After going on and on like a faucet with a broken handle, I finally tapered off in my last blog with the dismissal of the crowd of 300 heading to the baptism; after worshiping there in the hot desert for close to three hours, surrounded by warm little bodies ever-encroaching on my personal space, I was quite ready for a change of scenery. Call me a spiritual pygmy if you want, but in my book, three hours of church is about two hours too long! The congregation disperses slowly, heading off all in the same general direction. They know where they are going, although I couldn’t have directed them. They seem to have done this before. It is desert as far as you can see in all directions, a bland palette of sandy sameness. We four white guys load up into the truck and begin our drive toward the place of baptism. I’m wondering as we drive west, where can it be? Where in this desert can you find a collection of any kind of water suitable for a baptism? It is desert, much like what you’d expect, hot dusty and dry, but with surprisingly large trees dotting the landscape with leather leaves and branches covered with two-inch long needle sharp spines. I ask Francis what they are called: he waits a moment, and then with perfect comedic timing he answers, “Thorn trees.” There are also smaller shrub-like plants, and tufts of very tough clumpgrass, mostly dead. Here and there are clustered termite mounds, rising 15 or more feet into cathedral–like spires of insect devotion. We motor through the desert making up our own road as we go, and then suddenly the landscape changes, a literal shift of the color of the sand as if the great Artist opened a new tube of brown that didn’t quite match the previous. The sand further darkens as we near the river and almost instantaneously we find ourselves in palm groves, and the humidity quadruples. We get as close as we can drive, then hike a quarter mile or so on to the river’s edge, through a tropical jungle somehow finding itself unexpectedly in the middle of desert.
Aided by modern horsepower, we have gotten there long before those walking, and I wonder out loud why people struggling to find water don’t live near the river. Three answers are quickly given: One, this river floods drastically in the rainy season when the far-off mountains empty their load in terrifying torrents; but, second, a month or two from now it will be as parched and dry as a West Texas river. Good reasons. The third answer is more telling: typhoid is in the water. It seems a cruel joke, almost, that a people dying for a drink can just as easily die from a drink. It is so in many places around our globe. I heard the announcer on TV just last night saying that 25,000 children die around the world every single day because they have no clean water. My heart is saddened by that statistic, then alternately gladdened by the fact that now, due to the generosity of believers from the church I serve with in Amarillo, thousands more do have clean water, and less of them will die. Water is life.
It’s hot and now very humid, the intense near-equatorial sun bearing down from straight overhead. We scout about the river a bit, and then I look for shade. After about 45 minutes we hear the sound of distant drumbeats, an apropos soundtrack in the African jungle; it announces the impending arrival of the hundred and a half who have made a three mile walk in the searing sun to witness baptisms. Maybe a hundred more emerge upstream and stand in the river, close enough to watch the miracle of water soon to come. I’m envious of their cooler position, but afraid enough from stories I’ve heard recently about water-borne parasites that I don’t care or dare to join them. Two African pastors step down into the water, the “shore” quickly becoming extremely full; then one by one the candidates filter through the crowd and step into the swirling river; they submit to burial, each then rising to walk in newness of life. They are all sizes, shapes, sexes and ages. I see teenagers, I see grandmothers, I see a man who is the goat dealer in town; he strikes me a bit as a flim-flam man with a quick smile and the ability to make a quicker shilling. Perhaps he is getting baptized because it will be good for business? Or maybe, I hope, it is because this captivating Jesus has won his heart. It worked that way for Zacchaeus. He comes up smiling.
This ceremony moves slowly like everything else in Africa, and those of us in the riverbank gallery are wilting in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. We sit for a bit in a tiny shade under a banana tree, but there are so many spiders we soon opt for standing. After a bit I withdraw to another shady area, and find out too late that I am in fact in the nursery, complete with babies that have been laid on the ground asleep. Before long there is a lot of nursing going on in the nursery, which is strange to us, but no one seems to care much at all that a couple of white guys are standing there. Surreal.
As the 30 baptisms wind down, another post-baptismal service commences closer to the water and Travis and I are called from our shade to say a word then have a prayer. I assign the word to Travis, who handles it expertly, and I lead the prayer–a rather soggy one since I have long ago by now sweated through my shirt. The last time I was this damp inside my clothes was preaching a funeral one July in Hope, Arkansas! We slowly dismiss and begin the drive back to the Nadabal community. As we were leaving earlier I had noticed that some men were busy with preparations. There was a fire, a grate, a guy in native dress with a bow and arrow and spear, carrying a freshly skinned something. I was afraid of what this might hold in store, and now sure enough we have arrived back where we spent our morning–for afternoon “dinner on the ground” at the Nadabal Church of Christ. We are escorted back to our now re-located chairs, the only four wooden, hand-crafted chairs in the village, These are seats of honor, and we guests are told to sit and relax. Water is provided to wash our hands, British hospitality at its best, even in the bush; it is then we are served dinner. On the ground. Literally.
