I have recently been at our yearly Archdiocesan youth seminar. This is a three-week event bringing together young people (aged roughly 15 – 65) from a particular vicarage (aka deanery) of the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza for fellowship, shared liturgical life, participation in the sacramental life of the Church, education on a variety of topics including agriculture, health, etc. and two weeks of Christian education provided by teachers from the Finnish Orthodox Mission and from OCMC.
Caring for 100+ young people and ten foreigners, on a bare hillside in rural Africa, with minimal infrastructure (providing them with food and shelter, making sure that they are comfortable enough to keep going, looking after healthcare needs) is no joke. It’s serious business. It’s very tough. It’s exhausting, frustrating, difficult, terrifying… and exhilarating. Things are going very, very, very, very well.
Archdiocesan leadership is working very hard to plan and manage the seminar well. But as hard as we try to plan, plans fail. And some of the best things are totally unplanned. I’d like to tell you about something that happened yesterday.
Yesterday was the Team’s afternoon off. An excursion for the team was arranged through a local tour company and I had the privilege of joining them. Our first stop was a mountain on the Kamachuma Plateau, where we climbed to the top to visit some caves and see a spectacular view stretching to Rwanda.
On the way up the mountain, our guide took a wrong turn and asked directions from a local coffee farmer. The farmer guided us back to the path and, as we were departing, asked who we were. We told him.
This elderly farmer followed behind us, up a steep rocky slope, all the way to the top of the mountain. He caught up with us in the caves wearing clothes in tatters, barefoot with thickly calloused feet. I exchanged greetings with him, and told him a bit more about the Team and about the youth seminar over the hills in Ibale.
“I am an Orthodox Christian,” the old peasant told me. “I am a catechist.”
This coffee farmer was brought to Christ in 1977 by Father Sosthenes Kiyonga, one of the early missionary priests in this area. His name is Apolinario, and he has been a catechist for seventeen years in the parish area led by Father Ignatios Simba, a compatriot of Father Kiyonga and another lion of the faith. Apolinario invited the Team to his house to meet his wife Maria, and some of their children and grandchildren. He led a short prayer service, and then the Team sang the “Lord have mercy” of the Holy Cross in Finnish, Greek, English and Kiswahili. Apolinario and Maria took all of our names, and promised to remember us in their daily prayers. We took their names and the names of their children and grandchildren, with the same commitment to prayer.
Father Kiyonga passed away several years ago. One of his sons, Anastasios Kiyonga, is the church musician for the Holy Archdiocese of Mwanza and is one of the leaders at our youth seminar. His work has been very helpful and valuable to the Team this year and in past years.
Some of you may have heard a certain missionary say, “You can’t make this stuff up!” You really can’t. The Team’s work has been very valuable. We have been working very hard to help them see our life here in ways that make sense to them, that are neither overly bewildering nor overly protective. One of the weaknesses of this sort of event is that it is indeed an event. The Team is not witnessing the ordinary life of the Church because the Team’s very presence among us is extraordinary. But then, there on the mountain, God sent our guide on the wrong path so that we could share in the everyday life, just for a moment, of a rural Orthodox Christian peasant family who have born witness to, and participated in, the historic missionary life of our Church.