Texas Mission 2020 Update #5

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Usually, the “work” portion of our week in Texas ends on Thursday afternoon.  That’s when we tidy up loose ends and begin the process of packing up, as Friday is reserved for a drive to San Antonio to prepare for a flight early on Saturday.  This year, however, we found our opportunity cut short in an unexpected fashion: for what I think is the first time in the history of these trips, we were unable to finish a day’s work due to rain.  It was chilly here in the morning – maybe 50° or so – and the mist hung in the air throughout the first half of the day.  By the time we broke for lunch, however, it had turned into a more determined rain.  This is good news for the farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who depend on this rain for their livelihoods, and who have not received much this year.  But it is, of course, disappointing to us and the folks who are counting on getting their homes built.

This trailer was totally enclosed in the structure we demolished on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today we tore it apart for recycling and scrap.

The first step in building Dulce and Pablo’s new home is setting the foundation blocks – there were 28 of them in all. They had to be measured, laid out, and then brought to level.

Lynn, Josie, and I did a little happy dance each time the level told us that we’d finally gotten things squared away!

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the power of friendship and shared experiences to shape lives and mission.  On Thursday, we had the opportunity to dive more deeply into the realm of friendship with those we have become privileged to know and serve in our time here in the RGV.  Our hosts for this week, a couple named Pablo and Dulce, had asked us if we’d be willing to share a noontime meal with them.  When we got to the place in the morning, the charcoal was already hot and the chicken was marinating.  As we worked through the morning, we were enticed by the smells emanating from the home and the grill, and the noontime feast of chicken, sausage, guacamole, rice, onions, and… CHEESECAKE was indeed a festival.  As it became clear that we would be unable to continue to work safely and effectively in the rain, the lunch break went on longer than usual as we shared stories and dreams.  Before we left, we spent some time in prayer with these folks, and in doing so we talked about the ways that Moses prayed for the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it.  In the same way, we stood with Pablo and Dulce in the very first stages of their new home, trusting that it will be built in the days to come.  They’ve insisted that we come back and visit them next year to see them settled in.

The grill is fired up and ready…

… and Pablo is at his post!

What a feast!

Pablo and Dulce

The Texas clay tells the story of why digging wasn’t such a good idea this afternoon…

While most of the crew was on the construction site, Susana returned to the Catholic Charities Hospitality Center in McAllen, where her life experience and linguistic skill make her a valuable volunteer indeed.  While on site, she was able to spend time with a young women who, now 8 1/2 months pregnant, is about to be reunited with her husband in the USA.  In addition, Susana was able to escort a Haitian family (whose journey to the USA has taken them through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico at least) to the bus station, where they departed in order to join friends and family in Florida.  If you know geography, you understand that this is about the longest way imaginable to travel the 900 miles from Port Au Prince to Florida…

Next stop: Florida!

A long journey is nearing its end!

When evening rolled around we were privileged to visit a family that we first met in 2015. Our team was privileged to meet Juani and her family as we were assigned to their home five years ago, and we have sought to reconnect with them on our annual visits as well as through social media.  How encouraging it is, and what a blessing, to enter this home that we had a hand in constructing!  What joy it brings to feel the love that reverberates from every wall in that place.  It’s been deeply rewarding to watch the children grow into new places of maturity and development, and to hear about their hopes and dreams.  Juani and her family fed us like royalty, and we ate some of the most amazing beans, chicken, rice, sausage, and “Five Cup Cake” that you can imagine.  The food was dynamite.  The conversations were even better.  Heck, they even had a FaceTime call with our old friend Nemorio, who was present on the 2015 team and was able to greet us in that place.

We didn’t finish all of the labor that we’d hoped to accomplish on Thursday.  A wise mentor of mine once told me (and thereafter reminded me again and again) that in ministry and in life, one very rarely gets to finish – but every day, one must choose to stop.  And so we stopped building, because we had to.  But we engaged in a relational pattern that reminds me of the Gospels.  Time after time we hear of Jesus dropping a truth bomb or sharing great grace with folks in the context of a meal.  He frequently compared the Kingdom of God to a party, or a feast, or a celebration.  When we get to travel to Texas, some of you might think that all we do is eat.  Some days, you’re not wrong.  But as we do so, we know that we have been given the great gifts of fellowship and shared time, characterized by the abundance that the Divine intends for each child of God.  We know more about all of that stuff than we did a week ago, and so we prepare to leave this part of Texas a little heavier and a lot more grateful.  Thanks be to God!