Roasted pieces of goat meat–ribs, shanks, shoulders–and parts I don’t recognize–are laid before us on a piece of clean cardboard, a leftover box that ironically bears the title “Feeding the World” relief program. The meat—a king’s meal—is dropped there, and we are given an overly-large very sharp knife and a handful of salt is placed on the cardboard near the meat. I love a barbecue as much as the next guy; I cook meat all the time over charcoal. But I don’t usually kill it, skin it, slice it with a spear, and cook it the same day. I hunt my meat at Wal-Mart or United! We’re a long way from the USDA, and I wonder if this will kill us, but there is no way to refuse such elegant hospitality. We eat, and I am delighted to find it is extremely hot; it tastes wonderful. We each eat a respectable amount, then our bones and leavings are quickly carried to a group of men who re-gnaw them, and eat every little piece of fat and gristle we could not chew. Even the dog gets a bone, which surprises me. Guess he’s a Christian, too. It humbles me that we are the only people eating at this point; meat will certainly not be on everyone’s menu.
There seem to be no napkins or silverware in the less citified parts of Kenya, hands and fingers being the main utensils. So after the meal water is once again poured over our hands; the next course is Chi–Kenyan tea–which is a mixture of tea, water, sugar and milk. I love it! Of course, this tea is made from well-water, and we have been told that drinking anything but bottled water will kill us. But courtesy prevails again as we toast our uncertain fate and throwing caution to the wind we drink the chi from little tin cups. It is boiling hot, which reassures me. And it is good. Our simple but extravagant feast has come to a close as it nears 4:00. Just when I am sipping the last of my tea, Francis Bii brings around a little girl who is an orphan. I have seen her several times today already; she is deformed, suffering from a serious club foot and some hand deformity. Her name is Chrotine. Another child is brought around, Elkatarot. He has mental challenges, and no home. He needs a sponsor. So does Chrotine. They need someone who will pay $35 a month to see that they are housed, fed, clothed, schooled, remembered, loved, and taught about Jesus. It seems a lot to get all of those things for only $35 a month. In about 15 heartbeats, I am their sponsor, and they all of a sudden have “a place at the table.” I wonder if they can possibly understand what has just happened; I try to tell them through an interpreter that I will be making sure they are cared for, that I will be praying for them. I now have children in Africa, the very first of a hundred our church will sponsor by the time Christmas rolls around. I’ll write more about them another time!
As I try to fit all of this day’s images and impressions in my small brain, it dawns on me that we are so different, me and these Kenyans who live in a dauntingly extreme wilderness 12,000 miles away from my doorstep. Our lives are as different as fire and water. They have their rituals, I have mine. They have their language, I have mine. We have different worries, different hopes. We dress differently and pass the hours of our days with so little in common. I live in 2013 and they live, mostly, in 1812. Yet in the midst of all the diversity and disparity, there is one ritual of this day that we share completely. Baptism. And this simple, mysterious act breaks down all the barriers we see; they are now one with each other and with me in Jesus Christ. We are now family, having each been adopted. We are church and community. We sing to the same Jesus, we are loved by the same Father, we are inspired and indwelled by the same Holy Spirit. Our God knows no lines drawn on maps by wars and politicians and presidents. Their Father is my Father, their King my King. And as different as we are, we are in Christ exactly the same.
How could I not have known that before? I’m sure that I did, but it makes me feel good to know it again. We drive away from Nadabal finally, to inspect more potential and existing well sites; when we return in a couple of hours, the crowd at the Nadabal community center/school/church building has dispersed into about three smaller groups, napping or sitting under various shade trees, some of the ladies working on native crafts they will sell in town to eke out a living. We roll to a stop, and as the cloud of dust settles in and around our Hilux truck, fifty joyful children run over, crowding around once again to catch a close-up glimpse of the muzungus inside, One of them is mine. He’s taller than the rest, so he stands out. I don’t see the other, but I hope I’ll get to come back some day and see them again. If not, I’ll see them in heaven. The worship there, with a thousand tongues, and countless thousand thousands of people from all nations–but now one, under one King–may even sound a lot like the church singing and praying under the tree at Nadabal. I can hardly wait!