Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s Blog

November 28, 2011

Pax Turkana: An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

Shortly before I left for Kilimanjaro, I was contacted by Alex Goodwin, Communications Director for the OCMC. He and OCMC Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi had planned an extended visit to Kenya and Tanzania in order to film a new video for the OCMC and further assess future mission prospects for that field, and they wanted to know if Maria and I would be interested in traveling with them to Kenya and being part of this! The experience would take me to a part of Kenya that I had wanted to visit anyway–Turkana, in the northwest part of the country. The OCMC began sending short-term mission teams to this region only a few years ago, and Orthodoxy has already gained a strong foothold there. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to rest after climbing Kilimanjaro, but I also knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Maria and I were greeted at the Lodwar airport (a dusty landing strip in the desert with a small covered waiting area serving as the main gate) by Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob Orr, the cameraman who would be documenting our visit. We strapped our bags on top of the Land Rover (there wasn’t enough room for them inside) and started our 3+ hour journey into the desert. Fr. Martin mentioned that the last time he made this journey, the vehicle he was in got stuck in the sand three times. Fortunately, with the combination of our amazing driver and rugged Land Rover, we didn’t get stuck once.

Our first destination was the village of Loupwala. Loupwala has been visited before by OCMC teams, but it was my first time there or anywhere like it. It was the Africa that I had seen before in National Geographic magazines and on Public Television when I was growing up.

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The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists and rely mostly on their goats, camels, and donkeys not just as a source of milk and meat but also as currency for things such as bride-price negotiations and dowries. Not many crops are grown, but they do eat maize, beans, and ugali (maize porridge). During our brief stay, we had nothing but boiled cabbage and ugali–all of which we had brought with us from Lodwar. The Turkana also make use of a fruit that I had never heard of or seen anywhere else. It is called yangole in Turkana, and it is pretty much a fibrous pulp on the outside of a large inedible pit. The pulp can be ground off with stones and mixed in with flour or it can be chewed right off the pit [I tried the latter and can understand how the Turkana can easily wear down their teeth].

The Turkana dress very traditionally in the villages but not quite as much in the larger cities like Lodwar. Girls and women wear sarongs that range in color from purple to red to orange, and even bright green. Many of the women and girls wear their hair in a way that looks like a mohawk of small braids. The men also wear wraps, some covering the whole body, some just from the waist down, and less traditional shirts. Additionally, some of the older men or distinguished members of the tribe, such as shamans, wear hats decorated with ostrich feathers. One night, we all watched a movie about the life of Jesus that had been translated into the Turkana language. I was sitting toward the back, and one of the tribal elders was sitting right in the middle toward the front. Throughout the movie, I enjoyed watching the silhouette of a lone ostrich quill waving back and forth, brushing the faces of the actors on the screen. Both men and women wear beaded necklaces and bracelets. Many of the women wear a high-collared, brightly-colored beaded necklace that I can imagine takes a long time to make.

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The video shoot began almost immediately after we arrived. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob started interviewing individuals who had become or were in the process of becoming baptized. Maria and I interviewed some of the women and children about medical issues with the help of one of the Turkana priests, Fr. Moses, who speaks English, Turkana, and Swahili fluently. We spent the night sleeping in a boma (thorn enclosure) of another priest, Fr. Zachariah, who himself was originally from Loupwala. A few of the people in our group had tents, but I braved the elements, sleeping only on a mat and having a loose mosquito net resting on top of me. It was the first time I had ever gone hard core camping, and I enjoyed looking up at a clear night sky illuminated by stars, knowing that I was about as far away from the nearest city as I could be.

The next day, we visited a well that had been installed by the OCMC only a few years ago. The well was about a 10 minute walk from our campsite, but I learned that before the well was put in, people would have to walk up to 13 kilometers (each way) to get water that wasn’t necessarily very safe to drink. This well made getting cleaner water a lot easier for the people of Loupwala.

Later, we were honored with a celebration. The community members greeted us with traditional singing and dancing. As we arrived, a group of women, doing what I could only describe as a tightly-packed line dance, moved toward us while singing, blowing whistles, and waving around what I later found out were cow tails. Some younger people then sang and danced for us, and then we all joined in the fun. I especially enjoyed the high vertical jumping dance (if you’ve ever seen movies of Maasai dancing, it is exactly the same).

