Furaha na amani! Joy and peace!
And greetings from Geita, Tanzania! I have spent the past two weeks here participating in a youth seminar at Holy Annunciation Orthodox Church. Teaching staff members at the seminar are mostly from overseas: I have joined OCMC Missionary Charita Stavrou as well as a Teaching Team sent from the Orthodox Church of Finland and from OCMC in the United States. Together we are nine foreigners working together with local staff directing a program for over seventy young adults from Geita region and the surrounding area.
Geita is a gold-mining town inland, about a two-hour drive from Mwanza. The mineral wealth of the soil is apparent: it is a deep red clay studded with iron ore and other rocks. The roads are lined with kilns and stacks of red bricks for sale; nearly all the local houses are built either from baked red brick or unbaked brown brick. In the dry season (right now), the soil turns into a powdery red dust that blankets everything– buildings, trees, clothes, cars, even the beaks of the four-foot-tall marabou storks who are Geita’s equivalent of pigeons. (Pigeons are prettier.)
I was grateful to be invited at the last minute to join the Finland/OCMC Teaching Team. We met in Dar es Salaam, and traveled together to Mwanza where we were greeted at the airport by His Eminence Metropolitan Jeronymos and diocesan staff. This was my first visit to the city where I will eventually live, and my first opportunity to meet my bishop face-to-face. At last!
Everyone says that Mwanza is beautiful. They say this because Mwanza is beautiful! It is a city of rocks. Nearly one million people live among huge granite boulders and steep stony hills cascading down to Lake Victoria. From anywhere in the city you can look up and see the great rocks, or you can look down to the shining Lake. Hawks, eagles, ibises, storks and cranes circle overhead. Some buildings are perched on top of boulders, and others have walls hewn from the living stone. The mineral wealth is staggering. I’m told that Heaven paves its streets with gold. I’m also told that Mwanza fills its potholes with amethyst.
This rich land provides rich food. Lake Victoria fish are as tasty as anything I can imagine. Geita pineapples are sweeter than anything I could ever imagine. The abundant fruits of this soil produce a cuisine that is varied and flavorful. I’ve never eaten better in my life. (Sorry, Mom.)
Spending this time in the Archdiocese of Mwanza, among the faithful of one of its regions, is giving me the opportunity to observe the local Church in action. I am very impressed. I’m impressed at how well local leadership has integrated us foreign visitors into their educational program, and at how well the local Church has been caring for the youth at the seminar. Every day begins either with Liturgy or Matins, and concludes with Vespers. Since the Dormition Fast began on 1st August, we also pray Paraklesis following Vespers. Being immersed in the liturgical life of the Church is a great joy– and it’s really helping my Kiswahili!
Our students are aged roughly 15 to 30, and are mostly from the regions surrounding Geita, from subsistence-farming families of the Sukuma ethnic group. All of them speak Kiswahili, most are literate, and many have completed a basic primary education. They are baptized Orthodox Christians who are serious about their faith, but there is a wide range in knowledge about the faith that they confess. Some are trained catechists, while others are still learning about the Incarnation.
Observing classes and listening to students’ questions, I am getting a glimpse of the lives of local Orthodox Christian faithful. The challenges faced by people here are not trivial. There is real suffering, and there are great problems. The enormity of these problems, and the difficulties of daily life, seems overwhelming at times. I am reminded hour by hour that we can depend on God alone. At the same time, there is true and abundant beauty.
And so, profound difficulties are mixed with great blessings. There is unrivalled joy in Geita and Mwanza, in the midst of deep sorrow. The Orthodox Christian temples are monuments, built to proclaim Christ’s Resurrection for generations to come. The ranks of the faithful increase daily. The bishop shines with love for his flock, and Church leadership is of the highest caliber and devotion that I’ve seen anywhere. By God’s grace through your prayers, the Church of Mwanza strives to be worthy of the great task set before her.
And I really get to live here! I get to be part of it all!
God willing, I will return to Dar es Salaam on Sunday 8th August and begin preparation for a permanent move back to Mwanza. There are two immediate practical considerations. First, I have visa issues yet to be resolved. Second, I have to find a place to live. His Eminence has given me two criteria for a house: that it be safe, and that it be close to Church property so that I can participate fully in the daily liturgical life. Please pray as I work to finalize my immigration status and search for a suitable home in Mwanza.
Thank you for sending me here. Thank you for the financial support that allows me to live in Mwanza and participate in this great work. Thank you for your friendship, for your encouragement, and especially for your holy prayers that will sustain and enrich my joy in this beautiful and needy land. May the uncreated light of Tabor transfigure your lives on this joyous feast and, by your prayers, may the light of Christ shine ever more brightly here in Tanzania.
Please stay in touch.
By your prayers,
PS I’d like to tell you a little about the Finland/OCMC Teaching Team that I was blessed to join at the youth seminar in Geita.
Our leader, Outi Vasko, is from Helsinki and serves on the board of the Finnish Orthodox Mission. This is her third time in Tanzania, and she is a leader in the missionary and inter-church activities of the Finnish Orthodox Church. She is joined by a fellow board member, Father Tapio Rautamaki, who pastors two Helsinki parishes in addition to his day job. This is his second visit to Tanzania. Outi and Father Tapio are here together with Jaso Possi, a young theologian from Jyuaskyla who is preparing for ordained ministry.
Among the Americans is Jean Jolly from Tampa, FL. It was a special joy to see Jean here because her home parish, St Philip’s, welcomed me warmly last summer as I began raising support for my work in Tanzania. She is joined by Irene and Anastasios Sakkas, a young couple from Falls Church, VA. Irene and Taso’s presence here together gives seminar participants a living example of healthy Christian marriage, which is as valuable as anything any of us could teach. The youngest member of the Team is Nicholas Petrogeorge from Pittsburgh, PA. Niko came here fresh from a month as a camp counselor back in the States– and I’m not sure which was more challenging.
And of course, we are blessed to have fellow OCMC Missionary Charita Stavrou teaching with us. Mama Stavrou has been in Mwanza since March. She is creating vestments and liturgical fabrics for the parishes, teaching at events such as this one, praying faithfully and loving everyone. Wherever Mama Stavrou goes, joy and peace surround her.
There is only so much that a group of Americans and Europeans, working through translators, can accomplish during two weeks in rural Tanzania. If you can’t understand the language, and if you aren’t familiar with local culture, the ways that you can participate in people’s lives are limited. These truths cannot be ignored.
Nevertheless, the Team’s presence here has been of great value. Local Sukuma faithful are meeting fellow Christians whose love has brought them to the other side of the world. Team members know and love their faith, they are good teachers, and their work is making a real impact. They bear witness to the love that Christians of two distant nations have for the people of yet another country. Each of these Team members now will return home and spread the news of the life and witness of the Tanzanian Orthodox Church. This is of no small value to us who remain in Africa. It was also a personal encouragement for me to have the Team here, and I am eager to welcome next year’s guests. If you’d like to come help us out in the summer of 2011, you can inquire by emailing email@example.com or by visiting http://teams.ocmc.org.