If you are in certain circles, you may likely hear some wonderful stories regarding the ‘birth’ of the CRC in Sierra Leone. You may hear that it was a truly international event, with witnesses from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Canada and USA. You may hear of the dedication and sacrifices made by women like Kumba, to work eighteen hour days and sleep on the floor of a ‘spare’ room packed with sixteen others, so as to be on hand to prepare food for hundreds of visitors to Foria. You may hear wonderful things regarding John Phiri, the Zambian pastor, who has come to nurture, encourage and train leadership in the SL church (and, BTW, he is a joy to be around!). You may hear of the forty-three who spent months in preparation to be baptized, culminating in this event. You may hear that people walked for over thirty miles from more than ten villages to participate. You may hear… many things… all true, all good.
What you might not hear is that the road down which trucks needed to come bearing supplies and visitors from around the globe was all but impassable two weeks prior to the event. Only one of CES’s three trucks was equipped to handle the boulders on one stretch of the road, so Bokary, the chief of Foria, ordered a ‘bypass’ to be expedited. You also may not know that the rocks in a nearby stream were deemed too slippery to be safe (several days prior to the baptisms which transpired there) and that a team of young men from the village went out to scrub each and every one. It may not be immediately apparent that for a village the size of Foria, containing just over one hundred houses, to take in close to five hundred visitors, every household needed to welcome guests. Even knowing these extra tid-bits of information may not strike you as all that significant, unless you realize that Chief Bokary is a devout Muslim. Seventy percent or more of Foria’s thousand residents are Muslim. That ratio certainly applies to the voluntary labor that went into preparing the road and streambed. It also applies to the households who welcomed guests.
It’s a mystery to me what factors create religious tension in some parts of the globe but not others. It’s said that greater education leads to greater tolerance but sometimes I think that religious tension in North America is abated by people’s ‘nominalism’ or lack of real passion and conviction about what they believe. In this case, a visit from the chief made things fairly clear. He had been witness to the work of Christian Extension Services (CES) for decades. They had seen how the village’s women could now get clean water from a source near their houses. They had seen that uneducated adults could become literate. They had seen how women trained to become traditional birth attendants had drastically reduced the mortality rate of infants and mothers. They had been witness to the church caring for all people – especially after the war when seed rice was so desperately needed. Therefore, though Bokary and a number of the other influential village elders are Muslim, they committed to holding people of both faiths equally and allowing the church to flourish.
As big a ‘deal’ as the weekend was, I believe that an event can be planned and executed in a matter of weeks if the right resources are allocated to it. An honest celebration of the true birth or inauguration of a church, however, seems to depend on growth from seeds faithfully planted over years. A church that tries to serve as part of the ‘body’ (eyes, ears, hands) of Christ doesn’t emerge quickly, and for this I respect the work of my parents-in-law and others who have given their lives to the task and the hope of its development. Very late in his life, Pa Momorie, the old village Imam and father to Marah, one of Aaron’s field assistants and co-pastor to the church in Foria, confided to Paul and Mary: “When you came, we watched. We watched, and waited to see what you would be like. Mostly, it was good.” This was a big concession for an imam to make – and if stories serve correct, he hadn’t come to this assessment easily.
Being ‘witness’ and ‘testament’ to the grace of God is a humbling endeavor. It’s joyful and scary to see this ‘birth’ taking place, and to know how acutely it will be watched. The words of the pastor who spoke during the ordination of M.B Jalloh and Ben Koroma were insightful as they alluded to this. Essentially: “you (congregation) will know of these men’s failings better than I can ever point them out to you. You can condemn them and smear them into the ground or you can lift them up and encourage them. You must ask for their best and expect it, and help them to become it in the areas where they struggle. The health of the church depends on what you choose.”
Pa Fatelay with his 'Certificate of Baptism': a possession prized so highly that he fled with it and the shirt on his back during the war. He will tell you of the lengths that he went to protect it from rain, fire and other hazards.
So, today we give thanks. And we pray that we, with the whole church, may learn to hold all of God’s people and creation well, putting up as few faulty barriers as possible as God works though us to make himself known.