Humour in missions (1)
My one colleague had a policy: To be a successful missionary, you need a good sense of humour and a bad sense of odour! (I’ve already mentioned the slaughtered goat hanging in the sun!)
Many humorous things have happened throughout my years in Swaziland. Shortly after I came to Swaziland I received a phone call from a farmer towards the Eastern part of Swaziland. I work as missionary amongst the Swazi people, but the White, Afrikaans-speaking community in Swaziland still have their own, exclusively White and Afrikaans-speaking congregation. We are related in that we have the same Reformed source, but otherwise there is very little sign of visible unity between the two congregations. But that is another (sad) story.
The farmer phoned me. One of their members had had a baby and the couple would like the baby to be baptised. But their congregation did not have a minister at that stage. Would I be willing to preach at their church and also baptise the baby? I made a quick calculation. Their church starts at 9.00 am. Our church service starts at 11.00 am. I looked at the map. (At that point I still did not know that in Swaziland you NEVER look at a map to find the distance between two points. You ASK!). The two points are about 70 kilometres apart. I could easily travel that in 40 minutes (according to the map). So if the first service stops at 10.00 am, then I can easily be at my own church in time where we had already planned to celebrate the holy communion. So I agree. I travelled to the farmer and his family on the Saturday (about 160 km – gravel) and slept over at their house.
That night, as I was lying in bed, something struck me. I had forgotten to bring the things I needed for the communion service. Because my congregation consists of different “preaching points” it becomes too expensive to have everything you need for communion in all the different places. So the missionary travels around with the bread and wine and glasses and a tray for the glasses, etc. And I had left everything at home. There was nothing I could do about it, so I decided the best would be to sleep and to try and make a plan the following morning.
Arriving at the church for the first service, I found out that the church building had been erected by the community and that four different denominations each use the one building at alternate times – a wonderful thing to do, I thought. The Roman Catholic church had started with their service at 8.00 that morning, but the rule was that each service had to be restricted to one hour so as not to cause inconvenience to the next group. So at 9.00 the Reformed congregation was waiting impatiently outside the door for their scheduled hour, but there was no indication that the Catholics were intending to exit very soon. This is mostly a farming community and farmers can become VERY impatient – which they did. Some of the older people were walking to and fro, muttering under their breath and become very itchy with the situation. At around 9.30 the doors opened and the Catholics came out. Then we entered the building. But what I saw was not my normal impression of a church. This was a Roman Catholic Church, with the altar table in the centre of the church, the pulpit to the side and the crucifix behind the table.
I have often wished that I had had a video camera that day. Two of the oldest members took the altar table, and with a determined look on their faces, they moved it to a room at the back of the church. Then they took the pulpit and moved it to the centre of the church, according to Reformed tradition. Someone else, with an equally determined expression took hold of the crucifix and put it somewhere where nobody could see it and brought an Afrikaans Bible and placed it on the pulpit. In two minutes, the Roman Catholic Church had become Reformed. I’m sure that Martin Luther would have envied them that day!
The rest of the service went smoothly, except that I was being pressured for time, knowing that I still had to do something about bread and wine and I still had 70 kilometres of gravel to travel to my own church. I cut the sermon short and immediately after the service jumped into my van and drove off. The first place I stopped was at a little store – I was hoping to find grape juice. But they did not have grape juice. I don’t think they even knew what I meant. I stopped at the next (and last) store with the same result. I then tried to find grape fruit juice, but no luck. They had fruit juice, but no grape. I then opted for any re-coloured fruit juice. In the end the closest I could find was raspberry fruit juice. With a loaf of bread under my arm and a box of raspberry fruit juice in my hand, I triumphantly left the store. But now it was nearly 10.45 am. Even on tarmac I would not be able to reach my church in time – and this was not tarmac, as I quickly realised! This was also long before mobile phones. So, praying that God would protect us as I travelled at a crazy 60-70 kilometres per hour on the gravel and that God would keep the church members in the church, I went as fast as I could to my next church service. I stopped there at 11.45, only to find that the church members were all there. For the previous 45 minutes they had been singing, patiently waiting for me to come. All my own stress had been in vain. The leader of the congregation came out to greet me and I told him of my problem with the glasses and the bread. The bread was no problem – he had already provided bread for the communion. He walked down to his home and brought back six cold drink glasses on a tray. When it came for the time of the communion, I poured the raspberry fruit juice into one glass, doubling as a jug, then poured the fruit juice from my “jug” into the other glasses and served communion to five members. Then the glasses were brought forward again, I refilled them and so the process went on, all the time with the church members singing, until everyone had received bread and wine.
Afterwards I tried to imagine what a catastrophe it would have been if the members at the first (White) church had been in that situation. I would never have heard the end of it. As it was, nobody ever talked about it. In fact, nobody thought that anything strange had happened – it was only I who saw the humour in that day.