersed in personal research about Africa's orphan crisis for two plus years trying to learn from what others have done and praying through what role I can play in serving the children and their communities in Kinshasa, DRCongo. I've been searching for a book like John Donnelly's and am thrilled to have found it. I've read many articles and websites about the principles Donnelly is advocating and how various groups are implementing them to varying degrees across Africa, but there's just something about a book -the heft of it, the cover to cover feel of it, the ability to go more in depth and present a broad range of data and stories in a comprehensive manner. Donnelly is an excellent writer, a true journalist, and he has given this book to us, the American Christian orphan care community, as a gift of self-reflection. I plan to promote it at the 2013 May Orphan Summit and online until then!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Twist of Faith Aug. 24 2012
By Miriam from Wheels Have Eyes - Published on Amazon.com
This was a wonderful story of one man's faith in God and living out what he believed God wanted him to do with his life. The book shares a lot of obstacles that a person must overcome to help people in a foreign country. I found the book to be very well-written and easy to follow. I don't want to repeat the above book description as it depicts the book in an accurate light and there is no need to add to it to tell you what the book is about. If you enjoy reading about missionaries and their stories, then you will find this book a delight to read. In addition to describing Nixon's journey, the author includes the attempts and successes of others who have provided aid to Africa as well, along with how that aid is used and received by their government and people. It gave me an education in how missions and donations to other countries actually work out.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye-opening tale of an American in Africa Aug. 5 2012
By Richard - Published on Amazon.com
This is a great book - one that I couldn't put down. This is for all those who wish to help children in crisis around the world - valuable lessons inside. This is for all those who look cynically at religious organizations claiming to alleviate pain and suffering through charity, donations, and orphanages. There's a lesson in here for everyone and it's helpful and instructive. My heart goes out to the book's protagonist - David Nixon. I can't wait to read the next chapter.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Improve upon foreign aid...or short term mission work Aug. 5 2012
By Mary Whitehouse - Published on Amazon.com
Talk to anyone who identifies as a Christian and you'll likely hear stories of travels to other places to help those in need (i.e., mission trips) and/or a desire to help others-particularly children who have no families to call their own. It's the reason many people travel to other countries and spend time in orphanages-or send money to other countries to build an orphanage or a school or some other likely much needed outpost for a marginalized part of the population.

Those same people will have wonderful stories to tell and will describe how those experiences impacted them individually as well as the hope that they made some type of difference wherever they were. Although there's a lot of good in all of that, perhaps it's not all it really could be.

In A Twist of Faith: An American Christian's Quest to Help Orphans in Africa, John Donnelly explores what it means to offer aid (regardless of your motivation) in places which we perceive need it most. Mixed in with Donnelly's own research into foreign aid-specifically to Africa-is the story of David Nixon, a well-meaning carpenter from North Carolina who raises money to go to Malawi and build an orphanage. As the project stalls, Nixon learns what it means to listen to the Malawians describe what they need and how to make it happen. Nixon comes to understand that listening to and understanding those from this new (and very different) culture means putting aside his preconceived ideas and plans, taking a different approach, and bringing change and hope to another part of the world-and himself.

Donnelly intersperses his own research (to include interviews with Nixon and others in aid organizations working in Africa as well as his own travels to Africa) with Nixon's story throughout this book. Clearly written and engaging, this book points out the frustrations Americans can experience in trying to accomplish something big in another country (e.g., fundraising, clearing government hurdles, working with local people in country) as well as how our aid is perceived by those who receive it. It brings to light that we make mistakes along the way-chief among them being the short-term nature of the work we do which is usually attached to our own agenda. Instead, Donnelly's book implies that best practice includes consulting with and working alongside those who live where we want to work, including them in every step of the process, and staying in it for the long haul-however long that may be.

At times, I lost interest as Donnelly shifted to discussing data and numbers regarding foreign aid-although that information is important given the context of this book. Incorporating Nixon's story, though one example of this process, illustrated both what not to do as well as what to do in ways those numbers could not. This book was thought-provoking and challenging-especially for someone who has fond memories of those short-term mission trips as an adolescent and young adult.

Note: Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR,Part 255.
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