Rev. Ernest Ndahani, Gershon Maloda, Rev. Daniel Madole, Revocatus Gwihangwe
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
These men arrived in African cotton clothing at Dulles International Airport on a cold January 5th. A seminary staff member graciously met them with winter clothing for all.
REFLECTIONS ON AMERICA BY FOUR VISITING STUDENTS
Virginia Theological Seminary January 5-28, 2012
Usually at this time of year, we are writing about the undependable rainy season and how planting has been done and then the rain stops, predicting mass crop failure. Alas, this year is no different. Much of Tanzania is on the brink of disaster. There is a critical need for rain right now. That is just the way things are.
We are moved this year to write about the experiences and reflections of four students who went from Msalato Theological College to spend the month of January at Virginia Theological Seminary. Rev. Ernest Ndahani, Rev. Daniel Madole, Revocatus Gwihangwe, and Gershon Maloda are in their final year in the Bachelor of Applied Theology degree program. They went through the required formalities of obtaining visas and passports, but this is not as trouble-free as it sounds.
First, many Tanzanians do not have birth certificates and consequently, have no recorded birth dates, so they are required to return to their home villages, do stacks of paperwork, find witnesses, etc. Often a clue will come from the person’s name. For instance, naming a child for the season in which they are born is common. If someone’s name is Mamvula, which in the local language means rain, then she was born between December and March. One must choose a birthday if there are no other indicators and no one in the family can remember. January 1 is by far the most popular!
The students flew Qatar Airlines to Doha and Dulles. They stayed in a vacant faculty house and took a three-week course, Christian Social Ministry, taught by Rev. Elbert Ransom Ph.D., an Afro-American adjunct professor at VTS and clergyman from Alexandria. After three-hour mornings classes, they visited community service locales such as Carpenter’s Shelter (for the homeless), Department of Human Services (JobLink), and the Alexandria Adult Detention Center. This proved to be a rich learning experience.
They also had three different worship experiences: Trinity Arlington, a broadly diverse church led by Mother Kim Coleman, an African American priest; St. Clement’s Alexandria, mostly white middle and upper class; and Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominately black congregation.
Ms. Katherine Wood, Associate Director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies at VTS, coordinated the entire trip andagenda for these students. With gentleness and grace, she performed a time consuming, detail-oriented task that involved everything from procuring winter clothing to coordinating transport for all their outings and dinner commitments. Places visited include the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Monument, Smithsonian National Aerospace and Science Museum and the Human Origins’ Exhibit, Capitol, White House, Holocaust Museum and the Library of Congress. They saw and learned a great deal. Revocatus was especially moved by the Holocaust Museum. "I read about World War I and II in history in high school, but I never could have imagined this." He wept on seeing the pile of shoes.
Sandra interviewed the men on their return to Msalato. Her primary questions were:
1. What were your general impressions of the U.S. and Virginia Seminary (VTS)?
2. What are the blessings of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.?
3. What are the challenges of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.?
4. How will this experience change your ministry in Tanzania?
It is difficult to summarize all of their impressions. Following is a brief synopsis.
People: Overwhelmingly, the men found Americans to be friendly, helpful, generous and kind. Ernest said, "I found everything I expected and even more. I had studied racism, but when I went I found it was so different. We shared together." They were surprised that people volunteer in social agencies and in churches to do ministry with the poor. They were impressed with the lack of hierarchy that is so prevalent in Tanzanian society. Each one mentioned to Sandra that even the Dean of Virginia Seminary personally welcomed them the first day and that he ate lunch "at the same table" with students in the refectory. The fact that students and teachers interacted freely together prompted Ernest to add, "There was no fear." Gershon and Daniel both wondered, "Could could ever be in Tanzania?"
The men concurred that many aspects of the environment and work were orderly and neat. Ernest exclaimed, "Everything was perfect!" For example, they noted that the VTS campus was clean with no papers, plastic bags or bottles anywhere on the grounds. They mentioned how well Washington DC was laid-out with many phenomenal museums. They noticed that church services were organized with bulletins handed to every person so all could be informed. They were impressed by how much work the parish priests did to prepare services and sermons. They all commented on how hard working Americans are, how well they keep time and how busy everyone is, even on Sunday rushing through a cup of coffee after the service with little time to visit.
