Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Fellowship of Friends

Jonathan is a tall, body-pierced, guitar-playing young man from the University of North Texas who was a part of last week’s youth camp. As we were saying our goodbyes at the airport, he leaned over to me and said, “Thanks, this was the best week of my life.”

I gulped hard. That’s a pretty heavy assessment of one week in Cameroon. But I’m glad it made an impression on him.

I have since tried to figure out what it was that impressed Jonathan – and the others – so much. It wasn’t the weather – we were hot and sticky most of the time. It wasn’t the food – see Ginger’s blog for the story about the meatless hamburgers! It wasn’t even the camp itself – most of the Americans had been to “church camp” before.

No, upon reflection, I think what made last week’s camp “work” so well was the creation of new and diverse friendships. Not just ordinary friendships, but connections made tender and meaningful by the name of Jesus Christ.

Jonathan himself told me that, as one of the boys was leaving, he turned to him and said, “You’re the first white friend I’ve ever had!”

By the time camp was over, there were numerous friendships like this. Sure, they are fragile, and they may not be very deep at the moment. But friendship is an underrated and undervalued theological virtue and spiritual discipline.

Before his death, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “I no longer call you servants … Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” It’s quite extraordinary that the Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Lamb of God, etc., etc., chooses to call us “friends,” but that’s exactly what he has chosen to do!

And I think it is quite appropriate that we engage in the same ministry of “friendship”-making that he did. Jesus befriended all sorts of folks, from the poor to the rich, from the ragged and outlawed to the beautiful and privileged. It’s really quite remarkable the cross-section of friends that Jesus – and the disciples! – picked up during his itinerant preaching days.

Over the last few months, as I have traveled throughout America, I have been inviting US churches to become partners with Cameroonian churches. And I always say that the most important part of the partnership is not the money, but the friendships that will be created and nurtured over the years.

I saw a great example of this last week. Roger and Jo Martens, a couple from Spring Valley UMC, made the trip with the university students and had the chance to visit their church’s partner, Buea UMC, on Sunday. They each spoke in worship, gave a brief introduction to their church, and handed out cross necklaces to everyone present. After the service, the congregation shared some after-church snacks with us and everyone got acquainted.

Now, Roger and Jo are friends with the people of Buea UMC. They have seen them up-close and personal, looked into their eyes, and caught a glimpse of their world. People in Buea will remember Roger and Jo as real people who took the time to visit them and get to know them.

The same thing happened in the hotel where the team stayed two nights in Douala. On the morning we were to leave, the hotel manager came up to me and said, “Thank you for staying here. You all were a blessing. Now we are family!”

One could be cynical and grumble that he was just grateful for the business, but something deeper was at work during our stay. We got to know the hotel staff a little better, and they were able to observe our prayers and devotional time, and overhear our conversations. We got to know them a little, too.

In the future, every time I have to pass through Douala, I know I have a friendly place to stop and visit. And I will.

In this world of violence, disease and other complicated issues, perhaps friendship with others is the place where every follower of Christ ought to start in ministry. To be a Christian means to stretch out the hand and say, “Hello!” or “Bon jour!” and to be open to an encounter, a conversation, a cup of coffee. Nothing more than that.

It seems to me that if you live life like this, always open to the possibility of friendship, then life will be rich and beautiful.

And you’ll always have a place to sleep in Cameroon.