A church without walls (literally)
A PC(USA) mission letter from Zambia (2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 141)
“This harvest, there will be much food. We will not go hungry. And we have time for other things, too. We do not spend all our time in the fields. We have time to enjoy the life that God has given us.” Her pride was almost tangible, her joy infectious.
I looked at her, and beyond her, past the rough branches that acted as non-existent walls. The sky was brilliant blue and the clouds, white and fluffy like a child’s drawing. An artist couldn’t make walls so magnificent, I thought. Like a mural on a cathedral, this church had only sky and field, grass and crops, to create an image for worship.
The pastor spoke again, about the seminar they held on child sexual abuse. How to prevent it, how to report it, how to fight the stigma and the judgment that can create a double victimization. Another woman stood, “Even if the man is the one who brings in money, we still will not accept it. It is a disease that hurts us all.”
A report was handed to us ― four pages of detail about this congregation’s Community Health Evangelism (CHE) projects:
- providing nutritional supplements to people living with HIV
- enhancement of security in women- and child-headed homes
- planting moringa trees to supplement child nutrition
- teaching about natural insecticides
- conservation farming seminars and model plots
- seed and cassava distribution
- holistic evangelism programs
- solar cooking seminars
- working with 200 households on food security.
It was all there, on the paper, but it was also there, on the faces of the 30 men and women in that wall-less church. They were getting things done.
This congregation in Kabwe, Zambia, is a few hours north of the capital. It is one of three CHE sites run by our partners, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), Synod of Zambia.
The congregation is growing: five years ago, there were fewer than 10 people at worship on Sunday. Today there are 60. The people of Kabwe CCAP are working ecumenically on the CHE project. In fact, during this meeting, there were five denominations represented, working together to create and sustain health in their community.
Having served as a parish minister in the United States for 12 years, I honestly can’t imagine a congregation meeting in a building without walls, with tree branches driven into the dirt to hold up a tarp roof. Pieces of plastic were tacked onto scraggly boards, an attempt to keep out the rain.
But instead of saying, “Hey, we really need to focus on our building project before we start working on nutrition, agriculture, HIV/AIDS, child nutrition, sexual abuse, holistic evangelism, seed distribution, etc...” Instead of holding off on the outreach, holding off on the justice work, holding off on the acts of mercy and compassion, this congregation has decided that it is okay without walls, for now.
They will keep on worshiping, keep on singing, keep on praising God. And they will keep on serving, keep on caring, keep on feeding their community.
While there, we went to visit a woman who had donated part of her land as a model plot for conservation farming, and another part of her land to sustain and feed the pastor.
She beamed with pride as we saw the abundance of her land, the crops growing strong and tall and green. Food. There was food. They would be hungry no more.
I am hungry for a faith like this, for a church like this, for a world like this where our walls are as beautiful as God’s own sky, because we have forgotten to use any bricks.
Instead, we have spent our time and our money and our energy on feeding one another, caring for one another, serving one another. And we realize that we don’t need the walls, after all, because the church stretches forth, in field upon field of cassava and groundnuts and maize and sweet potatoes.
Being here in Zambia feeds me. This faith feeds me ― in the beauty of the land, the faith of the people, the strength of the women, the gentleness of the men, the resilience of the children. I am fed as I watch the people of the church feed one another.
And while I can offer support and encouragement, while I can help with trainings and education, while I can walk with our partners here, it is God who is doing something incredible, and I have the blessing of bearing witness.
I hope that you also feel blessed to be a part of this ministry. As you lift us up in prayer, as you offer your financial support, as you send encouraging notes, you participate in this church without walls. You are a part of this miracle of feeding, this harvest of love, this sustenance of the spirit. I want to thank you, so deeply, for participating in this beauty. And I do hope, very much, that you are feeling fed, as well, that this ministry is also a blessing to you.
The people of Kabwe inspire me to give more, to do more, to offer more. I hope that they might inspire you, too. We ask that you continue to support us with prayer, finances, and notes of encouragement. It means so very much, and it truly feeds us. As we continue to work together, to farm together, to grow together, may we all move closer and closer to worshiping in a church without walls.
This harvest, there will be much food. Thank God for this harvest!
Joel, Kari, Frankie, and Johnny