Saturday, March 11, 2006

New Land and Fresh Wounds

Pastor Simeon is in the middle of a three-week fast. He’s taking nothing but water and vegetables, as he leads his church through a special time of intercession.

Every afternoon at 5:30 pm, members gather at the church; Simeon then locks the church door at six for an hour of serious, get-down-and-funky prayer. He doesn’t want anyone who is not serious about prayer to walk in and upset the spirit of the room.

Simeon decided to start this particular prayer time after a much-loved member of the church was killed in a tragic road accident two weeks ago. Atanase was an active layperson; one day after a church meeting, Atanase was taking a bush taxi (motorcycle) home to his village of Minkama. A car ahead of the motorbike had come to a halt because of a cloud of dust that obscured the road; the motorcycle slammed into the rear of the car, and the riders were thrown into the road in front of an oncoming limber truck. All three people on the motorcycle died instantly.

When Simeon notified me of the accident, he confessed that he was very worried about the effects of the tragedy on the church. Atanase was the only member of the Methodist church in his family; the rest are Roman Catholics. Simeon told me that often such terrible events can be blamed on the fact that the victim was a member of a new, strange church. Rumors might spread about the nature of “those United Methodists,” he said.

I advised him to go contact the family, to sit with them in their time of grief, and to offer them the full support and comfort of the entire church. To his surprise and relief, the family invited him to conduct the funeral service. I was out of town during the funeral, but I sent another pastor, David Sen, to represent the Mission on my behalf.

A fair number of members of Simeon’s church attended the service, but on the way home, another disaster almost occurred. Church members had piled onto a bus for the trip back to Obala. Simeon was driving his motorbike ahead of the bus, with his wife, Therese, and Pastor David on the back. At a certain turn in the road, the bus narrowly avoided a head-on collision with an oncoming truck.

Simeon watched it all happen; he says he still doesn’t know how and why there was no accident.

But he says he does know one thing for sure: “If that bus had crashed, and other members of the Methodist Church had died …” he says, shaking his head and clicking his tongue, “I know the people of Obala. They would have come and burned down my house.”

A few days later, however, Simeon’s anxiety was replaced with unexpected joy. One of the deceased man’s children called with good news; after a meeting of the family, the children had decided to give a piece of their father’s land to the United Methodist Church!

I visited the site in Minkama on Wednesday afternoon; it’s a good-sized plot, only fifty yards from a main road linking the Central Province to the North. The only thing on the land besides a row of banana trees, is an old wooden chicken coop.

But Simeon can already see the future … he’s proposed a half dozen uses for the land: a youth center, a hospital, a school, a retreat campground.

I told Simeon that I didn’t know yet what we would do there. My eyes were drawn to the fresh mound of red dirt only yards away where Atanase was buried. I only hope that we can do something to honor his memory and plant something beautiful.