One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me. You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.
My pilgrimage in Africa has followed a definite course. I began with two weeks in Malawi, a place where I have deep roots and many relationships. From there, I proceeded to South Sudan. This was my third visit to South Sudan since 2013, and I have been helping to nurture the deepening partnership that exists between Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Synod of Blantyre in Malawi, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. You can read about those visits in previous posts in this blog.
I have spent most of the past week in a place where I’ve never been: Gambella, Ethiopia. I’ve been privileged to grow in friendship with Michael and Rachel Weller in recent years, and each time I’ve flown to Africa they’ve said, “You know, the plane stops in Ethiopia. Why not visit our home and our colleagues and friends in Mekane Yesus?”
And so I made the plans. Even though Michael was teaching in Juba, the Weller’s home is built to accommodate guests, and so I arrived on Thursday 25 July with both a deep curiosity and a hunger to learn and with neither a plan nor any of my luggage (but that’s another post).
The Ethiopian Evangelical Church: Mekane Yesus (EECMY) is the largest individual member church of the Lutheran World Federation – there are estimated to be more than eight million members in Ethiopia. Here in Gambella, there are two main synods: the East Gambella Bethel Synod is comprised of mainly Anywaa believers while the West Gambella Bethel Synod consists of members of the Nuer people group. Although the Wellers are working with each Synod, their home is located on the grounds of the Western Bethel Synod. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my time with Nuer, which is the same ethnic group as many of the congregations with which I’ve met in South Sudan.
After getting settled in on Thursday evening, I was able to play a part in Rachel’s ongoing work with a group of young boys. Many of these children call her their “coach” for the community’s football/soccer team, and each of them holds a special place in her heart. Like so many others in this area, these children have experienced significant pain and violence. Rachel has been leading them through a sequence of child-appropriate Trauma Healing workshops and she asked me to join them. The boys talked a little of what they’d previously discussed, and then I shared with them the story of Joseph’s imprisonment as a result of the treachery within Potiphar’s household. We talked about the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to people who do not deserve them, and how many people might be tempted to feel as though God has forgotten them, or worse, that God is punishing them. We talked about feeling lonely and afraid and forgotten and vulnerable – and about the importance of developing friends with whom you can share those feelings. As we closed, they asked me to teach them a song, and so I shared one that I’d learned from PCUSA Mission Co-worker Shelvis Smith-Mather: “When Jesus Says ‘Yes’, Nobody Can Say ‘No’!” There was a surprising amount of laughter for a session that was labelled “Trauma Healing”!
One of the things I’ve learned is that here in the EECMY, just as in the other African traditions with which I’m familiar, is that the definition of “Youth” differs from that which we use in the States. In the Western Bethel Synod, the Youth tend to be the “young marrieds” – folks who appear to be in their 20’s. While in the past, this group has met almost exclusively to serve as a choir, there has been some movement to encourage them to think of themselves as a learning community. To that end, I was invited to speak with a group of about 30 young people about the importance of always growing in faith and helping others to grow as well. We talked about the fact that Paul was not always the super-Apostle who wrote half of the New Testament, but rather that he learnedhow to follow Jesus by watching someone else (Barnabas). As he was learning, he discovered that he could not carry the load alone, and he partnered with his friend Dr. Luke and they shared the walk of faith together. As he grew older, Paul gradually called to himself other, younger people (like Timothy and Titus and Silas) and spent his time teaching them how to teach others. We broke into smaller groups and celebrated the mentors, colleagues and protégés that God has put into our lives. At the end of this discussion, they were very interested in knowing more about how young people function in the churches in the USA. They were pleased to learn that in Crafton Heights we often elect those who would here be termed “youth” to lead the church; in fact, I passed around a photo I’d taken at Easter, when one of the CHUP Deacons who happens to be 20 years old was visiting an older member of the congregation: they could not believe that in that photo, the younger person was the church officer while the older person was the one receiving “care”. It was a full and rich discussion.
Sunday was reserved primarily for worship. We didn’t make the entire service, but I expect to get some credit for sitting through more than three hours of it! With the exception of a few remarks that I made, the entire service was conducted in Nuer. As I sat there feeling that I was both vaguely a central part of what was going on and yet I struggled to make sense of any of the sounds I was hearing. I wondered how often I place people in a position like that in the USA. Oh, I understand that I very rarely will plunk someone down in the middle of a four-hour proceeding and then proceed to speak in a dialect unknown to them. I am increasingly aware, however, that there are many aspects of congregational and worship life in the USA that must be unintelligible to a new participant – and yet we all soldier on, using the words and singing the songs and saying the prayers that we think we know and assume that everybody should know… I hope that when I get back in the saddle of ministry again, I’ll be a better translator!
Rachel and I used Sunday afternoon to pursue two of my hobbies. One of these is a long-standing pastime with which readers of the blog are familiar. We borrowed a car and we went birding. I was pleased to be able to add a couple of new species to my “life list” and even got a few photographs as well. We combined that passion of longstanding with another, newer, preoccupation: looking for my suitcases. I’m on a first-name basis with a few employees at Ethiopian Airlines, but nobody can tell me where my luggage is. More on that in another post.
Monday was rich in conversation as well: in the morning, we’d planned on meeting with the EECMY’s Western Synod staff in some of the Synod campus’ “common areas”, but the rains forced us inside the Weller home. It was a great opportunity to talk about the need for and the nature of partnership in the body of Christ. In the afternoon, I was asked to meet with a different group of young people. Again, we talked about the importance of life-long discipleship and Christian growth.
As one of the meetings was breaking up, several people came to me and said a few things in Nuer to which I simply shook my head and grinned. After they laughed at me for a while, they said something that sounded like “chiloidateth” to my ears. I’ve been told that there is no direct equivalent in the Nuer language for “thank you”, but this is the term that is often used when one has received a benefit or favor. It means “it makes my heart happy”.
I’m not finished in Ethiopia yet, but I can say that. Chiloidateth. My heart is, indeed, happy. Thanks be to God!
As a bonus: during my time with the leadership of the West Gambella Bethel Synod of the EECMY, they asked repeatedly whether I knew of a congregation, Presbytery, or other church body that would be interested in developing a relational partnership. I would encourage my friends to think prayerfully about this and if you’re interested, let me know or speak with Michael or Rachel Weller!