Throwback Thursday: here’s the team in 2015 outside the newly-completed home…

…and here’s the 2020 team celebrating INSIDE the same home!

Tim and Vicky (and, I think, Ricky) in 2015…

Tim and Vicky sharing time together this evening…

I am deeply impressed by the ways that Julio continues to reflect maturity and love in the world. I am privileged to be his friend.

Kimberly was in middle school when we showed up five years ago – and now she’s a senior, contemplating her future. She has so many positive things going on in her life!

Sharing stories around the feast…

When we were preparing to leave, we prayed, and then Vicky asked to read us this note she’d written. It says, “I love you guys with all my heart and I will always love you. I loved how you are funny and I like when you come in my house. And you play with me. And that you [buy] my mom a present. And me dancing when I was little. And that you liked my mom’s food and her cake.  And that you liked Ricky’s pictures of the characters that he likes and that I like.  And thank you for coming to my house.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself…

Texas Mission 2020 Update #4

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

There’s a word I throw out a lot when I am involved with ventures like this.  It’s “partner”.  Words matter to me, and I choose to use that word intentionally when describing the kind of relationship that we seek to build with those to whom we travel or whom we receive in the context of church travel.  “Partner” has been defined as “one that is united or associated with another or others in an activity or a sphere of common interest”. That’s a serviceable enough definition, particularly when one considers the words that I will NOT use in the context of mission relationships: donor, client, recipient, benefactor, well-wisher…  

One of the best things about taking part in our annual Adult Mission Trip to Texas is the fact that we get to stay with those who partner with us for the accomplishment of our shared goal: that is, to help people be attentive to the ways that God is moving in their lives, and how God so very often uses people like, well, US to do that.  This entry will celebrate the fact that for the ten years that we’ve been coming to Texas, our hosts have become friends.  We have so enjoyed the ability to worship together, to receive encouragement from, to share prayer requests with, and to hear of how God is moving in the lives of the folks in this part of the world.

My friend Roland has worked with folks who have experienced critical need for a long, long time. We met about a decade ago when he was our “Site Supervisor” on an early trip, and we’ve figured out a way to be together each year since then. He’s brought a couple of groups to Pittsburgh, for which I am deeply grateful.

We’ve stayed with the First Presbyterian Church of Mission ever since we started these trips, and it’s clear that we kind of like each other.  In addition to simply offering us space to sleep and meet, these folks are above and beyond hospitable.  For instance, a few years ago some of the folks at church decided that lunch on the job site would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to pack it ourselves, and so they came up with a system that allowed members of the congregation to deliver a hot nutritious (and delicious) meal to us as we worked.  By extension, that allowed some of the folks in Mission to participate in the housing work that we’ve been doing, even if they themselves were not in a position to hang drywall or swing a hammer.

Add to that the way that “Texas Bob” is here to greet us every morning and send us on our way; or the fact that Judy is willing to wait up until 1 to let us into the building on the night of our arrival; or the faces that greet us when we show up for worship on the day after we get here.  John texted and called me a couple of times prior to the trip to make sure we’d have everything we needed; Bill has been a gracious and kind friend who makes sure we don’t lack for clean, safe water; Cathy has been managing the tools and scheduling our meals, and Martha cooked us a heck of a brisket for dinner.  We do not deserve such kindness – but how it enriches our time away from home and makes us feel welcome in South Texas.

Grant and Donna made sure that the 18th was “Taco Tuesday” in the RGV!

Donna with a satisfied co-laborer!

Martha is the woman who taught me about Grapefruit Pie. Here, she prepares a brisket to share with our group.

Cathy (far left) joins the group in watching Martha slice it up.

John is a member of the FPC Session that plans for hospitality at the church.

We celebrate the ways that God is using the congregations of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights and First Presbyterian in Mission to not only care for each other, but to magnify the commission that each church has received – to go into the world and share the love, peace, joy, and justice that we sense in Jesus the Christ.

FYI, it wasn’t all eating on Wednesday… we did a little work too!

Tearing the home apart… it’s somehow exciting to break stuff on purpose…

Josie and Lynn working to remove siding.

Bob leads the “train gang” – the homeowner with whom we’ve been working was delighted to show our group old photos of this train filled with the neighborhood children.

