by Joy Casey
“Church starts at 8?” I ask.
“Yes,” Zerihun replies.
“How long will it take to get there?”
“Oh, about 20-30 minutes.”
“Then we need to leave no later than 7:30,” I reply.
“Oh, no. Probably leaving at 8 will be fine.”
Relax, Joy, and remember that schedules are only for us tightly wound Americans who care about ridiculous things like agendas or plans. Silly me. Church start time is more of a suggestion and doesn’t mean things actually start at 8. I was a little concerned, though, because we planned to visit two churches this morning and the second church begins around 10.
Pulling up to church #1 an hour later, I realize that the stated timeframe of 20-30 minutes is more or less a guess and doesn’t take into consideration road conditions. Minmichygrylem!*
I am looking forward to visiting this church located in a village I have never been to. Blue skies and sunshine buoy my optimism for the day before me. We are planning on building a proper church here to replace the temporary structure built on property donated by a converted mosque leader.
And a lovely piece of property it is, too!
The temporary church is quite large and it was lovely to step into the cool space with light filtering in through the woven walls. We were over an hour late, at least according to my reckoning, yet the church had few people in it. I thought to myself, “We are building a church here – for only these few? This sparce turn-out certainly does not line up with the reports I’ve been getting.”
Scripture was being read as we took our seats. Whole passages of scripture were being read in Amharic and then translated into Hadiyya**. The reading turned out to be John 15 and 16. What a ‘coincidence’ because John 15 was the passage Abebe, our General Manager, had just the night before settled on to preach about. Hummm. Admittedly, I can be a little slow on the uptake, but a glimmer of a God-ordained morning seeped into my spirit. I quieted my mind about being late, dismissed worry about the timing of the next service, and refused to dwell on my disappointment in numbers. When I did that, the soothing sweetness of the Holy Spirit settled my mind replacing anxiety with joy and anticipation for what God is doing in this place. I was overwhelmingly grateful for God allowing me to be here in this land and with these people. I relaxed knowing I am right where I am supposed to be and felt God whisper, “When you are still, you will see what I AM about.”
The choir who, I discovered, leads worship, formed at the front of the church, heads bowed, silently praying. Then the drum began its beat and the choir moved in synch and subdued singing began. At home, the first song is usually lively … kind of wakes you up and gets you in the mood … then the deeper worship songs come after. Here, the softer more introspective songs came first building up to exuberant worship with people, mostly men, moving energetically but everyone singing with all their might.
I was surprised at the volume with so few people in attendance, then looked around to discover that while God was quietly dealing with my attitude, people were filling the benches and the church with the woven walls and tarp roof was packed.
After Abebe shared from John 15 about staying connected to the True Vine, praying ensued in earnest. When the choir formed again for more worship, Zerihun, our Evangelism Director, respectfully explained to Missionary “A” we had to leave to get to the next church – but before leaving we had six solar charged audio bibles to give to those who could not read. “A” quickly identified six in the congregation. As we led those six outdoors to explain how the bibles worked, voices from the choir and congregation followed us out.
The six individuals missionary “A” chose were all elderly and a bit confused about what this little thing placed in their hand was. But once it was turned on and they heard the bible read in their language, huge smiles replaced skepticism and then waves of joy washed over them. I have never seen anything quite like it! They were responding to the recording with “A-men” and “Halleluia” and even began repeating the words to themselves.
These precious people were overjoyed to have God’s Word in their hand; the value and preciousness of it was written all over their faces. Oh God, how great you are!
We all were so happy watching these six marvel over being able to listen to the bible we didn’t care one bit if we completely missed the next church service or not. What God was doing right now was enough. My only wish was to have more bibles for the many more I know cannot read.
Eventually, though, we extricated ourselves and headed out to visit a church constructed a couple of years ago. It was mudded on the inside but not the outside. Because of the drought in this area there was not enough water to finish mudding. Now with the early rain, they will complete it.
We were late of course, and the preaching was in full swing when we unobtrusively as possible took seats that had been reserved for us. As the only white person for miles around, unobtrusive probably isn’t an apt descriptor, at least for me. Sitting across from me was a group of children around ages 8-10-ish.
When the preaching was over, they came to the front of the room and, like the adult choir did in the earlier service, bowed their heads in silence before the drum thrummed and the singing began. It was absolutely delightful to see this Sunday School choir singing for joy!
When I was able to bring greetings to the people, it was with praise for this choir of children and acknowledgement of the people who teach them. We as an organization have put a lot of effort and resources into building a church culture that values children and recognizes their spiritual capacity to hear from God. Miki, who is traveling with me, is the one who has implemented Christian education in all the churches; he also had a big smile on his face seeing the children released to lead the congregation in worship at the close of the service.
Zerihun then picked six people who he knew were unable to read to be shown how to operate an audio bible. Joy! The same scene was repeated in this church yard as in the last. Not only were these six overjoyed to have God’s Words at their fingertips – their church brothers and sisters were equally ecstatic for them. I love this aspect of village culture, this sense of oneness. When one is sad, they all grieve. When one is blessed, they all rejoice.
It was delightful to be with family worshipping God together. We don’t look the same, we are from different cultures and countries and talk differently, but “We are all different parts of the same body, but we all belong to each other.” (Romans 12:5)
When finally we got back to where we were staying and had lunch, we lingered over buna (coffee) or chai (tea) recounting the great things God has done and discussing what His plans might be for the future. One thing I have not talked too much about is the bible training twelve of our missionaries are receiving. Zerihun has designed a unique course of study with practical application and I was all ears as he outlined his 2-year vision for the development of disciples. It is an ambitious undertaking, but exactly fits the last command of Jesus, “Go … and make disciples, teaching them …” and is modeled on Jesus’ example while he lived among us.
We had planned on visiting one of our house churches that meets Sunday afternoon, but the road to that place was impassable even for our sturdy 4WD. Plan B was to have the missionary hire a motor bike and come to us. I enjoyed ever so much listening to missionary “AK” describe the culture of his community and the many obstacles to establishing a Christian presence in his area. I learned so much and have a better understanding of what he is up against. I’ll be sharing details of our conversation with the man who sponsors and prays for “AK”.
Next on the agenda – seems I can’t quite get away from schedules and plans – is to switch gears to orphanage work. We’ll have a day of travel to reach Shashemene, but I am so looking forward to seeing the new baby just brought to us as well as marveling at the growth of all the others since last seeing them in December. Being at our Joyful Place orphanage feeds my soul.
*Minmichygrylem (meh-NEEchee-GRAY-lem) is expressed often. It means ‘no problem’ in Amharic. ሚኒሚቺግሪለም
**There is no hard copy bible written in the Hadiyya language, at least not that we have found. All bibles used in this church are Amharic bibles. I am going to do more research about this.
NOTE: For security reasons, we don’t share anywhere on the internet the names of our missionaries or the villages where they live and work. If they are in a picture, we blur their faces.