That afternoon, we walked for about an hour and a half to our next stop–a village called Nacabousan. To reach Nacabousan, we had to cross the Kerio River. The Kerio River, Fr. Martin explained, was usually bone dry in this area, but that every time he had visited, it was always flowing. This time was no different. Lightning flashes in the distance the previous night forewarned us that this would probably be the case. The river was only two or three feet deep at its deepest point, but the water was moving at a good clip. I had not anticipated this, and was concerned about 1) getting completely drenched and dirty, and 2) getting valuable possessions wet, namely my iPod. Before we crossed, I decided to give my valuables to Maria, who is much taller than me and who had a nicer backpack. That decision paid off. As I neared the opposite bank, I discovered (too late) that there was a sharp, slippery rise that wasn’t visible through the chocolate-colored water. As I went to my knees, I decided that I had nothing to lose and went all the way in. It was a decision that paid off because I felt much cooler against the mid-afternoon sun. Despite the fact that everything I was wearing was completely drenched and now a light brown color, I felt better and my iPod was safe.

On Sunday morning, we celebrated liturgy in the bush, just outside the village of Nacabousan. The altar table was built on the spot using sticks, palm leaves, and a small blackboard. The congregation sat in the shade of a large acacia–much needed because even at 9AM, the sun was already starting to beat down on us. I was surprised to see that there were matins and liturgy books translated into Turkana. The Turkana are a part of the same language group as the Maasai (different from the Bantu-based Swahili that I’m used to hearing), and I immediately noticed a similarity to the Maasai language when I first heard the Turkana speak. As with Swahili, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand every word that was being said during the liturgy. I still knew what was going on. Even with aggressive flies buzzing around, which are ever-present in the desert, I was lost in the experience. This was the first time an Orthodox liturgy had ever been held in Nacabousan. I began to wonder if St. Paul or the other early Apostles had similar experiences on their missionary journeys.

The liturgy was immediately followed by a mass baptism. 110 men, women, and children were baptized in the Kerio River. What was a curse for me on the way over had become a blessing. There was plenty of water for full-immersion baptisms! While several children splashed and swam nearby, a line of people from the river bank went into the water where Fr. Martin baptized them one at a time–again, like experiencing the early church but in the 21st century. The first one baptized was the head village elder from Nacabousan, named Salale. He and Fr. Martin had developed a strong relationship over the past few years, and I could tell that Salale’s conversion and baptism were monumental for himself, Fr. Martin, and the entire village of Nacabousan. There were at least 200-300 people watching from higher up on the river bank. Many of them went into hysterics at seeing their friends being immersed (some of them very reluctantly) in the river. We all went back to the “survival” altar that had been constructed for the liturgy and concluded the service. Watching dozens of people walk around the altar table together toward the end of the baptism was something I’ll probably never see again but won’t soon forget.

After the video shoot, we all returned to Lodwar where we met up with a short-term OCMC teaching team that had arrived the day before. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob stayed with the group for a couple of days before moving on to the shoot in Tanzania, but Maria and I stayed behind in Lodwar with the team for the duration of their teaching mission. They had each prepared different lessons to present Turkana faithful who had come from Lodwar and surrounding villages (including from over 3 hours away in Loupwala!). Fr. Moses, Fr. Zachariah, and Fr. Vladimir (who is a Turkana priest based in Lodwar) translated for the team and at the same time taught their people about church topics such as the Creed, death & resurrection, the Sacraments, and icons. I was even allowed to do a health education session. Based on a session I once gave back in 2008 during a short-term mission in Tanzania, I asked the group of about 70 “youth” to divide up into groups and come up with their own songs, dances, or sketches that highlighted major health concerns in East Africa, such as AIDS and malaria. The Turkana, like many other cultures in Africa, have a strong oral tradition that is passed along through songs and storytelling. Why not tap into that and use it for health promotion? I gave them 20 minutes to prepare, but they only needed 10. All of the groups did an amazing job, and I told them that I would put all of the videos I took of their presentations on the internet so that people all over the world could see how the Turkana use storytelling not only to pass along history but to teach others the importance of promoting good health behaviors.

Our visit happened to be in the middle of a paralyzing famine that affected the horn of Africa and spilled over into northern Kenya. Crops were failing and there was a severe food shortage. The Turkana, being pastoralists, were especially hard-hit when their livestock began to die off. People were literally starving to death. I had done a blog entry early on about African stereotypes, and I mentioned that a common misperception is that most Africans are starving and impoverished. I followed that up by mentioning that this was more of an exception to the rule–overall, they may eat much less food, but that doesn’t mean they are starving. Also, “poverty” is a relative term. If most of the people who live around you don’t have a lot of material possessions, that doesn’t necessarily make them poor. In fact, I regard most of my friends here as being richer on many levels. That said, whenever a disaster such as a famine happens, it throws what was once a delicate balance into complete disarray. Tribes like the Turkana, who can live comfortably on a basic diet and without a lot of possessions really feel the effect when the food or water supply is thrown out of whack.

