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Reflections on Amahoro-Africa May 2007

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TIA
By Brian D. McLaren

Red African dirt. So red, like rust-dust, but brighter in the sun, sparkling hot, pure. Twin tire tracks make our path, short green grass between the parallel red trails, tall green foliage on either side. As we walk side by side, you in your track, I in mine, we’re surrounded by a spherical cloud of hovering dragonflies. There are a few pale olive-green ones, almost invisible against the vegetation, and scores of brown ones with four transparent wings marked by paired brown bars. They follow us as they would follow a herd of buffalo or giraffes or zebra, a squadron of mini-helicopters, hoping our footsteps will stir up some small mosquito from the grass which they can swoop down on, scoop up, and eat in flight.

When we stop walking, they hover for a five or ten seconds, and then they settle motionless on the red dirt around us, wings spread like a little girl’s barrettes. When we begin walking again, they arise as one, a cloud of whirring wings in which we move as if attended by angels. Above us, strange birds call, moving among the high branches.

This is what it is like to walk the dusty roads of rural East Africa. Overhead, the yellow-beaked kites circle and soar, constant companions. A gangly stork may fly among them, towing along its oversized feet, or a flock of weaver birds may swirl above us like smoke, chattering, yellower and blacker than bumblebees, drawn homeward to their village of hanging nests, woven grass teardrops dangling like ornaments from white-thorned acacia branches.

Everywhere, it seems, there is the distant sound of children laughing, and in many places at seemingly any time of day or evening, there will also be the sound of singing because church has a way of breaking out anywhere under an elder tree or in a windowless shelter or behind a wall of corrugated tin. Pentecostal joy is itself a revolutionary manifestation of the kingdom of God in the land of HIV, Idi Amin, civil war, genocide, and breathtaking poverty.

If we walk into town, the dusty roads give way to packed clay, mud puddles, deep ruts, sometimes slick and sometimes sticky. Shacks and ramshackle homes jostle with shops, stalls, booths: barber shops, beauty shops, little stores selling everything – phone cards, cell phones, fruits, vegetables, a goat carcass, cow stomachs, little dried fish, big smoked fish (refrigeration is not even imagined here), beer, peanuts in little paper cones, used but highly polished shoes, small stools, irons, clay ovens, charcoal, sugarcane, colorful fabric. Children scramble, goats browse, pigs sleep under a bush, a three-legged cow hobbles from tuft to tuft along the roadside, and cars and trucks and vans and buses scream by, impossibly fast, dangerously close, barely respecting the fading memory of lanes and laws, a kind of commonplace mania of frantic speed and wild trust between drivers in one another’s way.

If we visit an informal settlement – a squatter area or slum, by whatever name - the red dirt and clay often go darker and darker, sometimes turning mucky and mealy black, with greenish and yellowish puddles and smells that could make you retch on a hot, windless day. But then comes a breeze and it’s frying potatoes you smell, or roasting chicken, and there’s almost always a sweet fragrance of woodsmoke that you taste as much as smell. Not far away, a church choir has come to sing and a crowd gathers, some people singing along, others tiptoeing through the muck, holding up their skirts to dodge puddles. Fewer goats here, but lots of chickens, always scratching about, heads bobbing.

TIA – you hear it a lot these days: this is Africa, where God is alive and where Pentecost is perpetual, hope and joy jostling with hunger and fear like trucks and scooters in the chaos of Kampala’s traffic.

This is the context for the experience that about 40 guests shared with about 160 East Africans in early May 2007 – people from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. There were Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, even an Eastern Orthodox sister at one of our gatherings. We were black, white, colored … from the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Korea, Australia, Liberia, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and South Africa. We met in Mokona, Uganda, just north of Kampala, and then divided into teams to visit churches and leaders in rural Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya before returning to debrief and share our experiences. We represented “the church that is emerging” – emerging from the colonial mindset, the modern mindset, the nationalist mentality, the denominational and sectarian assumptions, the old polarities of left and right, liberal and conservative. We came together for dialogue around the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Is that gospel a message of evacuation – how God will airlift some of us out of this world and its problems, how God wants us to huddle in a holy warehouse between now and then, enjoying blessings and the joys of a church subculture? Or is that gospel a call to incarnation and transformation, to live out the message of God’s kingdom so we, like salt and light, like yeast in bread or seeds in soil, bring new possibilities to our world?