The house is dismantled into a pile, and then the pile is put into the trailer and taken to the dump.

The stickers on our trailer say a lot…

Lynn and Lindsay are measuring for the foundation blocks for the new home!

Lindsay drove with the dumpster and got rid of our debris.

Susana took advantage of the opportunity to serve alongside our partners in Matamoros, Mexico.

Migrants waiting for the friends from Catholic Charities to set up the daily distribution.

Texas Mission 2020 Update #2

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our team at the beginning of the day, along with “Texas Bob” Sherwood, a key member of our crew!

Monday was our first “work” day, and we dove right in.  After seeing us build for ten years, our friend and site coordinator Roland has had enough, and he’s asked us to demolish a building, rather than construct one.  I’m not sure whether that’s a demotion or not haha but we’re happy to lend a hand no matter what!

Most of our number visited the community of Mercedes, Texas, where the United Methodists are constructing a number of new homes for families in crisis.  Our job today consisted of removing a carport and a porch to make room for a new home to be built on the property.  Once that’s done, the homeowner, Dulce, will be able to move into a safe, decent home with her family!

This is not quite a “before” shot, but you can see the carport and back porch/room that were gone before 4.

The dismantling proceeds apace…

Josie carries the corrugated…

One of the joys of this trip is getting to spend time with Tim, and watch him at work!

Progress…

It was tough out there by the afternoon…

A little plumbing issue that was truly “CHUPped up” a bit…(note Bob’s finger in the pipe, plugging the dike…)

The weather today was in the mid-80’s and by the middle of the afternoon we were all feeling the effects of being inside in Pittsburgh for so long.  We were hot, thirsty, and tired – but we made good progress in terms of the work that got done as well as team-building.  One instance of some heavenly timing… on what we thought was going to be the last swing of the day for the demolition hammer, we managed to break the small pic water pipe.  There was a little bit of a “gusher” in the yard for a while until we located the tools and equipment to cap it properly.  It was, to say the least, demoralizing and frustrating… until we heard the happy sounds of the Ice Cream Truck coming into the neighborhood!  Some frozen concoctions lifted our spirits and put us in the van as happy people!

Who doesn’t like Ice Cream???

Susana, who has a personal attachment to the ministry of Catholic Charities, stayed in McAllen and assisted in the hospitality mission there.  She was pleased to meet with a number of families who have come across the border and are awaiting the next step in the process of obtaining legal residence in the USA.  Susana shared many stories with our group and we hope to send more of our team there as the week progresses.

Susana with a young friend from the Congo, getting ready to start a new life in the USA.

Some volunteers and clients at the Catholic Charities Center, where everyone is offered a good nutritious meal, a shower, some clothes, and a place to rest.

Our evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice and some great bonding time around the game “Codenames”.  We are a blessed group indeed.  Thanks for joining us on this mission!

Texas Mission 2020 Update #1

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth.  Some of us have been a number of times, while each year there are a few “first-timers”.  We fly somewhere – often Houston, this year, San Antonio – and then drive to Mission, TX, which is just west of McAllen and just north of the Mexican Border.

Jahn, Lynn, and Susanna are ready to get to the sunshine!

Bob, Lindsay, Jon, Josie, and Tim join me in anticipation!

While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our hosts provided us with a welcome breakfast of tacos and fruit! A taste of the Valley!

We left Pittsburgh bundled up and fighting the cold and journeyed through the day, arriving in Mission just after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning.  We woke on Sunday and worshiped at First Presbyterian, where we had the opportunity to greet many old friends and make some new ones.

One of the highlights of the first day of this journey is recollecting that one day we were wrapped in layer upon layer, salting walks and scraping windshields and the next day we were wearing shorts and walking under palm trees.  That’s a nice recollection!  We visited the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the “jewel of the National Wildife system”. It’s not a big park – just over 2,000 acres – but it is lush and diverse.  Here, we took a tram ride through the Refuge and heard about the history of not only the park but the surrounding area.  It was a great time to be together and a wonderful opportunity to encounter God’s wonder in this part of the world.  Our day finished with a dinner of homemade shrimp alfredo and an opportunity to hear stories and play games.  It’s been a great start.

Spanish Moss hangs from the trees at Santa Ana. Henry Ford collected this stuff and used it to upholster the seats of his early models.

The Rio Grande River, with Mexico behind us.

