Sunday, June 10, 2018

Earliest start of the week—church at 8. I’m hoping I can actually stay in the entire service today, so I can tell you what it’s like. 🙂

It appears they’re starting on time now. They weren’t doing that 2 years ago when I was last here. I enter during the first song and find a seat in the back row, on the right, which is the side where the men sit.

We begin with some songs from the Swahili hymnbook—everything’s in Swahili here. Many of them are classic American hymns translated into Swahili, so if one of the children can find the page for me, I can sing along pretty well. Swahili is pretty much phonetic, like Spanish, and there are no diphthongs—“ie” is pronounced “ee-ay,” So it’s pretty easy to sound out the words, and if you know the hymn in English, you feel like you’re understanding what’s going on.

After the initial singing comes testimony time. Ferdinand, the orphanage manager, begins with a long testimony, I presume about his trip to Nairobi for a conference on child safety. Rachelle tells us afterwards that he also thanks the Lord for the work the team is doing.

Ferdinand is a remarkable man. He’s cheerful, knowledgeable, and absolutely humble and unpretentious. He carries his authority without airs, and he demonstrates wisdom in scores of daily decisions involving the most complex thing in the world—human psychology. Last night he dealt wisely and effectively and compassionately with a medical issue in one of the children, with the help of a doctor and nurse whom we have on the compound these days. He’s effectively on call 24/7. And every time I come, he stops me on the path and drills me over my Swahili. I think the world of this brother, whom the children call “Njomba”—“uncle.” May his years be long.

There are other testimonies, each one ending with a chorus of “amini”s (“Amen”s) from the congregation.

Then a choir number or two. There are 4 vocalists—3 women and a man, who is the church’s music leader—who sing to canned music on the left side of the pulpit, while the space on the right side is filled with mostly young people who dance along but whose singing isn’t miked. The dancing is reserved, almost calisthenic, providing a visual backdrop to the music. Some team members joined the dancers in 2016, and the delight on the faces of the congregation was something to see. Perhaps we’ll do the same this year, if we can get to rehearsals this week. Only one more Sunday here, after all.

Then a second round of singing, this more contemplative and prayerful, intended to prepare the congregation for the message to follow.

The message is from Pastor Samson. I hear him say “Luka,” so I turn to the Gospel, and one of the children directs me to chapter 11, and the Lord’s Prayer. He’s preaching today from the opening clauses, but I’m unable to get more substance than that. He preaches with energy, and when he asks a question and pauses, a member of the congregation will stand and give the answer. There’s interaction throughout.

After the sermon comes the Lord’s Table. I’ve never seen that done here. On the table at the front they lift a small cloth covering to reveal 2 plates with torn white bread, which they pass through the congregation. I take a piece, using my right hand—to use the left would be disrespectful. Yes, I’ve shaken hands with several people this morning, some of them children, and that means that, contrary to cultural perception, my left hand is probably cleaner than my right. But the practice matters, and we need to respect it.

What about the health risk? Well, there are several options:

  • Use the left hand. This would be offensive.
  • Use hand sanitizer. This too would be offensive. How would you feel if someone felt the need to use hand sanitizer after shaking hands with you?
  • Use hand sanitizer, sneakily. Oh, come on. They can smell it.
  • Don’t take the bread. This is the worst choice of all. The Lord’s Table is a visible symbol of our unity in Christ. What is the theological implication of my not partaking? Am I in some way not really one with these saints? This is simply not an option.
  • Take the bread, and bear the health risk. You can handle the bread minimally. And if you get some nausea, frankly, that’s a reasonable price for this act of public fellowship. Some things are just worth it.

Then comes the cup. I’m a little more concerned about this, since fruit juice can be contaminated in any number of ways. When I was in Haiti, I was relieved when I drank the cup and realized that it was wine; a little wine is indeed good for the stomach in developing countries. 🙂 This time, I hold the cup and wait for the moment to drink, watching Rachelle like a hawk on the other side of the room. If she drinks it, I will. She does. I do.

And to my surprise, it’s not fruit juice. It’s Coke™. Perfect. Much more likely to be microbe-free.

After the Lord’s Table comes the offering. The music changes here; the music for the Lord’s Table has been solemn, including “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Now the vocalists begin to work again, and the music is upbeat, joyous, as God’s people come to him with their thank offerings. Everyone walks to the front and deposits his offering in the slotted box, placing with the right hand, covering with the left, men first, then the women. Everyone but the children is expected to participate, and unless you want to fake putting something in the box—which kinda defeats the whole purpose, now, doesn’t it?—you will give something.

How much to give? The American tendency is to drop your tithe in there. Give ‘em a few hundred bucks, and give them some real cash to work with. But that’s much more likely to do harm than good. That encourages a spirit of dependency on Western support; it takes the accomplishments of their body away from them. And, since this one church in the fellowship gets 98% of the Western visitors, it could well cause frustration around the network.

So we give what they give. I give a 1,000-shilling note, or about 50 cents. Some of the team gives a little more, some a little less. We join with them, alongside, not over.

There’s a second offering, the proceeds of which will be given to a needy member of the congregation. This is a fairly common practice. This time they select 3 older women and give them, as best as I can tell, about 5,000 to 10,000 shillings each—3 to 5 dollars. That will lift their day.

Then a benediction, and it’s just after 11 am. We greet one another on the way out the back of the sanctuary. I get a lot of “Shikamoo”s—that the greeting of respect to someone who is older than you—and respond with the requisite “Malahaba!” Then more greetings, most in Swahili, some (from the children) in English. We stand in the bright sunlight, joying in fellowship one with another—just like everywhere else in the world where God’s people meet. Cultures vary, but some things are the same the world over.

Back to the house for chai—mandazi, a boiled egg (which is a Sunday treat), and uji, a kind of hot cereal thin enough to be drunk out of a cup. A bit later, lunch is rice and beans with chunks of fresh pineapple.

The crew naps as needed or plays with the children. They play football or less strenuous games or read books or just talk. As you can imagine, the girls from the orphanage are particularly excited to have so many big sisters, and they relate to one another as is typical anywhere.

Supper with the missionaries is shepherd’s pie and salad. We’re really talkative tonight, with separate animated conversations going on at each end of the table. Glad to see this level of energy to start the full week of tutoring; they’re going to need it.

At supper we learn that Dan’s family is facing sorrow. Dan’s grandfather has died in Florida after a bout with dementia. It’s a providential blessing that they are in the States right now and will likely be able to attend the funeral.

Sunday nights traditionally the house mamas do the devotions, so we aren’t scheduled for that typical task tonight. But one house has asked their group if they can do it anyway, and they’re happy to oblige. It’s a joy that the children treasure these devotional times as they do.

One of the other groups just goes by the house to tuck the children in. They pray with each one and tell them they love them. It’s the little boys’ house, and the cuteness factor is pretty much overwhelming.

Big week ahead, so we keep team devotions brief—praying for the bereaved family and for the busy and taxing week ahead—and shut down official activity by 9 pm. I’m not laboring under the illusion that any of them actually goes to sleep then, but at least they have the chance.

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Dan Olinger

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

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