She wanted everyone to stand

She wanted everyone to stand

Quite a lot of what I do here in Tanzania I truly enjoy doing. Some of what I have to do is “less than fun” and a lot of what I have to do every day is hardly anything that people would find interesting, nothing as they say that’s worth “writing home to mom about”. Work is work, and work has to get done. But there is a part of my life here that I truly look forward to and love doing: I get a tremendous amount of joy out of traveling with Godfrey and Emmanueli to new villages where we have been invited to start new schools. Even the getting there is fun, because I truly enjoy being with Godfrey and Emmanueli. Sometimes things go wrong – like last Friday when we tried to make it to a village and never got there. I walked a good 4 kilometers in mud that in some places was so slippery that I felt like I was trying to get around on an ice skating rink and that in other places so stuck to my shoes that eventually I felt I was walking with heavy weights on my feet in some kind of crazy fitness drill. At one place, it took dozens of men a couple of hours to get our vehicle unstuck, and finally as the sun began setting and it became apparent that we simply were never going to make it to that village, we turned around. It was painful to give up ground. We had fought hard for every single one of those kilometers – and now we were retreating. But it had been raining for five days, and as one man said, even a fool wouldn’t try to keep on going.

No point in sugar-coating it – none of that kind of stuff is what I look forward to or that I consider even a little bit fun. Some people might, I suppose, like “the adventure” of it all. I’m not one of those people! For me there’s just no “thrill of victory” in that. I guess wouldn’t want the pain of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro either. But I do like being with Godfrey and Emmanueli. Because even when we’re all coated in mud, we can still all laugh together. Whether it’s enjoying freshly boiled peanuts (Godfrey found the white ones this time) or fried bananas or whatever it is, we can make our car an enjoyable place to be. I love talking with them – it’s where we dream dreams, it’s where we dissect what’s going on in Village Schools Tanzania, it’s where we talk about our kids and our families, it’s where we talk about things in life we don’t understand and wonder about, it’s where we add the cement to our relationships that has helped make these past eight years working together so fruitful. And I truly enjoy that.

But the really wonderful memorable moments, those are when we finally get to the village and we get to hold the town meetings. That is what I so look forward to and what I think I enjoy most out of all of the things that we get to do here in this work. Sometimes it may take a day or two of driving to get there, and it might all be over in two hours, but those two hours are always full of gems. I always feel energized afterwards. I come away renewed and full of energy.

Last Saturday we had three of those two-hour long meetings -- each in its own way full of memories. I just finished a nice long walk with Susan – we wandered by the soccer field and watched Josh and the other kids playing soccer, we got to see Jonathan playing volleyball with his friends, we wandered through our garden (it’s big and takes a while), we went to our secret garden that overlooks the rain forest (the view is breathtaking) and now I’m just sitting here savoring life and thinking about those three meetings. When I look back on them, I find tidbits of things that I enjoy, things I don’t want to forget as my mind slowly erases the memories of it all.

Most of the times our meetings are held in an open field or on a hillside with thousands of people gathered, but this time the meeting in Mahuninga was under literally the biggest tree that I’ve ever been under in my life. I could hardly believe it when they took me there to speak to the crowd of people. I never take pictures at those meetings because the last thing I want is for people in the village to associate me those who come to the continent with cameras, but one day after the school is built, I’ll return to get a picture of that tree just because I’d love to have it blown up and have it dominate a wall some place. I spoke for a long time, and they asked questions for an even longer time, and we had this wonderful thing going until everyone was satisfied and you felt that sort of feeling you feel after you have eaten to your fill and you truly want no more. And then the mwenyekiti officially closed the meeting, and within seconds it seemed the rain began again and we all joked about what power it was that the mwenyekiti had to hold back the rain – it was all friendly there and I felt as if I had already been a part of that village with those people forever and ever. We had crammed a lot into a couple of hours together.

