Friday, January 17, 2014

A journey, part 5: Jesus in Africa

This is part 5 of a story in five parts. Catch up here:
Part 1: Waiting for a sign
Part 2: A sinking feeling
Part 3: April showers
Part 4: Whispers and campfires

January of my junior year, I boarded a plane with thirteen other students bound for East Africa for five months. On the plane, I sat next to another student, John, who I’d met the day before. He was confident, friendly, attractive.

The first week in Tanzania, we sat through orientations, braved local minibuses, and went to a church together. I learned that his parents had been missionaries in Kenya. He read the Bible on the roof of the hostel in the mornings and spoke naturally about his faith. He took homeless people out to lunch and winced at stories of aggressive missionaries in Africa. He seemed the kind of strong, intelligent, and compassionate believer I needed in my life.

At night in the hostel, while the others watched a movie, John and I sat on the roof to catch the breeze.

We’d known each other less than a week. How did it even come up?

“You’ve been reading the Bible in the mornings?” he asked.

“Yeah. The book of Job.”

“Not the easiest book to get through.”

“I read Jeremiah last summer,” I said. “That was rough.”

“How so?” John had a casual, inviting manner. The sky was clear.

“God is pretty wrathful,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if I believed in him for a while.”

I smacked a mosquito on my leg. God, please don’t let me get malaria. Had I said too much? I barely knew him.

“Me neither,” he said. “My faith really took a beating last year.”

Really? Him too?

We slid easily into the stories: I had to write a paper about Nietzsche. I had to break off a relationship.  I stayed up late talking to my roommate about big questions. Somehow every time we answered each other, “Me too.”

In between classes at the university and volunteering in Dar es Salaam, John and I studied on the roof of the Swahili building. He read me a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas. I asked him more about his doubts. We sat in silence, alternating between Swahili flash cards and prayer journals. Hoping, both, to experience God again.

In the afternoons I went running with another American student, Emily. It was too hot and dusty to last longer than twenty minutes. We stretched afterwards, outside her host mom’s apartment.

“Sometime,” she said, “I want to talk to you and John more about your faith. You guys have something that seems genuine.”

Together, Emily and I read part of the gospel of Mark, the earliest account of Jesus’ life. I discovered again, with her, that Jesus was brilliant. It was refreshing, to hear from someone on the outside that belief could be worthwhile.

This is what it means to say Tanzania. Freedom from college Bible studies where I felt I had to fit a mold. The colors of the fabric they waved in the churches. That John had doubted too. Leaving behind the friends who had unknowingly hurt me by caring not enough, or too much. That Emily saw something real in my faith.

God was coming alive again.

In April, John and I traveled to northwestern Tanzania, and on Easter morning we woke to stand under an acacia tree. The Maasai people trickled in and joined us, their plaid shukas tied across their bodies, white and colored beads dangling from the egg-sized holes in their ears. We gathered to celebrate the victory of Jesus over death.

By 10:30 a.m., they began to sing, nasal and high, and the music encircled me like a wind. The joy of the Lord was in their voices. They sang out under an acacia tree, the rolling highlands of the Maasai steppe all around: “Etupiwuo Yesu!” Jesus has risen from the dead! I watched them jumping and joined in, pushing myself as high as I could, making up my own syllables to the verses I didn’t understand in their tribal language rather than remain silent in this assembly of saints. Gazing at the rolling green hills and blue sky around me, I felt as though joy and earth and God’s spirit building up in me would burst out of me, into the mountains.

This is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.

During the service, we went down to the river and eleven-year-old Sipironi was baptized. That evening over a plate of roasted goat, I heard Sipironi’s story. A year earlier, crippled by a sudden sickness and unable to eat, he’d been sent from hospital to hospital without diagnosis, a medical mystery. One morning the missionaries left him in the house to run errands. When they came back in the afternoon, he was walking. “Jesus told me to stand up,” he said.

The sky that night was big enough to hold the impossibility of it all. The stars were so many I fell to the ground in awe. Biting ants crawled into my pants and John stood laughing as I wiggled around, yelping and brushing them off my waist and dancing back to the porch for safety.

Etupiwuo Yesu! Jesus is risen.

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