Sunday, September 12, 2004

Down By the River

After driving a twisted, windy road out of Yaounde for an hour, we pulled alongside a broad river, the Sanaga, which eventually winds its way to the coast. Bill told me a few amusing river stories, including one in which a fellow missionary and his wife were attacked in a boat by a mother hippo. The missionary survived, but with a horrendous bite taken out of his leg.

The river was calm and peaceful; small wooden boats made their way to the middle of the river, where divers plunged to the bottom for pails of sand. The sand is then unloaded onto the shore, where it is sold to construction crews which arrive in trucks to carry it away.

On this Sunday morning, there was only limited activity on the river. We stopped the Land Rover on the banks for about ten minutes for photos and stretching our legs. We had arrived in Monatele early for worship.

The church, named Bethany, is the country’s smallest Methodist congregation. A group of 18 people were waiting in a small concrete block building. It appears they are nervous and tense – after all, the new missionary and his wife were visiting for the first time! They are welcoming and gracious, but reserved nonetheless.

As Bill and I took our places at the front of the small room, Pastor Jean Blasé started the service. I have noticed that, in each worship service I have attended here so far, the worship leader has opened the service with words about the importance of being aware that God is present. Pastor Jean Blasé is no different: “We have come into God’s house; it is good to be in his presence,” he said.

There are no hymnbooks in this church, so Pastor Jean led us through three or four well-known songs. A choir of four regaled the visitors with a specially-written song about the United Methodist Church in Cameroon! I wish I could understand all of the lyrics, though I could tell that it had something to do with revival and power!

Towards the end of the service, the pastor introduced a couple to the church which had just announced their marriage engagement. Pastor Jean said, “Tell your brothers that Chantal is no longer available to be married; and likewise, tell your sisters that Jean is taken!” The congregation giggled; but Pastor Jean was trying to make a point. He wanted them – and the village – to take this marriage seriously, to see it as a sacred act.

And finally, at the end, Bill formally introduced me as the incoming director of the mission to the congregation. This is becoming a bit of a routine now. But this time, Bill saw an opportunity to hammer home the pastor’s sermon. And he took the opportunity.

Bill chose to reinforce Pastor Jean’s theme that following Christ is a total, uncompromising commitment. “You cannot serve God and the witchdoctor,” he said bluntly. He told me later that it was very common for churchgoers to visit witchdoctors when they wanted a special blessing or favor; it’s a way to “hedge one’s bets” in tough circumstances. Bill says that he and the other pastors have held a firm line on the issue; to be a Christian, one must completely “cross over” to the side of Jesus Christ. You can’t go back and forth, willy-nilly.

Besides, the witchdoctor has a bit of a racket going. If he asks for a crocodile egg in return for breaking a curse, well, where does someone get one of those? Not surprisingly, the witchdoctor will happily “find” one for the sum of 300,000 francs (equivalent of $600) …