Salawe was Turkana. A tall, thin and wiry man, dressed in a traditional colorful cloth that draped over his shoulder, he held an aura of authority and power. He was strong, in his sixties, and not only the leader of the remote Africa desert village, but also its Shaman. His influence was evident and seen in the respect and deference given to him by the people who turned to him for healing and prophecy.
On one hot February day, Salawe sat across from a group of nine Americans and three African Orthodox clergy. Locked in a powerful and magnetic gaze with the group’s leader, they discussed Orthodox Christianity and bringing this new religion to his village, which still adhered to traditional beliefs.
The sun beat down mercilessly on the group who sat on the dry, sandy ground. Even in the shade of the Acacia tree the temperatures were above 100 degrees, and sweat trickled down their bodies. The air was still but charged with an electric presence. Something powerful and otherworldly was taking place. I was the group leader who was locked in this gaze with the shaman.
Looking back with amazement, I’ve asked myself: “How did this come to be? How did a group of people, so foreign and far removed from this isolated desert region, travel across the globe to sit in front of the local religious leader and engage in the deepest of conversations to introduce Jesus Christ and the Orthodox Church?”.
At one level, the birth of this encounter began when Jesus Christ entrusted His followers and the Church to carry on His mission. At another level, the encounter was a product of OCMC’s striving to reach for the most pertinent goals of this mission. At yet another level, it was the result of people allowing themselves to be stretched for God.
Jesus, as He ascended into heaven, gave the marching orders for the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all Nations…” (Matt 28:19-20). This was not presented as an option or an aside, but rather as the final message delivered to the Apostles prior to His ascending into heaven.
Today, 1/4 of the world’s population (over 1 billion people) still have not heard the Gospel message, nor have they had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ or to join the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Turkana desert region of northern Kenya is one of those places. OCMC, as it strives to move forward and answer the call to missions in finding and reaching those who have never heard, had been guided to this special moment.
At the same time, being with the Turkana and meeting Salawe involved a willingness to stretch ourselves for God on the part of OCMC, myself, the Team that was there with me, the local Orthodox clergy, and maybe Salawe too!
The plan evolved after an exploratory visit to the area in 2009, when I sat with the local clergy from Lodwar and we began to dream about the growth of Orthodoxy among the Turkana. What could OCMC do in this area? Of course we could build a church or dig a well, or help with a school or address medical needs. But, we wanted to go further and dream about how we could stretch ourselves to get involved in a way that would directly help to spread the Gospel (in addition to these other methods) to the many people who had not yet been introduced to Christianity.
What resulted from our meeting was the idea to assemble a team of seminarians that would return to this area to interact with the newly illumined Christians, living as close to them as possible, sleeping in their remote villages and teaching under the local trees. In addition to reaching those who have newly joined the Church, somehow, the group would be brought to a village where Christianity had not yet been presented. Somehow…we didn’t know how…but somehow we would pray and stretch ourselves to make this happen.
The Team developed and was comprised of a priest and his wife, four seminarians, a professional photographer and graphic designer, OCMC’s Communications Director, and myself. Together, we traveled to the Turkana region of Kenya and conducted retreats with the men, women, and children of four different villages. There was time of worship, teaching, and celebration.
Our trip had been so packed from moment to moment that we had little opportunity to think each day of what we would do next. Toward the end of the trip, this goal of reaching out to a village that had not heard about Christianity was approached. The night before, we sat outside under the stars beside a traditional grass hut. I asked Fr. Zachariah, our Turkana Orthodox priest from the area, “Father, you’ve said everything is lined up for the group to present Christianity in a new village tomorrow. Tell me, now, a little more of what you are thinking.”
Fr. Zachariah proceeded to explain how the next day the Team would all travel to a village deeper in the desert. There, we would be introduced to the local “magic” man. This man was a key to being able to preach Orthodoxy there. If we could get his approval to allow the Church in his village, then Father Zechariah believed he could return later and have great success. If, on the other hand, the Shaman didn’t give permission, it would be extremely difficult to try and work there. Father Zechariah then added, “What I am hoping is that you, Fr. Martin, will approach him on behalf of all and get this permission for us.”
“Wait a second, Fr. Zachariah! That’s not quite what we had been thinking!!! What kind of ‘magic man’ is this? Does he do ‘good’ magic or does he also send curses on people? I thought we would be doing some sort of Team skit or presentation to a group of people who would come out to listen to us.” Fr. Zachariah reaffirmed the importance of reaching the Shaman, and as he pondered on the type of ‘magic’ he did, he said that Salawe was well respected and involved in things like healing or prophecy, but not in cursing or harmful things.
All I could think at the moment was, “Oh, no, what have we gotten ourselves into!”. But this was where the Lord had led us. Bringing His message to the world is not an option, or something to be done only when it is safe, or sure, or comfortable. And most importantly, He has promised that we are not alone when we give ourselves to serving Him.