In the coming days and weeks, you’ll hear from a variety of voices sharing moments, memories, insights, questions, and choices that have arisen during and from our gathering. None of us can put our experience into words, but all of us need to try to share what we have seen, felt, thought, and learned together, for our own benefit and the benefit of others too.

Here are some of my own memories.

Benny Hinn posters everywhere. “We like Benny Hinn,” a Ugandan member of parliament told me. “He gives our people hope. They feel that they are locked in poverty, but Benny tells them that God can bless them.” What if their hopes are raised at the crusade and then nothing changes? I ask. “Then they are disillusioned,” he adds, implying that their post-crusade disillusionment is no worse than their pre-crusade despair. I see his point, but still wonder.

A Ugandan man tells us that the ever-present local Benny wannabe’s promise healing from HIV if only the infected will give the “man of God” their car or home or property. When they “sow their seed” and the promised healing or prosperity doesn’t come, a backlog of disillusioned people accumulates. Sometimes they become angry, so the prosperity preachers have to spend some of their own prosperity on armed guards. TIA.

In Nairobi, our group visited two slums, the famous Kibera (featured in “The Constant Gardener”), and a smaller but equally poor “second hand slum” nearby. A small Pentecostal church of about 60 people, City Harvest, led by Pastor Charles, does more in these slums than many “prosperity churches” of multiple thousands, incarnating the gospel in the form of an HIV clinic and support groups in the slums for those living with AIDS. One afternoon, our group of about 20 gathered in a tiny, dark, corrugated tin hut, one dead light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the only illumination coming in through the open door and from the half-circles where tin meets tin. We listened to stories of women living with HIV, single and abandoned mothers bearing burdens none of us can imagine, and we could hardly talk, eyes brimming and throats choked up not simply by sadness, but also by beauty: at least one church is here, we thought. At least one pastor and those he has trained care and walk among these people in this black muck and desperate need, and that is beautiful beyond words.

Two nights later, I was with a group of about a dozen young Kenyans at the opposite end of the spectrum: lawyers, doctors, business owners, engineers, teachers, workers with NGO’s. I could have been with any group of young adults in Stockholm, London, Santiago, Seattle, or Boston. Too often, the conventional church was no longer working for these educated young Africans. It focused on getting souls saved, building bigger buildings, and attracting bigger crowds, but its gospel ignored the systemic injustice, corruption, poverty, violence, and suffering in which these young adults had come of age. One young woman told me, “I work at an NGO that is staffed by young Kenyans like myself. All of us grew up in the church, but not one of my colleagues identifies himself as a Christian. They call themselves agnostics or atheists. But it is the god of the personal prosperity gospel that they have rejected. Their desire to make a difference shows that they really have faith in a God that nobody talks about – the God who cares about justice, poverty, oppression, and suffering.”

Back in Uganda, a young woman talks with me. She too has been to college, and she too loves God but is seeking for an understanding of the gospel and church that makes more sense in today’s Africa. “Do you really have hope that the church can change?” she asks. “Yes,” I tell her, and recount stories of churches that are living out a transformational, incarnational, integral gospel around the world. She doesn’t smile. She’s seen too many religious promises and too much religious hype and experienced too much disillusionment. She’ll wait and see if anything comes of our conference.

Something will come. I could feel it as we sang and danced together with joy before God. The resilience of Africans is a sign of resurrection, a joy that moves the feet and a faith that can move mountains. The air vibrates with it, hums with it, like the cloud of dragonflies that hover around us as we walk together on red African soil. TIA.