Sunday, May 19, 2013

Today is our busiest day in a while, and we’re excited to get to it. Well, maybe “excited” is not quite the right word for a 6 am breakfast and a 7 am departure—these are college kids, after all—but everybody gets right to it. Oatmeal for breakfast, thanks to Heather and Joy, and everybody’s ready by 7, thanks to the foresight to do most of the showering last night. We dress in our church clothes—people do dress up for church around here—and take along grubbies for the afternoon VBS.

It’s almost a 2-hour ride to Lawra, maybe 70 or 80 kilometers to the north, more than halfway to the northern border and just 5 kilometers or so from the western border with Burkina Faso. It’s a bumpy ride for most of the way—washboarded dirt roads, very reminiscent of the entry road to the WILDS back in the old days, before they paved it. Classic Africa along the way—treed grassland, with the occasional village of mud-brick huts with thatched or corrugated steel roofs, and in the villages kiosks selling cell phones (Vodaphone is big here) and yams and chewing gum. As the bus passes through, everybody stares, especially when they notice that the bus is full of white people. We wave; sometimes they wave back, sometimes they just stare.

As we approach Lawra, Pastor Elijah meets us on a motorbike, and we follow him out of town to the town’s big tourist site: the mushroom rocks. It’s, well, rocks, but they’re oddly interesting. First, they’re practically screaming to be climbed on, and we oblige, church clothes and all. Second, at some time in the past, they’ve been eroded—I assume by water rather than wind, Pastor Timothy credits Noah’s flood—so that the tops are round, and in many cases the bottoms are undercut, leaving the portion above ground shaped like either a mushroom or a snowplow. One rock in particular looks like a huge mushroom, and we all get pictures under it, with some wags pretending to hold it up.


A couple of kids from the nearby houses show up, and I talk briefly with one named Peter (PEE-tah). They know English, sort of, and they hang around with us as we clamber through the complex. We also come across a kid—I mean a baby goat—who is separated from his mother and fairly agitated. We decide to keep him as a team pet—until I veto the plan—and Jon in particular seems to develop something of a relationship with the poor thing. We locate his mother and point him in the right direction. I keep thinking about cabrito asado, but I don’t have the heart to say it out loud.



Time to get to church. Back on the bus, and in a few minutes we’re at Lawra Regular Baptist Church, consisting of a large sanctuary, probably about the size of Faith in Wa, and a shelter next door that’s almost as big. After the long bus rides, some of the kids need to use the rest room, which we discover is clean, but, um, minimalist. It consists of a floor, and a trench, and no roof. I’ve seen men’s rooms configured like this, but not ladies’ rooms. Well, you do what you gotta do, I guess.

We join a men’s Sunday school class meeting under a tree behind the building, and Pastor Elijah starts doling out assignments. Remember how I said I didn’t have any details? Well, in typical African fashion, they have big plans for us that were apparently developed—or at least marketed—by the CIA. Within minutes Jon, Will, and Robert are whisked off on the backs of motorbikes to churches unknown, to preach. Boy, I hope they bring them back, because I have no idea where to look for them. Catherine is assigned to teach the elementary children; Jordan, high school; Auria, the younger moms; Joy, the older moms; and me, the old folks’ class. Well, I never….

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I’ve told the team to be ready to preach or teach at a moment’s notice. I hope they were listening. It occurs to me that Jordan’s Presbyterian, and these Regular Baptists might consider that a little, um, irregular, but he’s got the good sense not to teach on limited atonement, I suppose.

They bring me into my class, in the sanctuary, and seat me in the front. Ooh—the teacher gets to sit down! Cool. I teach on Eph 1, and Deacon Alfred interprets. Or I think he does. It’s one of those times where you say something brief, and the interpreter goes on and on and on. Sometimes I look over at him, wondering what on earth he’s saying. Maybe my concepts are very complex. Or maybe I’m saying things that are indecipherable in this culture. Or maybe he just wants to teach the class today.

At 10:30 we finish, and over the next few minutes everybody but the small children assembles in the sanctuary. (They’re in the shelter next door.) This sanctuary is typical, though larger than most; tile floor, plastered concrete block walls, small curtains over the open windows. That means you get a really nice breeze across the room, and the fans help when the breeze dies down. But the acoustics are just awful, and in typical fashion, they make it worse by using a PA system and cranking the volume way up. I noticed one night at Faith that when Timothy set the mike down, it was much easier to hear him. But usually everything just echoes all over the place, and that compounds the difficulty we have understanding the accent.

Jon comes in from preaching after the service has started, and his hair is standing straight up. Motorbike head.

We sing several songs, some in English, some in the local dialect of Waale. There are always two men in the pulpit, one to speak one language and one to speak the other, even if one or both of the men speaks both languages. I preach on the means of grace; when I step into the pulpit, where Pastor Elijah is waiting to interpret, laughter ripples across the auditorium. He’s about my height, and going bald. I, of course, am completely gone. So I put my arm around him and tell them about the American expression “My brother from another mother.” We all have a good time with it. After wards they present me with 2 gifts: a beautiful smock in the traditional style of the chief—they joke that I’m now the chief of Lawra—and a beautiful basket-purse for my wife, in appreciation for her giving me to them for the day. I thank them profusely, remembering to say “Barakah!” a lot. Then we form two lines, and everybody in the place comes by to shake hands with everybody who’s visiting, which is the team and two local girls. That’s a lot of handshaking.