Transport: Being in an airplane for the first time was scary for some of them, especially for Gershon who immediately noted that there was no steering wheel in the cockpit! Other than for the turbulence, they enjoyed the flight, especially the movies. On the ground, they were amazed at the quality of the roads, at the overpasses and tunnels, and at the number of cars. It was a real shock to them that hardly anyone rode the buses. "Almost everyone in America has a car. We often saw very large, nice buses with only 2 people on them." They liked the metro and Daniel said, "I was surprised that there is also life underground." Many of the more than 1000 pictures taken featured a host of highway signs, tunnels, road traffic, car-laden parking lots and large near-empty buses, all things mechanical and food.
The men had an interesting perspective on the cost of cars and houses. For Americans, cars are relatively cheap compared to the cost of a house. In Tanzania, houses are relatively cheap and cars are, for most people, out of reach.
Food: "You can drink water directly out of the tap!" All were amazed at the varieties of food and at the fact that there were choices. They are used to their staple foods with scant change from day to day. Gershon, pictured below, said, "I was surprised by the varieties. You have options. Here there is no way out. You have to eat ugali and beans."
Social Issues/Politics: Each man was astounded to see that America has poor people. Rev. Madole’s reaction: "I was surprised there were poor people in America, that there are people who are homeless and jobless, that there is a place where people can go who have no food. I thought that in a country like America these things cannot be found. I asked myself why these people are homeless and why they don’t have something to eat. I think the Americans are helping all countries, but I wonder why they don’t support these people—to build a house for them, to make sure they have a job. The people [at JobLink] look very discouraged. The church can help these people, but these people belong to the government. The government can tax the rich people more to help the poor."
They listened intently to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Gershon commented, "Obama did not mention roads or electricity. That is the first thing a president in Tanzania will talk about—making [empty] promises for more roads and electricity. Obama was talking about clean energy, increasing employment and increasing taxes on the rich so everyone could have health care and other things. I wish our government leaders could go for three weeks to learn how we could change. The public housing in America is like embassies here."
What are the blessings of the Episcopal Church?
Most mentioned the fact that people are well educated and that all the churches have their own websites so communication is easy. They observed preaching in word and deed. They were amazed by people volunteering without any pay to help the poor; by feeding the homeless every Sunday in one church; and by people being allowed to even sleep in some churches.
Gershon - "People in America are very rich. They have money to build the churches and to support the pastor. The pastors are well paid, even if they say it is little, because they have facilities and none of them have to struggle to send their children to primary school. At every church you can get a cup of coffee and something to eat. That is a blessing."
Revocatus - "The way the Episcopal Church and VTS handle interfaith relationships, especially with Muslims, is very positive."
What are the challenges of the Episcopal Church?
Ernest - "Community seems more an idea there than a reality in local society. Life is individualistic so if someone is struggling then he or she could be in total isolation—nobody is always there. You could be totally alone. Dr. Hadler told us that social gatherings are often in restaurants, as opposed to neighborhoods and churches."
Gershon - "In America you need balance of youth, elders and children [in church.] Mostly old people in US. What will happen in 20 years with so few young people in church? Need evangelism."
Revocatus - "The number of Episcopal churches compared to others in the U.S. is low, so there is a need for evangelism."
Daniel - "The church we went for the first time said a group had departed to go to a nearby church. Why?"
Ernest - "The people in America have everything they need, as far as food, equipment, and the material things they need for living, so they might take these for granted. But for people like us from the outside who struggle for these things, they are blessings from God."
When Ernest said this, Sandra asked him if the disparity challenged his faith. He answered: "Maybe not challenged, but I am struggling." Then he related an incident in class. "Dr Ransom asked us in the classroom: ‘Who is God?’ I had never been asked that question, but I had answered it for myself. Before I had always thought that God is love, in terms of my understanding of what love is. But having been in the U.S. and seeing the way lifestyle is (including homeless, jobless and prisoners) I explained in class saying that God cannot be understood by our own minds. He is bigger than we think and although we say He is love, but the way He loves is not the way we understand, nevertheless He is. All we can say is ‘He IS.’ He is bigger than we think.