And I had a lot of fun in the town meeting in Makifa as well. Those people had no tree and the place we met was about as non-descript as they come, but there it was like being an actor in a theatre in the round and I loved it. It was fun and by the time I was finished speaking and ready for questions it was as if I was one with that crowd in that village as well. What I want my brain to hold on to and remember though is how that meeting ended – the mtendaji spoke to thunderous applause saying he was convinced that since everyone in the village was of one mind that the school be built and that it be built quickly that he knew that people would be ready to throw themselves even next week into the program of making bricks and hauling stones. It was the perfect ending, the grand finale if you will, but I leapt up from where I was and as if we were in a pre-planned dance together I begged him to let me say the truth and I gave him pole over and over again as the leader of the village, telling him that we all knew that wherever there was any progress, there was always opposition! There were always some people who have it in their blood to complain, that no matter what, it is their job is to grumble and to try to oppose anything. It was laughter and merriment better than any canned laughter in a sitcom. You can’t fool me my friend just because I’m new to your village -- there has to be some people like that here too, because there are people like that in every village. They believe that the God who made the whole universe and all that is in it also made them and gave them the special job of grumbling and being a thorn in the flesh to the leaders of the village. It’s their calling in life! But hey how about we all agree that the nay-sayers go on vacation for four or five years so we can build this school, so that the kids in the village can get an education, and then after that, they can return to their normal ways of grumbling! It certainly have made everyone laugh, and we all ended happy. It was like the last hurrah at the end of the firework show – and the point had been made. My grandfather always used to tell me that no one ever grumbles about the person who sits in a chair and does nothing – but if you have vision and drive and energy and you want to work to do something, then the grumblers and the naysayers will suddenly find the energy to talk. I like telling people about my grandfather.

But as much as I enjoyed all of that, the things that have stuck with me the most -- the real treasures that I hold on to in my heart today -- are what went on behind closed doors in the meeting with the 60+ leaders from the villages of Makifa and Mahuninga, the meeting we all had together before we went out to have those two town meetings. It was in that meeting that all of the hard questions were asked and all of the leaders had their say. It was there that an old woman stood up and said I want to thank you, but I want to praise God because He is the one I know who caused your eyes to look to our village and it is He who caused your hand to be stretched out and it is He who put in your hearts the plan to come here. So I will thank you but I will not praise you. I will praise God who sent you. I can hear her words ringing again in my ears. I mean no disrespect to you but ninyi ni watumishi tu -- you are just servants -- servants of the One who sent you. And so He is the One who should be praised for His kindness and goodness. Wow the old woman who never went to theological school and who will never write some best seller everyone can pick up at their Christian bookstore had her theology really right and she knew how to make everything clear. And as I listened to her I thought that I had found my gem for the day, the treasure to take back home to tell Susan and Josh & Jonathan about. A gem indeed! A theological nugget to hold on to.

But then as the meeting had come to a close, everything had been decided, the government official said that he thought that the meeting should be closed with a prayer, but instead of looking over to the two pastors and the priest who had been invited to the meeting, he asked another old woman to pray – she was seated to his left and had remained silent through the whole meeting. I thought we’d have a nice little short prayer and I had already quickly bowed my head and closed my eyes and that was when I heard this woman say that out of reverence for the God who had shown a great grace to their two villages that she wanted everyone to stand. And then she was very silent and then that old woman began to pray. And as I listened to her reason with God I came not only to sense that I was standing there in the presence of greatness but I found myself agreeing in prayer with her. She wasn’t praying, she was in communion with God. And she was right. So right. It was a gracious favor that God was granting to them – because it was true that, as she put it, there was nothing special about their villages, they were no better or no worse than anyone else, and they didn’t want a school for their children any more or any less than other people wanted for theirs, but out of all of the villages in the country, God had seen fit to open a door for them to have a school. She was right that it would be an incredible amount of hard work for months and months. It was going to be an immense task. And they would need God’s help to keep them from getting tired, to keep them unified and to not allow anyone to descend into bickering or to worry if someone was doing less work than someone else but to simply desire with all their hearts to work, and to work hard. She poured out her heart to God reminding Him of how often she and others had prayed that there might one day be a school for their children. She reminded Him that they had counted the cost and figured out that even if everyone made bricks and hauled stones that to buy the metal roofing and the cement from the city it would work out to over 40,000 shillings for every man, woman and child and she reminded Him of how they had been so disappointed and defeated and knew that it could never happen, that it was something that they wanted so badly but that it was simply beyond their reach. And then her voice rose and I could hear her quoting words that Paul had written to the Corinthians. She was telling God that she knew that when we are weak, and we admit that we are weak, that is when we are strong. She was pouring out to God the great paradox of how God works things out. That when we are at our weakest and we admit our weakness and cry out to Him then He shows His great strength and then we can relish and delight in our weakness because then we can see His mighty and powerful hand at work. She was reminding God that what was impossible for man was possible for Him and that she was witness to it and she was seeing it now and it would be a testimony for ever and ever to her children and to her grandchildren. She was seeing how God had reached out and decided to provide for everything. Yes she would work, she would work hard, they would all work, the whole village would work. But the metal roofing and the cement God was providing. He was showing His mighty power in providing it in ways that none of us could never have dreamed of when they had prayed time and again. And there she was taking up again the theme of the first woman! In her prayers, she was praising God who did beyond what they could ask or think, and who worked out something so wonderful that it left them in awe. And she was reasoning with God telling Him that after all that He had done so far in hearing their prayers that now she was pleading with Him to give them unity of purpose so that they would not fail to do all of the hard work ahead of them. And by the time she was done and said amen I realized that I had been so caught up in praying silently in my heart along with her that my eyes were filled with tears and it was through those tears that I looked at her and saw that she was wiping the tears from her own eyes. She had poured out her heart sincerely to God to thank Him.

