Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Part I -- Pastors' Conference Highlights

It was just like summer camp back in East Texas.

Bunkbeds, mosquitoes, outdoor cooking, and late-night worship services that gave you goosebumps.

Except that we were on the beaches of West Africa, and instead of pimply-faced adolescents, the participants were an extremely mixed assortment of old men, women in full African dress, and excitable young men. These are the pastors of the United Methodist Church in Cameroon. And this was the first gathering of all pastors in one place since the beginning of the Mission, four years ago.

Part of the fun was simply seeing the odd pairings throughout the week. I even mixed up room assignments so that nobody roomed with people they already knew. So there was Gillian Arrey, a farmer-preacher from the farthest outreach of the Southwest Province, laughing with David Sen, the well-educated city boy; and Sylvester Tang, another farmer from the village of Akiriba, getting to know Jean-Daniel Ndo, the minister to the prison in Yaounde. The wise old men of Buea and Kumba, Henry Amabibi and Michael Elango, held court with the younger fellows, Samuel Egbe and S.T. Nkwo.

In a small complex called “Maison St. Benoit,” a Catholic retreat center, 23 Cameroonian pastors met to explore exactly what we are doing as “Methodists.” I’m not sure they knew what to expect during the week; I certainly didn’t. I had information to share with them, as the Mission Director, about ordination, lay preacher training, youth and children’s training events, and so on. But I also left open space in the schedule for the pastors to enjoy each other’s company and spend some time on the beach. Many of the pastors toil in remote places and only hear from the Mission once a month to receive their salary support.

And so, even though there was stirring worship, powerful sermons preached by four different pastors, bring-down-the-house music, important teaching, and plenty of inspiration, perhaps the best things that happened last week took place in the intervals between the planned events, over drinks of water, or plates of plantains and chicken. The small talk, the jokes, the camaraderie of being called “pastors.”

I told the group on the last morning that, when we arrived, there were plenty of reasons for us to feel divided. We were young and old, Francophone and Anglophone, about-to-be-ordained and not-ready-to-be-ordained, male and female, short and tall, black and white … but that a miracle had happened in just a few short days. We had become a single, united body; a group of pastors with a common vision.