Our second full day in West Africa was spent doing something that seemed pretty pointless. The head national pastor, M*, who was our American team’s guide and trip director, had arranged to take us on some “ministry visits.” We knew little else about what the day held as we piled onto the bus that morning. Our bus rumbled along the cratered roads and took us through several towns — the mango stands and cashew-sellers whizzing by. In one town, we stopped to pick up the two young pastors whose ministry sites we’d be visiting – C* and P*.
The scenery became increasingly rural; eventually we turned off the road and started driving out into the seemingly unpopulated landscape. I wondered if the bus was considered an “off-road vehicle” but the West Africans among us didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
And then we came to our first stop (well actually, the bus tires sank into the sand and forced us to a stop; but we had virtually arrived): a village where a young church-plant has taken root and where its members were awaiting our arrival. They had gathered in their building (the one and only church building we’d see that day), though it was quickly determined that we’d have to gather outside due to the number of village-dwellers streaming out to see the visiting tubaabs.
In the shade of a baobab, we sang, we shared, and we prayed. We heard Pastor P* report on how the church was doing. He asked us to keep praying for him and C*; “we are young and uneducated and need help,” he said. For some reason I was brought to tears by this young leader’s humble devotion and open admittance of his need.
We thanked our new friends and bid them farewell. We piled back on the bus and foraged on. We would make 3 other visits to cell groups – a couple in small villages similar to the first, one at a farm where P* is putting into practice his agricultural training, along with the theological. Thanks to some basic farming and micro-enterprise skills that he acquired as part of pastoral training, he now sees that he can live and minister in the village year-round, instead of traveling to the capital city for employment half of the year. At each stop, we had a similar gathering where we met the Christians and listened to their needs and their hearts — as much as could be translated anyway. We Americans were warmly met by everyone present – Christian and nonChristian alike. It was truly humbling to be so welcomed as not only complete strangers but empty-handed foreigners, simply because we were guests and therefore “worthy of honor.” I cringed when I wondered to myself what kind of welcome these West Africans would receive if they traveled to visit me and my countrymen.
The mixture of feelings that I had as we left the last ministry site was beyond even my analytical capabilities. I knew I’d be reflecting on what I’d seen and heard for months to come. In one way, we hadn’t “done” anything and the day seemed pointless. We didn’t get our hands dirty, we left nothing of “value” with our fellow believers, we said no profound words in a language they could understand. Even our observations were lacking the knowledge and cultural insight to mean much. But Pastor M* is wise, and this task-oriented girl is in the process of being refined! So I was confident there was a very real point to our visits.
Back at the hotel that night, Pastor M* thanked us for giving of ourselves and braving the heat, rough roads, and discomfort. I had to fight the urge to blurt out, “But Pastor M*, I don’t know the first thing about giving of myself – not like you and your people!” We’d been learning that to be a Christian in West Africa often meant to give up family and community. Breaking from the religion of the majority is to become, at worst, an outcast – at best, an oddity. In a land where family is everything and daily life is communal, following Jesus is a cross whose weight is impossible to ignore. Oh, how much I can learn from my brothers and sisters there…
But Pastor M* continued, and he explained the significance of our visits by telling a story. “We have a story,” he began, “about a monkey that once came out of the forest. When the villagers saw him, they started laughing because they had never seen a monkey before. ‘What a funny-looking face he has!’ they mocked. Well, the monkey went back into the forest and got his parents, and they went out together. When the villagers saw them all, they stopped laughing and said, ‘Oh look, he has a family that’s just like him. Maybe he doesn’t look so strange after all.’ I tell that story because today was truly encouraging to Pastors C* and P*. You showed them that they have family somewhere.”
The reality for Christians in this part of West Africa, conveyed by Pastor M*’s story, is pretty well beyond my comprehension as an American Christian. Thankfully, my comprehension wasn’t a prerequisite for God to use and teach us that day – nor is it ever.
When my blood-bought identity alone somehow makes me an encouragement to total strangers – strangers who call me sister, no less – there’s really no room for pride or boasting. Only marvel, gratitude, and the prayer that by His grace I’ll live up to that identity.
Photos by Dick Senzig
*This country is a sensitive location, due to its majority Muslim population. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.