Friday, December 03, 2004

A Village Story

The modern-day Methodist circuit ridin’ preacher doesn’t saddle horses. He rides in a 4-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser, just like I did last Saturday!

Pastor Jean-Daniel Billong, who works in the mission office as my assistant, has been begging me to come visit his home village. He keeps telling me that the people in his village desperately want a Methodist church, even though the Mission has been unable to plant one there yet.

So I decided to go. I was planning to visit Jericho UMC in Douala for the weekend anyway, so I told him that we could make a small detour and visit Nsingmanding (pronounced exactly like it’s spelled!). Pastor Billong told me that it would be a good time to visit, because there was going to be a large funeral on Saturday.

After turning off the main highway between Yaounde and Douala, we drove north for about ten miles, until we came to a small red dirt road. When we turned onto it, I realized suddenly that the real adventure had begun. As we bobbed and weaved, through ditches, mud, and bush, I got a rush of adrenaline through my veins – this is the real Africa! As Bill W puts it, this is “cowboy stuff,” real frontier, on-the-edge-of-civilization, Dr. Livingstone-style adventure.

The rainy season has not quite yet ended, so the road was quite muddy. Driving on mud is similar to driving on ice. Pastor Billong is a pro at driving this particular route, so he got behind the wheel, and our regular driver got into the back seat.

At one point, we had to cross a small river on a couple of narrow planks, without guardrails. I didn’t feel particularly anxious as we approached; but after hitting the mud on the bank, we slid sideways onto the bridge … Pastor Billong quickly recovered and drove us across safely, with a chuckle.

“Hey, this isn’t nearly as bad as the road to Sumba village,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

Fifty minutes of white-knuckle, kidney-shaking driving later, we pulled up into the middle of Nsingmanding. Hundreds of people were seated under makeshift shelters for a funeral service that had obviously been going on for some time.

I happened to be wearing my clerical wear – black shirt with collar. And so as soon as we were noticed, someone approached us and asked us to come sit at the front. I was invited to sit right next to the presiding pastor, the local Presbyterian preacher! Fortunately, I was not invited to speak, or preach!

But when the service was concluded, I was asked to take part in the final burial rites, which involved walking around the graves, sprinkling water and salt onto the site. This is a reference to a passage in II Kings 2:19-22, in which the prophet Elisha heals the putrid waters of a city by throwing salt into the local spring. Apparently, both Protestants and Catholics in Cameroon practice this custom at funerals.

And then the fun began! We were ushered into a hall for a potluck – see, they’re ready for Methodism for sure! I ate my fill of chicken, fish, beef, rice, yams, and a few other things that I can’t really identify for sure.

After lunch, I met the chief of Nsingmanding and his two wives and multiple children. He invited me to his home, an extremely modest two buildings on the edge of the village. As we stood in front of his house, he pointed to the bushland across the road and waved his hand. He told me that all the land I could see had been earmarked for the United Methodist Church! Then we sat in his living room, and he made it clear that he and his people eagerly waited for Methodists to come and begin work.

A relative of Pastor Billong, who is interested in becoming a lay pastor, was also present. And he and the chief outlined their hopes that we might start, not only a church, but also a farming cooperative in their village. They assured me that if we were able to start something like this in Nsingmanding, that the entire village – and many villages in the nearby vicinity – would quickly become Methodist!

I had noticed that there was a Presbyterian church building in the center of the village, so I asked, “But what about the Presbyterian church that is already here?”

They replied, “It’s been here for over fifty years, and the only people who attend are the elderly. The young people won’t go to church!”

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself – churches around the world complain about the same problems! How many churches have I heard lament the same problem?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t give the chief any promises. After all, we’re dealing with that other same old church problem – finances! So I kindly thanked him for his hospitality, and told him that I looked forward to seeing him again.

When we finally left the village, it took us another hour to return to the paved road. Much of the road back was uphill and muddy; we were one of the few vehicles that made it back quickly.

That’s the life of the modern circuit rider. The world is our parish, remember. Perhaps I ought to keep in mind that the hardest-to-get-to places are the most important places to be.