When Jesus directed the Apostles, and through them the Church, that they were to go make disciples of all nations, He concluded that commission by assuring them: “And lo, I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In fact, they were instructed to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them to empower them for this task. At another time, when they were questioning whether salvation was possible, Jesus again assured them: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Left to our own power, that which is possible is very limited, but with God all things can be accomplished, as can be seen with what followed in our meeting with Salawe.
The next morning we woke up early, packed our things, and jumped into the four wheel drive vehicles we had rented to bring us across the sands of this forgotten corner of the world. Ten minutes later, we sat looking across a quarter mile of flowing river that blocked our way. The night before, and for the last year, the river had been completely dry. The Turkana region had been in a time of serious drought, and the waters that seasonally flowed through this riverbed had ceased long ago, so that the people were suffering from a lack of water. As one would expect, in a dry desert region the coming of water is acknowledged as a blessing from God. Overnight, distant rains had caused the riverbed to fill, which was a great relief to the Turkana people. But now, this blessing stood between us and the only way to reach Salawe’s village!
We were determined to carry our mission through, and it wasn’t long before a testing of the waters with a long stick revealed that the water was not too deep, and that the current was not more than anyone could wade through. If the river didn’t rise any further, we would be OK to cross and then strike out on foot to find the village. Making the crossing was actually refreshing, and our wet clothes helped to keep us cooler as we hiked through the scorching desert. An hour later, after a few stops to pull long acacia thorns from our shoes and sandals or to get our bearings, we arrived at the outskirts of the village.
Again, however, it seemed our plans would be thwarted. Salawe was not there. When he heard that the river was flowing, he assumed we would not be able to cross and he had left early that morning with his herd of animals to care for them. A messenger was sent to try and find him, and we all sat down on the dusty ground to wait, hoping he would arrive before we had to begin our return journey to Lodwar town.
Another hour later, as we sat chatting under a tree, a lone man strolled up to our group. It was Salawe! He greeted us warmly, and then we all sat back down on the ground together before him, as if we were in a formal reception hall being hosted by a dignitary for a special meeting.
As Fr. Zachariah began the discussion, though, something began to happen. I can only explain it as the presence of the Holy Spirit descending and connecting our souls. The conversation continued, and because we didn’t speak each other’s language, Fr. Zachariah and Fr. Vladimir (another Turkana Orthodox priest from Lodwar) were translating. But somehow, there was a presence that held us together; there was a communication taking place so much deeper and more intense than words could ever express. Our eyes were intently locked together, peacefully, as the conversation and words came from and around us.
I was moved to tell Salawe that God had brought him a message today and that it was God who wanted us to meet. The old man answered, “I know,” with a smile of joy on his face. “I was tending my herd,” he continued, “and didn’t think you would be coming, when suddenly, God spoke to me and told me that you were here. I started back immediately and halfway back I met the messenger you sent. But I didn’t need the messenger, because I was already on my way!”
We continued our conversation, and I discussed, in brief, the Faith and our Church and finally said that we had come to seek his permission to bring this religion to his village through Fr. Zachariah, who would return later. But not only did we want to bring this to the people in his village, we wanted him to consider becoming Christian. Immediately and without hesitation he replied, “Of course. I can feel that what you have is good. Yes, my answer is yes.” At that moment I realized that the intensity of how we had been engaged was mutual. Just as I had been feeling a powerful connection to Salawe and could see into him beyond the words we were speaking, he too was being granted something special during our communication.
To have set a goal to hold a meeting in a remote desert with the religious leader of a traditional tribe of people who have had little connection with the Western world and to hope that this meeting would result in that leader warmly embracing the invitation to receive Christianity into his village was daunting in itself. If all we could see was this task and what could be accomplished by our own talents and ability, it might seem impossible, and we could be tempted to shy away from it. But in our lives we are not alone, especially when we step forward and stretch ourselves in the Lord’s name to do His will. Our God can fill a river that has been dry with water overnight. Our God can speak to people and send them divine messages. Our God can come upon us and help us to see, to understand and discern in miraculous ways.
We have been entrusted by our Lord to carry the Gospel and make disciples of all peoples. So many have yet to believe, and over a billion people have yet to even hear the message for the first time. How can we hope to make a difference? Can we, coming from our particular backgrounds and with all the struggles and limitations around us, dare to hope, dream, or strive to be messengers of Him who is, who was, and who is to come?
This task is something that OCMC is striving to apply itself to more fervently. As we review all that has been accomplished throughout the past 25 years of missions by the Orthodox in North America, we can see that a foundation has been laid, but the needs remain great. We are looking ahead and stretching ourselves to go forward and to go deeper, not only in ways according to the abilities that we know we have, but in ways that may seem beyond what we are capable of.
Likewise, in our own personal lives there is a lesson to be learned from how God intervened in reaching Salawe. Not only is it OK, but we all need to be willing to dream and to stretch ourselves for God as we reach out in mission to the far corners of the world in our nation, in our cities, in our parishes and even within our families and in our daily lives. Alone we are weak, but with God all things are possible.
“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people.
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.
Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”