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.
On July 20, I was a part of a delegation that included three leaders from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian and myself (representing Pittsburgh Presbytery of the PCUSA). In my next post, I’ll talk a little about the overall visit of this small team and the fruit that came from there. For now, however, I’d like to reflect on my worship experience.
When I visited Juba in 2015, I was asked to preach at a United Nations Protection of Civilians (PoC) Camp. If you’d like to read that post as background, you can do so by clicking here. Let me simply say that that day was, and remains, the single most powerful worship experience of my entire life. There is no way that I can adequately describe the impact of those hours in my spirit. I am a better person for having been there, for sure. For another description of these camps, how they came into being, and what it might be like for those inside, I’d suggest this article from the Huffington Post.
Simply getting to church in a PoC Camp is no easy feat. There are a number of checkpoints, and the closer you get to the camp, the military presence and security that the UN provides becomes more and more apparent. Driving toward the camp prior to worship I must have passed six or seven vehicles transporting troops to their posts. As I left I passed a convoy of about five vehicles I’ll call armored personnel carriers. Upon arriving at the gate of the camp, I was greeted by several soldiers from Rwanda wearing full riot gear and carrying shields.
We wound our way through the camp. There were some of the lanes that could generously be described as “streets”, although I saw no non-UN vehicles inside the camp. Other passageways, however, could not even be termed “corridors”. As I approached the church we turned into a path that was between a number of tarp and stick shelters that was so narrow I could not walk fully facing forward: I had to lead with my right shoulder and turn so that my left was behind me. It was so narrow that there were places I wondered if I could fit. To say that the camp was crowded would be a grave understatement indeed.
It was hard to notice how crowded I felt because my ears were assaulted by so many sounds! There was singing coming from the building I supposed to be the church; there were people crying; there were people shouting and children playing; and there was the constant drone of gasoline powered generators. Oh, it was sensory overload for this pastor from Pittsburgh!
We entered into the building where worship was to take place, and a large crowd had gathered. I found out later that the “official” count for the morning was 523, but I have no idea when that count was taken because there were always more and more people entering the worship space. I might describe the building as a large “Quonset Hut” – it was constructed mainly of metal and it was like being inside a half-pipe. It was huge!
The worship began, and it was a delight. I mean, the choirs were singing like nobody’s business. A few children broke free from their mother’s arms and rushed to greet me. I was struck by the number of pastors present, and came to understand that there are five faith traditions inside the camp who coordinate their worship in that space. Every six months the leadership changes – but the congregation remains the same. This morning, it was supposed to be an Anglican service, but a white Presbyterian from America preached. There were pastors from (I believe) Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist traditions there as well.
There are things that I hope I never, ever forget from this morning’s worship. Among them:
- Although nobody in the congregation appeared to be in a hurry to be anywhere, the pastor in charge of the worship seemed to be quite worried about keeping time. We (the pastors) were sitting in an area behind the pulpit and the communion table, so anyone who spoke or sang had their backs to us. There was a choir that was enthusiastically launching into the ninth or tenth verse of a chorus, and the pastor got up and went and stood right in front of them and tapped his wristwatch. They stopped about ten seconds after that…
- About an hour later in the service, another man got up to speak about something, and it was clear that the pastor wasn’t crazy about what was being said. When this man had gone on for about five minutes, the pastor tried the old “go out and tap my wristwatch” thing. No effect whatsoever. He sat next to me fuming for a moment, and then he got out his phone and called an usher/deacon in the front row! I know that because I watched a man look at his phone, then look at the pastor, and then get up and go to take the microphone from the offending party. I hope I never complain about a “minute for mission” that lasts four minutes again!
- There was a dog laying under the communion table that got up and walked out just as I started to preach. I was initially offended, but she came back for the end of my sermon and the benediction.
- Oh, beloved – there was so much laughter in the worship service. It was the best sound I’ve heard in a while, to hear laughter in that place, amidst all that noise.
While I was preaching, I was momentarily distracted by the appearance of UN Soldiers in full riot gear just outside the back of the building. That doesn’t usually happen in Crafton Heights. Then I noticed that there were UN Military Police who had entered the worship space. I was confused and not a little concerned until I noticed that they were paying attention to the sermon. And at the end of worship, after the gifts had been exchanged and the benediction offered, this congregation did what every South Sudanese congregation with whom I’ve ever worshiped does: I was the first person out of the building, and then every congregant came out and shook my hand and then extended the line so that at the very end, everyone had greeted everyone else. And know this, beloved: the UN Soldiers came to shake my hand. One of them asked to take a photo with me. If you know me, you won’t be surprised that when I tried to thank these women of the UN for the work they’re doing to protect the South Sudanese, I couldn’t because I was weeping. Oh, how grateful I am!
You might wonder what I could possibly say to this congregation. If you’d like to hear it, there is a very rough recording below. It’s about 25 minutes, and you hear my preaching and then the Nuer translation. I preached mainly from I Samuel 7:5-13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5. I sought to be an encouragement in that God promises to help us where we are – while we are in between our worst day and our best day. And I said that the next time I come to South Sudan, I hope to come to this place and see an “Ebenezer” – a sign that once upon a time, the Nuer people in South Sudan needed a place to be protected, but that was a long time ago, and those people have all gone back to their farms and their communities now.
To hear the sermon as preached, please use the player below. I recorded this for my wife and she suggested that I share it in this format. I hope you find a word of encouragement here (approximately 23 minutes).
It was a good, good worship, and I wish that you’d have been there. I hope that my narration of this has helped you get a sense for what it was like. And please know this: if anything in this post has given even a hint of a suggestion that I do not respect the amazingly resilient people of South Sudan OR the United Nations troops who are staffing this camp, then I have written it poorly. I am humbled by the grace of my sisters and brothers in the Lord here at the UNMISS camp and I am so grateful for and respectful of the work of the UN in this time and place. It was truly an honor to be here.