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In a Village Church, part one

August 19, 2008

IN A VILLAGE CHURCH, part one.

A few weeks ago I went to visit one of our students, Martin Seliane, at his church.  Here is part one of what happened over the weekend.  I’ll report on the whole weekend in four updates.

Martin is in his third year here at the seminary and is a good student.  He is in his mid-forties, has been a Christian for less than ten years and pastors a church in a small town surrounded by corn and wheat fields about three hours South of Johannesburg.  He planted the church, called God’s Power Ministries, two and a half years ago.  The church is in an “informal settlement” on the edge of town and, like the dwellings around it, is made of tin and scavenged metal and wood.  The church is one room, about fifteen feet by twenty feet, and is packed with 35-40 people on Sundays.  The little kids sit on the dirt floor next to the pulpit, then the bigger kids behind them, then sitting on the benches are the mom’s with babies, then the young adults and finally the men sit in the back of the church.  There are 6-8 men in Martin’s church, which is very good for a black church of that size.

Martin is a good pastor.  He loves the people and he is with them constantly.  I have visited him twice and when he and I drive around town he seems to know everyone.  We always stop and he chats to the people about whatever is going on in their life and if they were at church or not and that they should come to church and that God wants them to believe the gospel and do what is right.  He is doing what any pastor around the world needs to do to grow a church – love God, preach His word, love the people and be with them and minister to them where they are at.  Though, I know that being a good pastor does not mean your church will grow big.  There are many other good pastors like Martin around the world that God is using and who also have small churches.

My daughter Kimberly and my son Michael went with me on this trip.  I always take some of the kids along when I visit the students.  It is good for them to meet Christians from other cultures and different circumstances in life and to minister to them.  I have them help out as much as they can when we visit churches in the villages.

We drove to Martin’s church on Friday and on the way we took two students to a major bus station in a not so good part of Johannesburg.  It was on that same Friday in that same area just a few hours later that a lot of xenophobic violence took place that many of you heard about.  God was gracious and we were fine though, and so far there is none of that going on where we live.

On Saturday morning Martin and I went to a funeral.  It was my first African funeral so Martin told me to stay close and do what he did.  We first went to the home of the mother of the deceased.  The coffin was in the front room.  Martin said they keep the body at home for one or two days before the funeral.  Needless to say, I was the only white guy for miles and I was not sure how my following Martin and being in the middle of everything would be received.  But, Martin reassured me and said, “I told them you are a visiting pastor, so it is OK and they expect that you would be involved.”

Martin then grabbed one of the handles of the coffin, but I was a little slow on the draw and five other men in the room beat me to one of the other handles.  As they walked out of the room with the coffin I became acutely aware of my standing there doing nothing and appearing dim-witted, so I looked around and saw the folding trolley on which the coffin used to be resting.  I immediately grabbed it and followed the coffin thinking, “Whew – recovered from that one.”  The coffin was loaded onto a small trailer and we drove to the town meeting hall where the funeral service would be held.

The meeting hall is about the size of a basketball court and Martin said almost all funerals are held there because everyone in the town knows they are invited.  Weddings and funerals are community events and anyone can come and at a funeral anyone can speak, a custom that was taken advantage of at this funeral.  The whole funeral, in fact everything that took place all weekend, was spoken in the Sotho (pronounced ‘soo-too’) language.  Martin told me what people were saying.

Martin, another local pastor and myself followed the coffin into the hall.  It was placed on the floor in front of a platform at one end of the room and the three of us pastors walked up on the platform and sat down behind a table.  We looked out on about 200 people who looked right back at us, and, it seemed to me, looked especially at me.

The departed was a member of the ANC (the African National Congress) which is the ruling party of South Africa.  The ANC was well represented at the funeral.  In fact, they had decorated the place with ANC flags and I sat right behind the biggest one which was draped over the table in front of me.  One by one a number of people stood up, came to the front next to the coffin and spoke about the deceased.  Then, an ANC member, one of the leaders of the 30 or so Party members who were there, got up and started in on his speech.  For about two minutes he talked about how the deceased was a member of the ANC Party and had worked for the people against tyranny.  Then he wound himself up and launched in on how the Party was taking care of everyone and bringing equality and making the world a better place.  He was a regular V.I. Lennin and the other Party members there enjoyed it immensely.  He went on for quite a while.

Then, another Party member, more a Karl Marx type, got up and said something to the talkative V.I. Lennin at which Lennin promptly wound up his little political speech.  I guess Karl Marx had decided Lennin had said enough.  I agreed.  But, Lennin immediately struck up a chorus to which the whole ANC crowd joined in.  I am not exaggerating when I say that about every five minutes Lennin stood up and got every one of the Party faithful going again on that same chorus.  The tune is still in my head.  The title is “That’s Why I’m A Communist” and the words are; “My mother was a communist, my father was a communist, that’s why I’m a communist – I’m a communist, I’m a communist, I’m a communist.”  Apparently it is no. 1 on the ANC playlist.  They sang that song about thirty times.  Sort of like singing “Just As I Am” at some churches after a sermon.

After everyone had their say Martin stood up to preach and the whole ANC gang started to walk out.  Martin is no pushover and he pointed his finger at them, spoke loudly and forcefully and said, “Stop.  Come back here.  We listened to you and now it is time for you to listen to the word of God.”  A few seconds later Marx came back in followed by Lennin and the rest of the Party members.  Martin preached a very good sermon.  He started by saying, “At funerals it is too late to preach to the deceased, so I will preach to the living.”  He was sensitive to the family and memory of the deceased, and he gave the gospel and called all to repentance.

When Martin was done the coffin was loaded back on the trailer and we all went to the graveyard.  As soon as everyone had arrived V.I. Lennin got the crowd going again on the chorus.  I thought this was really too much and was a major breach of decorum at a funeral and insensitive to the grieving family.  I told Martin this and said I was going to go tell Lennin to put a sock in it.  Martin said everyone else was already annoyed with them and they were just hurting themselves, so I let it alone.

Martin spoke for another few minutes by the grave and then the coffin was lowered down.  The family began to wail.  The mother of the deceased carried a hand-full of dirt to the grave, threw it down onto the coffin and then fainted right in front of Martin and myself.  We caught her on the way down and the family rushed over and carried her back to her chair.  Martin and I also took our turn in line and each of us shoveled some dirt into the grave.  Martin told me it would be good for me to pray after the grave was filled in because it would show I respected the family, just like my shoveling dirt in the grave showed my respect for the deceased.  After the grave was filled Marx and Lennin were over with the Party members and they were still talking loudly.  I stepped in front of the grave, looked Lennin in the eye and said loudly, “Let’s pray.”  Everyone got quiet.  I asked God to comfort the grieving and to show His mercy and grace and draw all these people to Himself.

We went back to the mother’s home where it seemed half the town had gathered for a meal.  When they brought the goat stew and vegetables I looked at it and remembered what I heard a missionary say years ago, “Where He leads me I will follow, what He feeds me I will swallow.”  The food smelled like water from a dirty gutter.  I ate all of it.  Later that evening Martin said that the family very much appreciated that I, a visiting white pastor, was fully involved in everything.  He said they especially appreciated it when I stood in line and took my turn shoveling dirt into the grave and when I ate their food.  Martin said that the next time I visit the community they will accept me because I identified with them in their grief and did everything they did.  I hope they will also remember Martin’s ministry to them and the gospel he preaches to them.

part two in a day or two

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