The cemetery at the Santa Ana Refuge, once once a family ranch.

Walking the trails at Santa Ana.

On board the tram in the refuge.

A view from atop the observation tower at Santa Ana.

Not unsurprisingly, the US Border Patrol is highly visible all around these parts. This is the station from which they launch the boats that patrol this stretch of the Rio Grande.

Chiloidateth

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).

As I arrived, Rachel took me out for lunch at a local restaurant!

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”!

 

This is the workbook that the young people are using to talk about difficult issues.

Pastor Matthew was translating but participation was enthusiastic in any language.

Rachel guides participants through an activity that reminds us that we are all connected in Christ.

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.

Participants at a “Youth” Discussion.

I was captivated by the condition of this young woman’s Bible. I’m told that Nuer translations are hard to come by and although this one has seen better days, she was guarding it closely.

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!

The congregation with which I worshiped.

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.

Black-Winged Red Bishop

Black Crowned Crane

This is obviously not a bird, but the colors on this Agama lizard are magnificent! (about 9 inches long)

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.

Some of the group from the Synod with whom I was pleased to share breakfast!

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!

The Weller home, not unlike my own, tends to have an “open door” policy.  This afternoon a group of young people came with a deflated soccer ball and two partial inflation needles.  They were pleased to know that the old white guy who wears the same clothes all the time was able to combine the two needles into one functioning unit and thus ensure that the game could go on!

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!

A Report from South Sudan

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.

The pendulum has indeed swung!  A week ago, I was in the midst of frantically helping a group of 13 young pilgrims debrief our very intense and active visit to our friends in the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s Synod of Blantyre. In a way, it was an extrovert’s dream – meeting in groups, talking about big ideas, engaging in one-on-one sidebars, and always taking in new experience!  When I waved goodbye to the young people, I set my sights on preparing for an official visit to our partners in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, on which I would be joined by three Malawian colleagues.  That, too, was an adventure in rich conversation and dreaming about possibilities for ministry in a variety of groups and contexts.  Earlier this week, however, I escorted those brothers to the airport here in Juba and am now settling in for the last phase of my African pilgrimage: traveling in South Sudan and Ethiopia by myself (although within a well-defined and well-equipped web of friends, guides, and mentors).  Before I fully enter that place, however, I’d like to share a bit about the visit in Juba in the hopes that those who are invested in one of these churches or our partnership might be encouraged and challenged.

Our little team arrived at the Juba airport on Saturday morning, and we were enthusiastically greeted by a team of pastors and elders from the SSPEC.  After making sure we’d taken care of all the legal formalities, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would stay, not at the ECS Episcopal Guest House that had been “home base” on my previous visits, but rather the Aron Hotel. This gracious gesture by our hosts gave us the opportunity to maintain contact with friends at home via wifi and have a great deal of privacy as well as space for meeting as a team.

Rev. Philip welcoming our team at Juba Airport.

Saturday evening’s agenda included a much-longer-than-anticipated gathering with most of the SSPEC Executive Council at the SSPEC Headquarters in Juba.  This was very helpful for our team, as I am the only member of the visiting delegation to have been in South Sudan before.  My friend Abuna  (pastor) Madut gave a brief introduction to the history of the SSPEC.  Most of these Christians have roots in Sudan (“the north”), particularly around Khartoum.  One of the outcomes of the decisive and historic referendum that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s youngest nation in 2011 was that these men and thousands upon thousands of others were forced to leave their homes, their ministries, and their positions in the north and take up residence in South Sudan.  It was a mass migration to a place that in many ways (infrastructure and development) was not equipped to handle it.  They left well-built churches and schools and homes to come to a place that didn’t have much of that at all.  As Madut said, “We came empty-handed, but God has provided.”

Circle time with the “elders” of the SSPEC and the CCAP (and one old guy from the PCUSA to boot!).

Elder Daniel added, “When we were in the north, life and faith – it was too easy for us.  Here, we are challenged. I think it is better.”  Abuna James Par Tap, the Moderator of SSPEC, summed it up this way: “We are here. We are OK.  We are doing fine.”

Our conversation that evening covered many things, from updates on Trauma Healing Workshops being conducted in several places to a sense of cooperation with their sister denomination the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to the idea of leadership training through the Nile Theological College.  These leaders talked to us about the church’s attempts to buy land in various areas throughout the south, so that when the peace is finally realized, they will be in a position to take root and grow.

