Experiencing “church” from here to Africa – part one
As I write this, wrapped in a Massai blanket successfully bartered for at the market yesterday in Mto wa Mbu, I am drinking strong Tanzanian coffee and listening to the early-morning chirping of birds outside the window mixed with the soft sounds of a light rain.
As the sun continues to rise, the darkness of night giving way to a pallet of natural colors that seem to be unique to this particular part of the world, I can’t help but be awestruck and humbled by the many ways I have experienced God’s global church the last 30 days.
As often occurs when we truly sit back and ponder the meaning of God’s love, grace, and mercy in our lives, words are hard to come by and experiences difficult to capture and convey in a way that truly reveres our Father. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to share.
The month-long journey began as I experienced fellowship and compassion during my first participation in the annual assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Lower Susquehanna Synod, during which more than 600 pastors and lay representatives of congregations in the church’s regional body gathered. The experience was deeply inspiring as those present shared and encouraged one another to love the neighbor as thyself, exemplified the night before the assembly when more than 1,000 congregational members worked in shifts over 12 hours to pack some 330,000 meals for neighbors in need. The focus continually was on how to extend a loving hand in service to those who may be marginalized and in need, all too often overlooked by others.
The following week I was blessed to experience this love firsthand through my new Lutheran congregation as members prayed for my safe travels in the upcoming weeks to Haiti and Tanzania, Africa. This caring was further demonstrated during marriage-preparation sessions for my fiancée and me, during which our pastor warmly guided us through what can otherwise be challenging questions.
In Port au Prince, Haiti, where I am involved in ministries to orphans and in extending the efforts of the Diakon Flight Program’s work within those ministries—trying to recover from the long day of travel and visits to friends in this impoverished nation and looking forward to the following morning’s worship service in what can be described as a tent community for displaced earthquake victims that has transitioned into a permanent community—I receive a message from the pastor of that community. He and his congregation, he indicates, are excited about the sermon I’ll give the next morning.
Sermon? The next morning? Panic set in. But what does one do in such a moment? Pray—and make quick adjustments to a previously written and-often preached sermon.
The next morning, sweat pours off my brow not from nervousness but from the near-100 degree temperature even this early in the morning. The whirring of a generator outside comes and goes as the much-appreciated breeze approaches and dissipates like waves of the ocean. With each breeze comes not just the sound of the motor, but also the bouquet of the chicken, rice and vegetables cooking for our after-service meal. Unfortunately, the delicious aroma is mixed with the pungent odors that accompany lack of basic sanitation and plumbing.
The experience fully encapsulates the reality of this place: beauty mixed with a hardship that most will never know.
As I looked out across the faces gathered that morning, it was evident that true church, meaning true love and service to one another, was the reality of existence here.
Following the singing of hymns I can’t fully translate but know, based on the reverence etched on everyone’s faces, emphasize God’s love, I step to the microphone.
I preach from the Apostle Paul’s letter to Corinth that beautifully describes how each member of the collective church is no different from various parts of the human body—all interdependent on one another and working in harmony even when we don’t understand or recognize this is occurring.
Only God, I say, can orchestrate such a complicated and flawless system that ensures every person is somehow playing a role and providing an asset to the greater body of the church. Though many of the impoverished Haitians in the congregation had lost their home-churches to the devastating earthquake, not to mention houses, friends and family members, I focused on expressing that even in times of hardship and loss, we are still connected to one another and through our support of others we do, in fact, represent this body-image of the church.
As I looked out across the faces gathered that morning, it was evident that true church, meaning true love and service to one another, was the reality of existence here. All gathered clearly valued and respected one another, evident in the stories of exceptional sacrifice to help another in need with which I had become familiar. My sermon, delivered through a mix of translation and my best attempts at Haitian Creole, quickly shifted from teaching to reinforcing and affirming the unmistakable fact those present were authentically living out the true meaning of church.
As often happens when hoping to teach or encourage, I had become the student.
Just three days after returning home from Haiti, I was again boarding a flight, this time for Tanzania and an orphanage there…
(Part 2 will be posted next week.)
By Rob Kivlan
Diakon Youth Services
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