I had no idea how bad the situation really was until after I got back to Bukoba. While waiting at the Lodwar “airport” for the plane back to Nairobi, I met a BBC journalist and cameraman who had just been to the same region we had. They told me that a piece they had just filmed would be airing a couple of days later and that I would be able to see it online.

Here is a link to that report: http://www.vimeo.com/27583238

Finding out about the severity of the famine after the fact made me appreciate my time with the Turkana all the more. I would have never guessed from the celebrations and fellowship we shared that they were in the middle of a major crisis. Please remember the Turkana, especially the newly-baptized, in your prayers.

Thank you to my support team!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

[Video from my Turkana experiences can be found on the OCMC website or my YouTube channel, username: mpagedas]

November 2, 2011

Real Africa: By Team Member Logan Johnson

“That’s the smell of real Africa!” These were the words of a fellow passenger as we stepped off of the small plane. What struck me initially was not the smell, somewhat reminiscent of my grandparent’s farm in rural Minnesota, but the completely exotic landscape. Lodwar is located in northeastern Kenya in what is basically a large desert with several small mountains, black and grave, in the distance.

But I was not here to survey the geography or admire the scenery. The purpose of our team was to teach. Surely God had been working among the hearts and minds of the Turkana since the beginning, but in 2007 Orthodoxy began to be part of their religious makeup and take root and grow. Today there are three native Turkana priests serving thirteen communities. In Lodwar the Liturgy is celebrated in a roofed building built with the help of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, and in other places it is celebrated in the open air on whatever is available for the priest to set down an antiminsion.

On the evening that we arrived in Lodwar, we were immediately greeted with what felt like hundreds of children grasping for our hands and giving us hugs. Three members of our team, who had been to Lodwar previously, were greeted by old friends with joyous shouts and the rhythmic jumping that is characteristic of Turkana people. I had been on a Mission Team before, and had experienced the warmth and hospitality towards strangers that is somehow lacking in much of our modern Western society, but I was unprepared for just how authentically joyful the congregation was to see us.

The joy and excitement continued throughout the week. We began our day with Orthros, and the rest of the day was filled with lectures about the Orthodox faith and spiritual life and crafts. It was during this time that we realized that their joy and excitement to see us and share their lives with us was only matched by their enthusiasm to learn. At times when we would share stories from the Bible about God’s immense love for us, they would clap and—literally–shout out for joy.

I felt that we were not only a teaching team but a learning team as well. During one of my lectures entitled “How God Works in the Church Today,” I asked the congregation to share how they have seen God work in their lives. As a Westerner, I was expecting that their experience would be much the same as my own—in times of doubt or trouble I turn to Scripture or the writings of the Saints and take comfort and advice from their words. What I heard was completely different—many stood up and shared how they had seen visions that told them to reform their lives or even come to the Orthodox Church. None had read their way into the faith, but instead had found solutions to their real problems through visions. Afterwards, when I spoke to one of the Turkana priests he told me that, due to illiteracy, there was not the same emphasis on the texts as in the West. This is just one small example of the complexity of the task of mission work among non-Western people.

After nearly two weeks of teaching, learning, worshipping, and sharing, it was time to leave. We departed—with singing, dancing, jumping, and shouting. Amidst smiles and tears, we were brought to the airport where I was able to catch the last smell of real Africa before the airplane would take me back to the routine life of my last year at seminary. The examples of love and service that I witnessed will follow me for the rest of my life and what I learned will guide and inspire my future ministry in the Church.

November 1, 2011

November SAMP Spotlight: Fr. James Omare

November SAMP Spotlight: Fr. James Omare

Fr. James Omare serves in Kenya, serving the Church of the Ascension in Mutanga and the community of Igono.

There are nearly 400 priests serving in 20 countries around the world who depend on support from OCMC’s Support A Mission Priest Program. Please help us to provide this much needed assistance by making a gift to the SAMP Program at http://www.ocmc.org, and continue to pray for these faithful servants who minister to our brothers and sisters around the world.

