Or, How I Came to Africa: A Love Affair
It kind of surprised me as I looked back over almost a year of posts that I have hardly blogged at all about Africa, something which is so central to my identity and ministry. I guess as time marches on and Africa disappears farther and farther into my past, the reality of my present situation outweighs any experience I had there. Do you think the uniqueness of who I have become because of that place will eventually disappear altogether? Sometimes I ask myself that question. And, as much as sometimes I don't like being different from everyone else, I also don't want what makes me unique to disappear.
The other question I always ask myself is if I will ever make it back to Africa. I am afraid to answer that question. I am afraid the answer might be no, and I don't know if I can accept that. I don't want to always be on this side of the Atlantic looking out across it at great distance, as if it were a lover I abandoned a long, long time ago.
I was last on the African continent in July of 2003. That was a month-long visit to Cameroon, the primary purpose of which was to help my husband Pierre emigrate to the United States. Prior to that, I lived and served as a missionary in Ngaoundere, Cameroon, from August of 2000 to July of 2002.
The first time I was in Africa, though, was for a trip to Tanzania in the summer of 1999.
I would really like to be able to express to you in words how that trip changed my life; I'm just not sure if it is possible.
Have you ever had a moment in your life that was so magical and wonderful that it seemed surreal? That was the way the entire summer of 1999 was for me. The best way that I can describe that time in my life is that I fell in love; everything around me after that summer had this magical, wonderful, shimmering glow. My perspectives on the world and education and religion and what really matters all changed. Some of my problems didn't seem so important anymore. Other things seemed more important than ever.
One of my really personal memories happened after I returned from Tanzania. I was walking down Main Street in Salem, Virginia, right up the street from my college, and this girl walked by. She was talking on her cell phone. Blah, blah, blah... I don't really remember what she was talking about. What I do remember is what I thought: The whole world had been turned upside down, and it seemed like I was the only person on the planet who knew it or even gave a damn.
It seems virtually impossible for me to explain to you what it was that so shook me up, got inside me and turned me upside down and inside out. Maybe an example will suffice.
Part of what I was doing that summer at Roanoke College was writing an honors paper on the Lutheran Church in Tanzania and the process of inculturation, which is basically the phenomenon of the gospel message taking on certain attributes, symbols, and traditions of the local culture. An example of this would be illustrating Jesus as a black man in Africa or an Arab in the Middle East. Another example would be offering... in Africa, it is often less about passing the plate and more about your first fruits: grain from your harvest, a goat from your field, a live chicken. Try sitting through a worship service while two live chickens with their legs tied together flap around on top of the altar!
One of the things that I learned very quickly during my time in Tanzania (and later in Cameroon) is that a lot of the Christian theology, doctrine, and tradition that I learned in college (and later in seminary) are very entitled. What I mean is that it is very convenient to believe certain things and practice your religion in a certain way and have a sense of entitlement about it, until you go somewhere else where the same rules just don't apply. The people in my current congregation would have a cow if someone brought chickens into the sanctuary! They have enough problems if the poinsettias aren't all lined up properly or the Christ candle is in the wrong spot. They have enough problems because we have switched our communion practices to intinction. We all complain about things that don't really matter a whole lot, when you think about it (Oh, they matter to us... they just don't matter much in the grand scheme of things).
The summer of 1999 showed me that I am NOT the center of the universe.
My theology is NOT the center of the universe.
My tradition is NOT the center of the universe.
My church is NOT the center of the universe.
My GOD is the center of the universe.
God made us all so unique and beautiful. God gave us minds to think, hearts to feel, and ears to hear. God gave us a message that is so universal that it can be practiced and believed in so many different ways. The only thing that remains the same is that Jesus Christ died and rose again to save us. Whether that Jesus was black or white, whether we offer him chickens or $20 bills, whether we take communion on our knees or in passing by dipping in a cup, it doesn't really matter. The only thing that really matters is that the Christians in America and Tanzania and Cameroon and the Middle East and Costa Rica and everywhere else worship the same Jesus Christ.
What was so special about the summer of 1999? In some ways, it was realizing my own obscurity. I am so small, and the world is so big and cruel and hard. So much of what I do doesn't matter to anyone but me. It was in learning of my obscurity that I gained the greatest gift... I gained a peek into what it truly means to be a Child of God.
I am wonderfully and beautifully made.
The same God who made me also made the dusty streets of Africa.
The same God who made me also made the tall Maasai and the towering Baobab.
The same God who made me also made those chickens on that altar.
The same God who made me also made a planet where America and Tanzania can co-exist.
So different, and yet so similar. So far apart, and yet so strangely near to one another.
Our God is an awesome God.