My Malawian colleagues were very engaged in this discussion, and enthusiastic participants (if you know me at all, you can presume that I, too, was engaged and probably talked more than I should have.  You should just assume that about me in most places…).  Blantyre Synod Moderator Masauko Mbolembole brought up the fact that for some time, there has been discussion about twinning congregations in the CCAP and SSPEC.  He pushed that conversation hard, and pledged that such would happen in the next few months.  This was welcome news, and the South Sudanese were really excited about the prospect of having a church partner on the same continent.  Billy Gama, Convenor for the Partnership Steering Committee, reminded the group of the idea of seconding an SSPEC pastor to Blantyre Synod for a period of 6 months – 1 year.  Again, that was met by nods of assent and affirmation.  As we discussed these and other issues further, Elder Thomas of the SSPEC said, “There’s a new school here.  The PCUSA and the CCAP are older, better developed churches, but SSPEC is coming along.  Let us learn together: how can we benefit each other?  We are a mixture of large, poor congregations and small wealthy ones in both the USA and in Africa.  How do we grow? How do we encourage and include the women and the youth?”  Again, there were deep affirmations of this quest.  As the night fell and we ran out of time, Abuna Madut (while holding a copy of The Writings of Immanuel Kant) said, “It comes back to, as it always does, the question of philosophy.  Here in Africa, we have a philosophy that is called Ubuntu.  When we unite, we succeed.  We are a tripartite partnership.  Surely God is behind this.”  As he said this, I remembered an African proverb that says, “A person is a person through other people.”

Madut and Thomas

It was just about too dark to see when our conversation finally broke up. We didn’t finish, but we had to stop.

Sunday morning was dedicated to sharing congregational life in varied contexts.  The Malawian team was each sent to a congregation in Juba that has expressed a desire to partner with churches in Blantyre.  I was honored to accept an invitation to preach at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp #1 (you can see photos from that and in fact hear my sermon by looking at the previous post on this blog).  Worship was followed, in most cases, by meeting with the leadership councils of those congregations and exploring possibilities for partnership.

Sunday evening was a festive occasion as members from several congregations around Juba hosted us for a dinner on the banks of the Nile.  While the seasonal rains drove us indoors, they only dampened our clothes and not our spirits.  We were privileged to be joined by my good friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA Mission Co-Worker who is serving in Ethiopia but who has come to Juba to teach an intensive course at the Nile Theological College.  In addition, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Ross, a pastor and professor who has spent a great deal of time in Malawi but is here to join Weller for the course at NTC, was on hand to enjoy this time.  Great food was enjoyed, deep laughter was experienced, and, of course, gifts were exchanged and speeches were made!

Just a few tourists visiting the Nile…

Lydia (Philip’s wife) presents me with a memorable keepsake necklace while Pastor Deng uses an unorthodox photographic technique!

Michael Weller

 

A welcome from Mama Achol!

Monday morning was similarly full: my Malawian brothers and I were accorded an audience with the Honorable Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the Minister of Health for South Sudan.  He told us some of the political history of the country and narrated his own involvement with the independence movement, working with John Garang in the decades leading up to independence. Our conversation was animated and political, and then he surprised us all by expressing a deep and lasting gratitude to the people of Malawi.  He said that in 2009, there were a total of 9 midwives to be identified in all of South Sudan.  Malawi, he said, was the first nation to accept South Sudanese midwives, nurses, anesthesiologists, and clinical officers for advanced training.  Now there are more than 9,000 midwives in this nation of approximately 12 million people.

At the Ministry of Health

We were also glad to visit the Juba campus of the Nile Theological College, where we were welcomed by their Principal, the Rev. Michael Obat.  Once more, the notion of intra-continental collaboration was discussed with great excitement.  Too often, the notion of acquiring an advanced degree is equated with study in Europe or North America – a costly endeavor that sometimes results in “brain drain” as many of the brightest and best students find it easier to remain in their adopted country than to return to their own.  I listened with joy and anticipation as the conversation explored ways in which institutions such as NTC, Zomba Theological College, the University of Blantyre Synod, and even places like the University of Juba or Chancellor College in Malawi might join together in providing education that is affordable and contextualized.

I was further privileged to return to NTC and sit with Rev. Michael for a couple of hours this morning.  We talked about Presbyterian Polity and contextualized worship and theology and dealing with prickly issues in congregations and growing partnerships that are sincere and affirming and characterized by mutuality.  It is my deep prayer that fruit will come from these conversations and the ones that I hope will follow.