September 23, 2011

Turkana Liturgy: A Video from Missionary Michael Pagedas

September 9, 2011

August 30, 2011

Turkana Communion: A Video from Missionary Michael Pagedas

August 24, 2011

OCMC Team Baptisms in Turkana

August 10, 2011

OCMC in Turkana

July 26, 2011

Bringing the Christian Message to Turkana: By Team Member Stephanos Ritsi

Turkana. To me this word evokes memories of stifling heat, colorful clothes, joyous song, and vibrant dancing. This was the second trip for my wife and me to these beautiful people, located in the far northwestern desert of Kenya. Some of the Turkana people are considered an unreached people group which means that they have not heard the name of Jesus Christ, or don’t know enough about Him to become Christian. It has been a joy and an honor to minister in Turkana and we hope to return there in the future.

After a Team orientation in Boston and long hours traveling, we arrived in Lodwar, the largest city in Turkana-land. We made an additional four-hour drive through the arid desert to reach Loupwala, where our first catechitical seminar was held. As we began that last leg, we realized that we had the same Land Cruiser our Team had last year. Because of years of use on the bumpy rutted roads of the region, the 4X4 no longer worked. Not to our surprise, we soon were stuck in the soft sand. After thirty minutes of pushing and the help of another car (with a working 4X4) we were on our way again. Then darkness fell. The narrow road was at times lined by thorn trees and because of the heat all the windows were open and thorn branches would whack those sitting near the windows. After another two hours of constant vigilance from the approaching thorn bushes, and getting stuck in the sand several more times, we finally arrived at the compound of the Orthodox priest serving Loupwala, Fr. Zachariah. We set up our tents in the dark, and fell asleep.

The next day we woke up, purified water from the new bore hole built by OCMC, and walked to where people had gathered under the shade of an acacia tree. We began celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the same sacred sacrament that millions of Orthodox celebrate every Sunday across the world. As similar as the service was, it was also different. The scorching sun; the different sounds of the Turkana language; the smells of a desert; the sand blowing with the wind; the rhythmic dancing of the congregation. Yet for all the differences, the experience melded together with the familiar; the same petitions; the same readings from the Gospel and Epistle; the same Body and Blood of Christ.

Fr. Vladamir, another priest living in the region, had told us that after the Liturgy we would baptize around 20 people. We walked down to the dry riverbed to look for a pool of water although it had not rained for almost a year and the river had been dry for many months. The entire community walked as a mass of people in a giant procession towards the river. This is how early Christians must have felt. Walking together, sharing in each other’s joy. Eventually we found a pool of water and started the baptisms. 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 10 – 15 – 25 – 50 – 100 – 119! An entire community was baptized. Not 20 people, but 119! After finishing the baptisms, we slowly walked back; hot, dehydrated, hungry, tired and overjoyed. Once back at Fr. Zachariah’s compound we collapsed on the woven mats and drank as much water as we wanted. What a difference the newly constructed bore hole made from last year’s Team when we rationed our water.

The next day we were supposed to go to Nacabosan, an hour’s walk from our base in Loupwala, an area we had been invited to bring the Christian message. The priests of the area told us that there had been a falling out between the two villages, yet after much discussion we decided to go anyway. Nacabosan is also an hour’s walk from the nearest dirt road and deep in one of the most remote regions of Kenya. A little nervous about how we would be received, we walked through the already hot sun to Nacabosan. Once there we were greeted by Salale, the shaman of the village. We were shown a place they had built just for us to stay if we wanted to stay overnight and their village school, located under an acacia tree. Under the acacia tree we performed skits of Bible stories and then broke up into small groups for catechism lessons. Later the members of our team and the young adults from the village stood in a circle and took turns teaching each other the simplest songs we could remember. It was a beautiful experience of unity trying to pronounce the foreign sounds of the Turkana language, trying to teach our difficult language, and finally dancing together. We gave Salale a solar powered MP3 player with the Bible loaded in the Turkana language. Finally, before we left one of the Elders of the village led the entire village in a prayer. He thanked us for the lessons we brought about God and prayed for reconciliation with the village of Loupwala. Having finished our lessons and saying our goodbyes, we started back towards Loupwala. Forty minutes later we arrived at the dry river bed we had crossed that morning. The river had started flowing! As we crossed the river and felt the air rushing out of the newly wet sand we thought how beautiful it was to witness this blessing of God on the two villages.

While many other beautiful events occurred on this trip I would like to leave you with this thought. Thanks to your prayers and support the Church in Africa is growing. We heard stories of miracles on our trip. We saw a people embracing Christ. We saw a river flow in a drought stricken region. Going on a mission trip is a life-changing experience. As much good as you can bring to those you go to serve, you get more in return.

July 15, 2011

OCMC Mission Team Skits present the Gospel to Turkana

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