The temple tops a bare hill, crowded by many other peaks. Nearby is a small rectangular house of unbaked brick, with a thatch roof and fresh straw on the dirt floor.
It seems an isolated scene at first. But down this hollow, or over that ridge, are other small homes among banana groves and coffee fields. This is the village of Ibare, and the house is for the priest’s family. The church is called Holy Resurrection, and Divine Liturgy is about to start.
Lake Victoria isn’t quite visible from this hilltop, but that great inland sea is not far. Holy Resurrection is part of the Muleba deanery, south of Bukoba on Tanzania’s northwestern lakeshore. Uganda is only a few dozen kilometers beyond.
The nave slowly fills during Matins. At home in Mwanza I share chanting duties, but as a guest today I can rest my voice. I stand with the chanters who intone hymns in a rich harmony which, despite discernable Byzantine roots, is uniquely Swahili in style.
The congregation joins in with more familiar hymns, bringing texture to “My soul magnifies the Lord,” “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord,” and a local setting of Psalm 50 (51) “Have mercy on me, O God.”
At the Great Doxology the nave fills with voices. Men lean against the southwest walls behind me. To their left, women sit together on rush mats. In front of them in the northeast, the children press into a tight crowd, oblivious to the open floor all around.
This is not a typical Sunday morning in the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza here in western Tanzania. It’s a special day, because a priest is present. Father Eleftherios pastors four other congregations as well as Ibare. On most Sundays he is elsewhere, and this community prays the Typika service.
Our Archdiocese, covering 400,000 square kilometers of western Tanzania, is about as big as California. The sixteen million people of this area belong to about sixty ethnic groups and speak as many distinct languages.
In such a region we have forty priests, 170 communities, and perhaps 40,000 faithful Orthodox Christians. We are responsible for eight of Tanzania’s twenty-six regions, but have congregations in only three. The bulk of the Orthodox Christian presence is clustered around the city of Bukoba, a stone’s throw from Uganda. Our faithful come mostly from only two ethnic groups. We are a small Church; but we are a growing Church.
In February OCMC Missionary Michael Pagedas visited the community of Bugabo to participate in a common occurrence—a mass baptism. Because families, communities and villages make decisions as a group, many of the newly illumined know very little about their new Christian faith beyond the fact that they have embraced it. Baptism is an important first step in becoming a disciple, but it must be followed by many steps more.
Abel, an Archdiocesan administrator, has brought me to Ibare in response to Christ’s call to make disciples. He and I are assessing the possibility of hosting a youth seminar here in July and August to be led by teachers from the Finnish Orthodox Mission and from OCMC. Each year this event is held in a different deanery of the Archdiocese, with the goal of helping local youth grow in the hope of the Resurrection.
Ibare is a good spot for the 2011 seminar because it is within a day’s walk from every community in the deanery. And it has resources. A clear stream runs through a banana orchard, providing water. The hilltop has some open space which is slightly flatter than the chasms and ridges surrounding it. We could set up one tent to house women, another for men, and conduct classes under trees. We’d have to truck in tiny stoves, sacks of charcoal, rice, beans, cups and plates to feed the two hundred or so expected participants. The OCMC/Finnish Team could stay at a guest house in Muleba, a forty-minute drive to the east.
Yes, our resources are spare. Even compared to other religious groups in the area, we are poor. Orthodox Christian faithful in western Tazania are almost all rural subsistence farmers with little cash income and even less access to formal education. Illiteracy prevents many young adults from participating even in opportunities like this seminar.
Back in Ibare, Abel and I watch the children line up for Holy Communion. They squeeze forward to the Chalice, the chest of each pressed against the shoulder blades of the one before. After Liturgy, they race outdoors to feast on little mangoes.
The adults have arranged something special for us. They seat us in the sunshine, on the only two chairs available, and dance. Traditional Haya dance is accompanied by a goatskin drum and by a singer whose verses punctuate refrains sung by the clapping and stamping crowd. On the dust of the dance floor, two or three people show their moves at a time. Everyone is involved—even babies sway on the backs of their leaping and twisting mothers.
The enthusiasm of this dance is visible throughout western Tanzanian society. Of course there are needs. We foreigners often think of obvious material issues, or else of spiritual needs vaguely defined by the concept of winning converts. But the greatest need is for communion. When asked what we foreigners can do to help local people often reply, “Just come be with us. Share in our lives.” This is the example of Christ our God, who did indeed heal the sick, feed the hungry, and preach of the Kingdom. Even more importantly, he took on human flesh and participated in our lives. Our salvation comes not by the teaching or by the healing alone, but by the Incarnation.
OCMC Missionary Mama Charita Stavrou likes to remind me that “We are here to do what God wants us to do.” If we show up, the Holy Spirit will guide us. The global Church is starting to listen.
OCMC has six long-term Missionaries working out our salvation in the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza. OCMC Missionaries Felice Stewart, Michael Pagedas, Maria Roeber and Katie Wilcoxson are health care workers that have been asked by His Eminence Archbishop Jeronymos to minister to the bodies and spirits of people in the town of Bukoba, as well as elsewhere. We are joined regularly by short-term teams from Greece, Finland and OCMC.
Teams and missionaries come with a task or job description, but our deep role is communion: participation in the lives of our local sisters and brothers. We are supported in this work by the prayers, friendship, encouragement and material generosity of folks in North America and around the world. You are welcome to join in.