Experiencing “church” from here to Africa – part two

(Part 1 of this story is posted here)

As I boarded the flight to Tanzania and an orphanage there, I knew all of us—three representatives of Diakon Youth Services—were eager and excited to experience a part of the world new to us, while also—in some small way—helping children in need, just as we do daily in our work within Diakon.

The experience was one we will never forget—one we continue to process.

Before the days spent doing carpentry and painting and pulverizing large rocks with a sledge hammer in the bottom of a pit to serve as a septic system—always alongside many of the 86 happy, healthy children from the Mto wa Mbu region the orphanage serves—we found ourselves in the local Lutheran congregation.

Arriving late—our driver had stayed up until 3 a.m. that day watching World Cup Soccer—and having to walk down the aisle to find an open spot among the pews, we were immediately struck by the welcome conveyed by the faces looking up at us. The sense of being welcome was akin to the feeling one might have arriving at a grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Such was the immediate feeling of acceptance and the eagerness the congregants had to greet us.

Although Corey Carothers, Anthony Stukes and I had no understanding of Swahili, the “universal language” of the church service and scripture made following the service surprisingly easy. We were able to recognize the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Psalms and hymns sung more beautifully than I have ever experienced, with traditional African harmony, clapping, and dance. We could clearly understand that they were reverently worshiping and praising God’s blessing upon them and their neighbors. No understanding of the words was necessary; their eyes alone spoke the message of the songs: God is good.

Nearly 10,000 miles from where we had been the day before, I nevertheless felt at home.

Home, I have come to understand, is not the building in which I reside, but the feeling of being enveloped in comfort and love. The church, again, provided this peaceful feeling.

As the lights flickered and then went dark—probably a common occurrence—the pastor easily shifted from speaking into the microphone to raising his voice loud enough for even those in the last pew to hear clearly. Understanding that he was teaching from 1 Corinthians, the same book from which I had delivered the message the previous Sunday in Haiti, I was able to follow along, at least to an extent. Shouts of Amen and Hallelujah were unrestrained and infectious.

This part of the service was followed by prayers of the church and specific intercessions for those who were sick or facing physical hardships. Collectively, we poured our hearts out to God petitioning for healing and comfort for those in need.  Perhaps this is why I felt so much at home and in the presence of the Holy Spirit because, again, I sensed I was experiencing true church.

Certainly not the building we were in, though its simple beauty was exceptional with birds chirping in the rafters and a breeze floating freely through the large open sanctuary, but rather the feeling of love, care and concern for one another. Some serve with their hands alone, others with their hearts in tandem, but this congregations clearly was demonstrating love and service with their whole beings.

Again, I gave over my life to God, this time alongside Tanzanians I will likely never see again in this lifetime, but whose impact on us will be lifelong.

As we wrapped up our time in Africa, I found myself excited for the next experience that awaits me at home. Knowing that the following week would bring a scheduled visit with and sermon to the residents of Cumberland Crossings, a Diakon Lutheran Senior Living Community in Carlisle, Pa., my only hope was that somehow and in some small way I could impart this sharing of love and service so much a part of the church.

Although some gathered there might face hardships and loss, some unable to move or communicate as they once could, I understood that while one may no longer be able to speak, the eyes will forever speak volumes of love for God, family and neighbors. Although one may no longer be able physically to perform service, words of prayer accomplish that role within the body of the church. A heart for one another is God’s desire, which I must say has always been present and alive during my cherished times at Cumberland Crossings.

Numerous church buildings and locations, an array of church congregants, and native tongues foreign to me have all been part of my recent journey in the church, just as the Apostle Paul described. Across the spectrum, we are all part of this church body, and I will never forget witnessing and experiencing this fact firsthand among fellow member of God’s global church.

Experiencing this harmony, being in awe of its simplistic beauty, has forever changed my understanding of church. Thanks be to God.

By Rob Kivlan
Giving Officer
Diakon Youth Services

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