With the second woman, as with the first, I know nothing of her. It’s very possible she can’t even read and write, but whatever the case, I am sure that she has never gone to some theological institution to study about God – but I am completely sure that she knows God. Like that first woman who meant no disrespect to us calling us mere servants, I mean no disrespect to those who study about God – but there’s a world of difference between studying about Him and actually knowing Him and being in communion with Him. Lots of people give sermons and even more people listen to them – and they talk about faith, and they talk about prayer, and they talk about seeing the mighty hand of God at work – and then after the sermons they go about life as normal living no differently from those who never give or listen to sermons. But I was this Saturday in the presence of a woman who truly believes. I was in the presence of simple greatness. A poor woman in a remote village who believes.

All of our schools are important. They all educate kids. They are places where kids will learn about physics and God and medicine and computers, they’ll learn to lead, they’ll learn to work, they hopefully be inspired to serve. But for me this school that will hopefully soon rise up in the village of Makifa will be all that, and more. It will have a special personal meaning for me. It will stand for me in a heart as a monument to that woman who prayed for years for the impossible and who then received the impossible. It frequently happens on the opening day of a new school that I get invited to speak. I can’t imagine that that dear woman won’t be there to see that school open – and if she is, then I truly hope for all of our sakes that someone has the wisdom to ask her to pray – but if she is not with us to see the day that her prayers come to fruition and that those first students enter that classroom, then I want to store up in my heart the things that she prayed and I want to share them with those students.

We have a long list of villages where we are invited to go and speak – and so our short 36 hours here at Madisi will soon be over – and Godfrey and Emmanueli and I will be on the road again. Godfrey has the program all lined up as we move further and further west, we’ll be sleeping in a village of Lupingu in the region of Njombe on Wednesday night, a different village on Thursday night – on Friday we’ll be sleeping in a village in the Mbeya region near the Malawi border – then we head for the Rukwa region where Godfrey and Emmanueli are from and where Susan and I and the boys first lived after we ran away from the war in Congo. It is indeed as the Minister of Education said when I first asked him where we should start schools – you can go anywhere, the need is everywhere – and so we continue to go.

In each of these villages there is a story of how word got to these people and they came to invite us. But that is what is known. What cannot be known to us is how it is that the prayers of those who partner with us in America, who keep on month after month praying for open doors, get intertwined together with prayers of people like that old lady in the village of Mahuninga pleading with God to somehow make it possible for their children and grandchildren to get to go to school, and how that somehow produces what is happening here in these villages. I was blessed to be in the presence of a woman of great faith last Saturday. But I know that all over this country there are those who are praying out to God in a similar way asking Him that somehow their children will get to go to school. No books will ever be written about these people of great faith. Only God Himself knows them – and I am thankful that I have been given the privilege of meeting some of them. I learn from the incredible generosity of those who are poor. I am challenged by the unending hard labor of those who barely have enough to eat. I am inspired by the faith of those who will never have the chance to study about God, but who instead live with Him.

And now it is off to bed early because we have to be on the road by sun up tomorrow. The drive will be long, but with Godfrey and Emmanueli it’s going to be fun. And the best things will be there for us at the end of the journey when we actually get to the villages to see the people who have called for us to come to meet with them …