A Mission in Africa Finds Simplicity: A Magnet toward the Trinity
My wife and I began our vacation from the world last Friday evening with a journey into a new continent. Alright, we didn’t actually get to leave the country, but our church was hosting a presentation on mission work in Africa.
“Papa Emoru and Mama Apua,” the speakers called themselves. I actually knew papa: a selfless priest from Connecticut, along with his wife, were there to share their experiences into a new region of the world. These names were given to them by the local tribes.
It started off with a Lenten meal, as of course Pascha (Easter) is late for us this year in May (off topic, but this day is the one feast we surely observe according to the old “Julian” calendar for those wondering why). I am confident that we eat better during lent – there are so many yummy dishes made that, despite being animal-product free, are not only healthy but plentiful. But this is to be thankful for, because Father Vladimir is about to talk with his wife about an area that has little food and virtually no choice in the matter to fast; camels and goats are the main source of food in the desert regions of Kenya.
Through the OCMC, or Orthodox Christian Mission Center, volunteers are sent to areas in Kenya like Turkana, Nakutan, Laupwala and more. There are even many other countries around the world on different continents that they send aid to. What struck me about Kenya, however, is how Christianity has evolved into a central focus of the tribesmen and tribeswoman without taking away their culture or their values. Not to say that culture is robbed in other countries, but this stood out to me as I was listening to the talk. And you’ll see why.
A well and a church were built, all with the help of father and matushka, but this was only secondary to the true reason they were there. To spread the love of Christ to those who are less fortunate and who need a vision of hope beyond the reality of poverty, war or disease – and that’s where it gets particularly fascinating. We all know that Christ’s love is immaterial; to some this is theoretical no matter how strong our faith remains. We all learn that we do not need possessions or riches, fancy buildings or specially designed chalices to journey toward a connection with the ineffable and immutable. But in villages such as these, 42 tribes to be exact, where liturgy can be held under a tree (yes the tree is their church) in over 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, and where some travel by foot for hours, we more than learn of simplicity. We know it by example and witness to these extraordinary measures of faith in our Lord.
Although the main cities in Kenya are largely “westernized” (clothing, etc.), these villages are not. From their dress, to their hair and marks on their skin, who they are culturally is left unchanged. That is the beauty of Christianity, and, especially Orthodoxy, as I pointed out in my last post Reaching Youth through Modern Venues Part II: Orthodoxy has survived over the years largely because it allows those who worship Christ to not lose their culture but rather enhance their faith through it. And so that is what we have here. It’s solid. Traditions are kept: dancing and singing before and after services, amongst other traditions, are not lost. Even liturgy is in their language – no matter which tribe. And their version of a feast after liturgy is watching their guests eat, and if there is any left over, they split it amongst themselves. Actually, I learned that anytime they ate, their guests would eat first, and if there was not anything left over then the host would go without.
“How can this be?” I initially asked myself, being rather uncultured and ignorant, “I cannot grasp how Orthodox Christianity, let along Christianity, could be so seamlessly integrated and accepted by these fine people of Africa.” But after hearing more from Papa Emoru and Mama Apua, it dawned on me. Hearing them speak of the shaman who found Christ, knowing that he was going to be visited by the missionaries through Christ speaking to him in his heart, and seeing a tribesman sitting on the ground with a cross in his hand – symbolizing that Christ is all he needs and all his needs would be taken care of – I realized exactly why Christianity is able to survive and grow in Kenya. I saw why there are, just with Orthodoxy alone (which is a minority in the Christian population) 198 priests, 294 churches, 12 deaneries, 15 nursery schools and 2 colleges. I discovered why, despite the slaughter by invading militants with guns, in the face of poverty and regardless of resources, Christ can be a central focus in their lives. It is because of the simplicity of love. That’s what Christ truly represents. The simplicity of life allows the Holy Spirit to come to them despite misfortune, or despite traditions that are contrary to the message of Christianity (beating of kids, or multiple wives, for example). Why? Because they also have traditions that are congruent to Christianity that many of us do not have or know here in secularized America: living without, doing with less, giving hearts, constant joyful attitudes and abundant love that radiates from their heart and is seen clearly in their eyes and their smiles… even taking care of the elderly and orphans as a community. That’s before they knew Christ. Thus, they have more room in their hearts for the Word of God. “They are not tied to a building,” Father Vladimir spoke, “as their body is their temple.”
By the end of the presentation and after a prayer – known as an ode to all saints of Africa – my heart had been won over. The importance of this work had surfaced into the forefront of my mind. It was told to us that anyone can dedicate their time to do mission work such as this. Even father and matushka doubted themselves at first, but they ended up going back three more times. I hope I can have the courage to. It’s hard for many of us being in the comfort of our homes, though, isn’t it? For many of us, we do not need to protect ourselves with guns, or worry about what is for dinner. But even if you can’t go overseas to do work, there is more you can do. Our church donated money to help missionaries like the one papa and mama continue to heroically assist. That is the least of how we could support those in need and who are just waiting to connect the message of Christ – the invisible – to their visible lives of simplicity. Simplicity… The people of Kenya who I was introduced to through the presentation, in this way, have an advantage that is hard for one to grasp in this world of want and greed.
If you would like to donate to their next mission, please click on the button below, or to find out other ways to help or donate please visit the OCMC website.
What a wonderful way this was to start my vacation! I feel I am brought to these experiences to not only learn and ponder over but also to share with you, my audience. Stay tuned for my next post that is a bit different – another experience on my vacation but this time near Cooperstown at a brewery… I know, a brewery… you just know I am going to find worldly trouble there!
Love in Christ,