I’ve recently returned from Kenya where Michael Aguanda leads the ministry of “Life for Children” which places AIDs orphans in village homes. He invited me to review the work and teach a five day pastor’s school to 70 African independent pastors, all of whom are Pentecostal.
I prepared a notebook of five Lukan miracles and parables, a seminar on the Apostles’ Creed, and an hour on a simple way to pray for the sick. My question was this: Can I, through a translator, help African pastors grasp not only what Luke said about Jesus, but how he said it in large blocks of text.
The first day was awful because I made a false assumption. I saw them as homogenous since they were all black and Kenyan, but they were not all alike. I assumed they knew each other, but — with few exceptions — they were strangers. Add to that the tribal differences and you see the complexity. And me, a white guy from the U.S. with handouts and charts!
Once they got settled into the Catholic retreat house and had times of singing and praying together, the event blossomed. When I told them the complex harmonies of their a cappella singing and the syncopated rhythms of their clapping can still be heard in the African-American churches of South Carolina, it was a contact point. The initial field trial was positive. They like it when someone using the tools of scholarship and pastoral experience unfolds the stories of Jesus and makes relevant cultural applications.
One evening I gave a long lecture on the Apostles’ Creed. One of the bishops stood and said, “Our fathers never told us the Creed, and now you show us how it is as important as our Bibles if we are to be truly apostolic and Trinitarian, but what about the word ‘catholic’? Our people will not understand.”
I was bumping against a big prejudice, but the answer was easy. “It’s from the Greek ‘kataholos,’ Latin ‘catholicus,’ meaning ‘according to the whole’ or ‘universal.’ So in the Luo translation of the Creed, make sure to use your word for ‘universal.’” It’s a good translation and solves the problem.
I then took a risk. Would they overcome their fears and confess together the ancient apostolic faith? I asked them to turn to the Swahili translation in the manual and invited them to stand. I then asked Barnabas, my translator, to lead them. He Africanized it by intuition into a call-and-response format. He gave the first line, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” and they roared it back in unison, and so through every line one after the other. It was nearly a shout. They were confessing the apostolic faith for the very first time!
Before the week of lectures I spent several days walking through huge slums and over ditches of raw sewage to make home visits — rather hut visits. I walked at night among dark corners of the city of Kisumu where homeless young prostitutes wait outside hotels for Western tourists and where little platoons of homeless boys live and sleep on street corners under store awnings.
Most of their parents and grandparents are dead of HIV/AIDs. I spoke a word of encouragement to each group. We then distributed milk and bread. They sat on the curb in long rows, looked up at us and said, “God bless you.”
The untold story of the growth of the church in the third world is how vibrant Christian faith, with a Pentecostal spin, is being joined to communal capitalism and group entrepreneurship to raise the standard of living and give hope to the poor with the help of micro-loans. Christianity may now be on the defense here in America because of our too-easy compromise with the culture and its values, but in other places with few of our comforts, the faith is thriving because Jesus Christ means hope and life, now and later.
My plea is this. Find some way to reach for a piece of Christ’s mission, whether it’s across the street or around the world. Just a bit beyond your comfort zone is a world of juicy, lively, risky, thrilling experience with the risen Lord.
Phil Thrailkill is pastor at Main Street United Methodist Church in Greenwood. His weekly sermons are found at msumc1.org. He can be reached at Pthrailkil@aol.com or 864-229-7551.