Dr. Lanjesi along with Rev. Obat at NTC.

The library at the Juba Campus of NTC.

With that, the “formal” time in South Sudan ended, and I was free to hole up in an apartment being graciously lent to me by PCUSA Mission Co-Workers Lynn and Sharon Kandel, to walk to dinner adventures with Michael and Kenneth, to join those brothers in prayer and sharing, and to reflect on what has been and what is to come. I have discovered that while the news from South Sudan is often discouraging, life in Juba is vibrant and growing.  In fact, I texted my wife that the part of the city in which I’m located reminds me of Cairo – it is loud, noisy, fast, dusty, and busy, busy, busy.  There is much to be done, for sure, and we must continue to join our hearts and minds in prayers for peace – but I can also tell you that this is a different city than the one I visited in 2015.  This time, and indeed this life, is a great gift.  Thanks be to God!

One of the great joys of these few days is a bit of concentrated time with Michael Weller and Ken Ross. While I’ve just met Ken, Michael has been a dear friend of the heart for some years. It is a privilege to be here with him now (“here” being the guest dining room at the Nile Theological College, aka the veranda, aka the front entryway aka the shadiest spot around!).

The Pilgrimage Continues…Update from Addis Ababa

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.

Every now and then I wonder how in the world Mrs. Carver’s little boy wound up being in a place that is surprising, to say the least.

Tonight is a night like that.  It’s just after midnight local time and I’ve arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Along with three colleagues from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian in Malawi, I’m en route to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.  Together, we hope to share in a visit that will provide encouragement, reflection, and offer sustenance to the tripartite partnership that our churches formed in 2013.  This will be the first time since then that we’ve had folks from the US and Malawi visit South Sudan together.

Our small delegation includes, from right, Dr. Lanjesi (chair of Blantyre Partnership Steering Committee), The Rev. Gama (Convenor of the same group), The Rev. Mbolembole (Moderator of the CCAP Blantyre Synod), and Mrs. Carver’s little boy.

It’s taken most of the day to get this far – a flight from Blantyre to Lilongwe, and then a connection that we made by the skin of our teeth to get us to Addis.  Our connection is in the morning, however, and so the good people at Ethiopian Airways have put us up in a very nice hotel and even offered us a couple of meals along the way.  As none of my three colleagues have visited Juba before, I gave them what I could in terms of an orientation as to the recent history of this nation that is both promising and deeply troubled.

They asked me what people always ask on trips like this: “What are we supposed to do? Shouldn’t we bring something?”

And so, of course, we talked about the language of the pilgrim.  While we hope that our brief stay in South Sudan will bring some measure of encouragement to the pastors and congregations we are able to greet, our deeper hope is that knowing something of the challenges and opportunities they face each day will equip us to grow and lead in our own churches to the end that lasting change will be felt in our own hearts, and then into the lives that we lead in the places that we lead them – and that will create a space wherein the people of God can more truly become one.

So I don’t know if I’ll have wifi or access for a few days, but I’d appreciate the prayers you’re willing to offer.  My Malawian friends will return home on Monday, but I’ll stick around Juba a few more days to spend some time with my friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA mission co-worker who is currently teaching a class in Juba.

My well-appointed room in Addis Ababa!

Before leaving Blantyre I was able to visit with my old friend Sophie M’nensa – she lives on a small plot of land not far from Blantyre. I don’t take visits like this for granted!

a highlight of the visit included a chance to video chat with Sharon, Ariel, Lucia, Violet, and even Sharon’s mom!

It’s always hard to say goodbye to old and dear friends…

While waiting in Blantyre, I took the opportunity to match wits with TK in a vibrant game of Bananagrams…

Not to brag, but look at those boards… We did all right!

We even managed to squeeze in a visit to the Malawi Department of Motor Vehicles. In a shocking development, the system was down and we were told to return the next day…

This is my favorite photo of all: on the far right you’ll see the smaller plane that carried us from Blantyre to Lilongwe. On the left, the larger plane that we took to Addis Ababa. In between? The tarmac across which we ran to change planes – without even going into the terminal first. THAT’s never happened to Mrs. Carver’s little boy before! I can only hope that the man in charge of putting my suitcase on the plane ran as quickly as I did!