Monday, 3rd May
Another moment this evening that will go down in the memory for years to come. On Thursday morning last, twenty-five members of the church travelled an hour to Kigali airport, to greet three of us: in their Sunday best, bearing bunches or orchids, and joining in impromptu singing.
Tonight, the adults amongst their number organised a farewell meal for us; there were speeches and laughter and a sense of being wanted.
Perhaps that is the strength of the African church, that sense that everyone matters. The welcomes at the beginning of a service may take fifteen or twenty minutes and no occasion can pass without someone standing to say a few (or more!) words, but there is an inclusiveness, no-one is unimportant.
Standing to say ‘thank you’, there was an overwhelming sense of being amongst friends; we might need an interpreter to understand each other, but we could speak to each other with warmth and with deep affection. The formal handshakes that would have marked the conclusion of an occasion in Ireland were replaced with hugs for many of those present.
If any church is near to what Jesus intended, it is this little community of people, with their daily attempts to serve the poor, and the joyful worship of those who gather not only on Sundays, but at 6 am each Tuesday and Saturday to sing and pray before going to their daily work.
What is it that they possess that makes their church different? It is a sense of community that makes their faith real and living. Community is more than speaking to people in the neighbourhood, it is about expressing concern in tangible and material ways for people you might not even like, but that you love because that is what your faith is about. Community can be unattractive because it places obligations upon us, but without community we fail to be the church.
Lesslie Newbigin once wrote:
It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered round an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought-and is seeking-to make explicit who He is and what He has done. The actual community is primary; the understanding of what it is comes second.
The people of Gahogo, without the privilege of formal theological education, come closer to Jesus’ intention than generations of prelates and academics.