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We’ve brought PB&J sandwiches and oranges for lunch, as well as water, and they provide a case of Cokes. We eat them in the church office, under a well-appreciated fan. We’ve announced the VBS for 2:30, so there’s a little more than an hour of time for us to change and maybe get some rest.

I’m thinking about a prayer request of mine. Remember that missionary who adopted Joy, Robert, and Katie on the long overnight public bus ride from Accra to Wa? She’s in Lawra, and I asked the Lord to make it possible for me to see her and thank her in person. We know she’s Methodist and works at a children’s home or school in the town. How hard can it be to find a Methodist white woman here? The men in the church know where the Methodist children’s home is, and one offers to take me over there on his motorbike. Joy asks if she can come along, and I think that’s a really good idea, so that she can be sure we’ve found the right Methodist white woman (really? Could there be two of them?) and so three strange men don’t show up unannounced at her door if we do find her. So another guy offers to drive too. Two seekers, two bikes, two drivers. I jokingly tell Joy that she can pick which handsome young African she wants to ride with, and without hesitation she goes over to one of the bikes and its driver. Well, that was quick. What was she thinking? As we ride across town, I hold on to the little strap that crosses the seat. When we get there, I notice that there is no little strap on her bike. So she has to hold on to the big strong African driver-man. Hmmm.

We ask around, and try three different places with no white woman, but eventually we find her. She answers the door, Joy recognizes her immediately, and I tell her I’ve come to thank her personally for her kindness. She seems surprised, and happy, and invites us in. And brings us bottled water! Now here’s somebody who understands.

I ask her for her story, and she seems glad to have somebody from home to talk to. She talks for an hour straight. She had gone on several mission trips with her church and felt God calling her to full-time service, even relatively late in life. She set out in that direction, and the mission agency suggested Ghana. On a survey trip she fell in love with Lawra. She’s been here for two years now and hopes to complete 10 years before retirement. She’s energetic and bright-eyed and compassionate toward the children with whom she’s working. The five of us enjoy the time together. After thanking her again, we mount our bikes and roar off into the blazing African sun.

That last sentence sounds pretty adventurous, doesn’t it?

By the time we get back to the church, the VBS is underway. It’s abbreviated, just one day of an hour and a half, because Timothy wants to get us back for the evening service at Faith. The children, as always, are animated and interactive, clinging to the American kids. The team, in turn, handles a distracting situation well; during the Bible story, motorbikes go racing by a few feet from us, and two babies scream the whole time, their older sisters trying unsuccessfully to pacify them. At one point the interpreter takes a call on his cell phone. I’m not kidding. Yikes. But we get it done. These kids are getting very good at this.

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With goodbyes all around, we mount the bus and head back to Wa.

We arrive at home early enough to eat supper and get ready for church—as long as getting ready for church doesn’t include taking a shower. Seriously, you just sweat all the time here. But we’ve gotten used to it. You know you’re friends when the girls don’t wear makeup, and everyone’s shining with perspiration, and nobody even thinks about it.

It’s good to be back at Faith. I preach the same sermon I preached this morning, and then I watch a really nice example of ministry teamwork happen, right before my eyes. In preaching about the means of grace, I’ve talked about the things that distract us from our spiritual exercises. In the US, I’d talk about sports, and tv, and video games. But because I don’t know the culture well enough to make those kinds of specific applications here, I lay out the general principles but without much specific. Timothy notices that and takes a few minutes after me to ask the congregation, “What kinds of things keep you from your spiritual exercises?” He gets several responses; I’m surprised that the first one is, “Watching soccer on Sunday afternoon.” Maybe this culture isn’t so different after all; same problem, different sport. I’m grateful to be working with someone who sees a need and helps.

The team teaches the congregation the hymn “His Robes for Mine.” They enjoy learning it, and a bunch of folks are gathered and singing it together during the fellowship time afterwards.

While we were eating supper, Simon had come by the house with the best of all possible gifts: a liter of ice cream. We had put it in the freezer and planned an ice cream party after church, and invited Simon back to rejoice with us. He insists on getting us another load of water sachets on the way back from church, and as we’re waiting for him, somebody remembers that dairy conflicts with our malaria medication, which most of us are taking at bedtime. You’re supposed to wait for 2 hours after consuming dairy. It’s now almost 10, and we’re all dog tired, and nobody wants to wait until midnight to take their meds. So we decide to save the ice cream for lunchtime tomorrow and have frozen brownies instead. And when Simon shows up, we do. And we invite him to come by after lunch tomorrow to help us with dessert.

As I said, we’re all exhausted, and we fall into bed. For just the second time, I fail to write the journal and email it the same day. At first I feel bad about that, but then I reali ZZZZZZZZ.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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