Daniel - Did the disparity challenge your faith? No, everyone has a different perspective about faith, but how I understand Jesus is that He is my friend here. And God is good. We are all one family. Why these people [in America] have all these things—maybe there are some reasons we don’t understand.
What are ways your ministry in Tanzania might be changed after this experience?
In understanding the students’ responses, some background might be helpful. The Anglican Church in this diocese was brought by conservative evangelicals from England in the latter half of the nineteenth century when the great emphasis was on personal salvation and the afterlife, not on holistic ministry and caring for God’s creation on earth.
Revocatus - "I was very challenged by the way the church in America makes centers for people like Christ House (hospital for homeless), Carpenter’s Shelter, JobLink, especially Elder Care for the elders in society whose families have abandoned them. We also have people in the street. I find that I am now convinced that social ministry must be part of my ministry and my life."
"The class has taught me to be gentle and to speak up for the sinner, as that was the mission of Christ. Absolutely, I will preach differently. Now I have confidence to bring the love of Christ to the dehumanized, especially to the prostitutes and homosexuals that we do not recognize."
Daniel - "Trinity Episcopal Church is dealing with those that are homeless. They can sleep in the church. This challenged me to think about other ways to help people with problems."
Gershon - "We don’t have such things as JobLink or Elder Care or shelters. I have good friends who have a university education and cannot get a job. I think I could convince even my bishop to have such things for our people. I feel like I am now able to stand and talk about the need for social ministry in our churches. We have old people in Tanzania coming to church that get no support from the government or their family. If a church could provide some food for them, it would be very helpful, rather than just preaching to them. My preaching will also be different now. I will use soft language to be against something. Judgment is not what I will preach now."
Ernest - "I was challenged in America to come back to work hard, to struggle, and always to think I can do more and better. I learned from a social worker I interviewed how to set boundaries. That helped me, because a pastor can easily burn out from on-going dependency. I now know that I can say I can do ‘a’ and ‘b’ but not ‘c’ and ‘d.’ The other important thing I learned was that Americans do not fear failure. Our mindset here is so hurtful to our culture, but we could do things differently. I want to change the way we do things and think about how we can work out new ways of thinking."
MTC now has had eight students who have spent one month at Virginia Seminary (VTS.) This opportunity was made possible by a grant from Trinity Wall Street to VTS, with four people going to the US in 2010 and four in 2012, with VTS students coming here in 2011. It may seem so little, but Incarnational ministry, as Jesus of course proved, spreads well beyond its borders.
The witness and change in outlook these students have brought back cannot be measured (and we pray vice versa.) The biggest change is, not unexpectedly, their change in their views of the other—and this includes Americans in general, the Episcopal Church, women, homosexuality, their sin lists and so forth. These men will be leaders in the church here and their influence will be deep and wide across this entire country.
The second change is how their eyes have been opened to servant leadership and all that that entails from the classroom to the churches to the streets. And third, Sandra now has advocates on this campus for caring for the environment. To a person, the eight people have come back to tell the student body how well Americans use their dustbins! Gershon reported, "I now understand that I cannot miss manual work." (the students are asked to help clean the campus two hours per week.) The difference in the appearance of our campus in the past three years is refreshing.
A final poignant vignette related by Ernest
"The VTS students and we were talking one night and they were naming their struggles—whether to go on to school, take a job in a school or a church, etc. When we got back to our house that night Gershon and I realized we had not shared, and we knew it was for the same reason. There is no way those students could understand our struggles. These people are spending on this and this and here I am thinking of the smallest things that my family needs. It is hard to make them realize our choices are very different—their choices are not my choices. I felt pity for myself that I couldn’t afford what others so easily have. It is difficult so how can I make sense of this—it was a struggle—why such a huge difference in life?" When I pressed him on why he did not try to make them understand, he feared not only that they could not comprehend but also that they might think he was asking for a handout.
The interview stories were very hard to listen to and absorb. We hope you have been challenged, as we have, by hearing about the United States from the perspective of four African students. It was a challenge for them to get there and to make their observations. It is a challenge for all of us to look at things from a different perspective, incorporating some of their insight and seeing our world though a different lens.
By the way, we have gotten good rains this past week. Continue to pray for rain.
With much love and joy,
Sandra and Martin