Africa asks that you put aside doubts and disbelief and accept both cultural and spiritual reorientation.
Weary but wide-eyed after 30 hours of travel from Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, I joined 29 students, choral director Tim Peter, college organist Greg Peterson, music secretary Doris Patterson and some alumni in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We were taking part in a Lutheran choral exchange: North American and African—in Namibia and South Africa.
I was disoriented after changing eight time zones. We traveled from a Westernized capital, which could be mistaken for San Antonio, on a long bus ride to northern Namibia. This was a different world: flat, sandy, with low-slung shrubs and trees, and roads lined with cows and donkeys who’d long ago decided the highway was theirs. Adults and children walked along the highway’s edge—blue-uniformed students, water-carriers and farmers at work in this, the planting season.
Our students sang in churches, schools, youth centers and a hospital. We quickly learned that time was slow at Namibian worship services. “Starting” at 7 meant starting to arrive, and once things got moving, well, they lasted until they ended. It took us awhile to stop looking at our watches and realize we were witnessing not just a different culture’s sense of time but a deep hospitality. Bishops, pastors, tribal kings, choirs, dancers, parishioners, students, schoolteachers and principals stopped what they were doing to attend to us. They didn’t work us into their schedule—we were their schedule. More than a few of us, I suspect, reflected on the mincing sort of reception we often offer to those who visit us at church, at school, at home.
Another reorientation was even more unexpected. One morning we traveled to Oniipa to attend a lively worship service at Oniipa Elcin Church, where many in the children’s choirs were AIDS orphans. In that same city, we visited Onandjokwe Lutheran Hospital, recognized in Namibia for its progressive treatment of HIV/AIDS patients, in a country where more than one-in-five people are HIV positive.
Picture not a gleaming high-story glass and concrete hospital complex but a large sandlot, about the size of five football fields, with plain, whitewashed barracks-style buildings serving as wards—casualty, surgery, maternity, pediatrics and AIDS. Only the last, funded with U.S. AID dollars, resembled an American medical building: bright, air-conditioned, shining inside and out.
After a Q&A session led by hospital staff, a doctor took us through the wards. I think we all felt strange, embarrassed to be emotional tourists in the suffering of those at whom we peered. It was a relief to see the chaplain come out of a small sanctuary on the grounds to invite the Luther choir to sing. Our students filled half of the church, facing forward, and when they started—Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation—they were virtually the only ones in it. But the chaplain had fixed up an old microphone, wiring it to pipe the music into the wards. From this, and from the sound coming through the opened windows, a change came.
The students sang more anthems—Lift Your Heads, Create in Me and others—and the chapel began to fill. When the benches were full, the choir sang an African song written for them by Johanna Amunkete Nambiga and taught to them by Simeon Amunkete of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia’s Hosianna Parish in Windhoek:
“Yaloo-Omuwa we tu hanganitha,
America na Namibia.
Twa pandula, Omuwa;
“Thank you, dear Lord, for uniting us,
America and Namibia.
Thanks be to you, Lord;
thanks be to you.”
The listeners burst into high, ecstatic applause. Others crowded in at the windows. Our choir director told the students: “Turn around; you can’t see what’s happening.” We all turned and saw that not only the windows but the courtyard around the chapel had filled: the old, the young, mothers with children in their arms, nurses, orderlies and frail patients. The choir sang on, and it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps at Pentecost the voices that united people of different tongues were singing, breaking into astonished hearts and minds with the Spirit of comfort, of counsel, of might.
“You will sing for many in Namibia,” said the hospital’s chief administrator, “but you will never sing to greater good than you have sung today.” Yet we knew that what happened in the bare chapel was a gift—unexpected and, so, all the more arresting and sweet, a gift of human solidarity in the glory and hope that music can embody the ceaseless fidelity of God. God is ready to invest even us, all unsuspecting, with tongues of flame.
We are home now, and the students continue to sing—raising funds through their music for the Onandjokwe Hospital, orphan relief, and education in Namibia and South Africa. I don’t know what doubts and hopes each singer brought into that chapel that day, but like Thomas we saw the wounds of Christ. In the beauty of the patients, our hosts, we saw the radical mercy of God.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers