Sunday, 23 December 2012

Let's hear it for the babies!

Groningen. Enschede. Dogbo.

In Groningen, in one of the university buildings, hulks the multimillion-euro Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. Hannah was there, this week, working on an archaeological research project. In the bowels of the great monster slowly turns a carousel with some fifty polished metal cartridges. At the tip, each contains a minute amount of graphite. Every 45 minutes or so a new cartridge is subjected to many, many volts of electrical power, disintegrating the graphite molecules and hurtling its component nuclear particles through a massive horseshoe magnet and around the corner into an array of highly delicate sensors. And just as light is bent and separated by a prism into its various colours, so the isotopes of carbon separate from less to more heavy as they pass through the magnetic field. 12C, 13C, and finally 14C. Analysis of the proportions of these isotopes in the graphite sample offers an indication of its age. Cost per sample approximately €350. And that’s where Hannah comes in. The graphite, in this case, had been reduced from bone samples: first leaching away all the calcium and impurities, then by some modern-day alchemy transforming the remaining collagen into the cartridges’ load. The bone samples, in turn, had been harvested on Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria. With her colleagues, before Assad’s days turned sour, Hannah had uncovered graves from well before the time of Abraham. Among others – and now I am more or less getting to the point of this lengthy introduction – the grave of an infant prematurely born. Let’s say it was someone’s daughter. Further analysis of her bones indicated that she had been coaxed into drinking her mother’s milk, and that her struggle for life must have continued for up to two months. And then she died. Nameless to us, she was loved by her mother. That’s one of the things an archaeologist needs to deal with. This little stone-age girl is more than an object of study. She was someone’s baby. By the way she was laid to rest, carefully, comfortably, accompanied by a few ornaments and a little votive bowl: someone cared, tiny as she was. And opening her grave means getting to know her, and through her, her mother, her family, her culture. That she died matters. Just as much as it matters that your little baby lived. Or perhaps died.
In Enschede, starting last week, stands the Glass House, manifestation of ‘3FM Serious Request’. A popular Dutch radio station has hosted this initiative each Christmas for the past decade or so. Each time in a different city, three persons, BN-ers (‘Well-known Netherlanders’) from the entertainment industry, are locked into a glass studio. Visible in all but their most intimate moments to the Christmas-shopping public, unable to partake in pre-Christmas cheer, unable to go home to their loved ones, unable to eat-drink-and-be-merry. From the moment the door is locked behind them until their release on the night before Christmas, they will be there, taking their turn behind the microphones and soliciting donations for aid and development projects. A simple philosophy drives the initiative: Christmas is for giving. Not just to ourselves, for once, but to those who are less fortunate. Each year, ´Serious Request´ touches the hearts of more people, young and old. Millions of euro´s are brought to the Glass House or pledged online. This year, the object of the project is to counter needless deaths of Third World babies. `Let´s hear it for the babies´, is this year´s slogan. Prematurely born, but with every chance of surviving, given the necessary care. Or 2 months old and dehydrating because of diarrhoea, perfectly treatable for less than the price of a can of soda. Or a year old and struggling to gain weight because of ignorance and a wholly inadequate diet. Not everyone’s heart is touched. I read columns and blogs entitled: Why I won’t be giving for A Serious Request. A cynic to the left proclaims: the money would be better spent promoting birth control; overpopulation is what we should be fighting, not the death of babies who will only grow up in unremitting poverty. And a concerned Christian to the right: what humanistic hypocrisy, to be soliciting funds for relief on the one hand, while excluding God from aid programs and promoting abortion on the other. No doubt they’ve both got a point. But at Christmas time and always: when a baby dies it matters.
In Dogbo, babies die. And other babies live. We just spoke to Mariette, and she was very happy to say that little Joyce was doing much, much better. Yes, Mariette: we left the baby in her charge after its release from hospital two weeks ago, and our departure for the Netherlands, where we are spending time with family and friends. Little Joyce was eating and drinking, accepting her medication and her vitamins, and gaining weight by the day. Just this morning her father had re-appeared, shamefaced but relieved as well. He had spoken of the sickness and disappearing of his wife, of his own powerlessness, and of his joy that his baby had survived. Mariette had asked permission to keep the baby with her for the time being. Permission? he had said. It is I who should ask your permission before deciding anything concerning the child. She is with you and your ‘patron’, and now she is alive. It seems we have adopted a baby. I’m not sure what is to become of that, but one thing is certain. She matters.
Let’s hear it for the babies!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Joyce - €14.50/kg

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms….” Imagine a poverty-stricken country, population living from hand to mouth, and children being born in ever-growing numbers but in fact unprovided for. Could well be Benin. But this passage in fact refers to Ireland at the beginning of the 1700’s. So begins Swift’s Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Public.  His proposal is as ingenious as it is modest: I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout. The flesh of yearling children as an export product: think  of all the advantages!

How much is a year-old child worth? Joyce, in this case. We first met her about three weeks ago at the centre in Madjre, strapped to the back of her mother, one of the mentally ill there. Or so we thought. Not her mother at all. For it turns out that the father, background and domicile unknown, had come visiting a relative there, with Joyce in his arms. Joyce’s mother, he said, could not care for the child. And then he departed, leaving Joyce behind. I’m not sure how he managed that, but there she was. To all intents and purposes orphaned. Another mouth to feed, though  true, it is a very small one. Joyce must be about a year old, looking at her dentition and her motor skills; but at her four kilos hardly the size of a year-old. Sadly, in Benin that is hardly rare. Malnutrition, even for children who have not been abandoned, is rife.

This morning we saw her again, still strapped to the same back. Marijke was the first to spot it, and Mariette immediately agreed: Joyce looked like she was dying. Her fingers, which should be brown-black, were a pale pink; the whites of her eyes were whiter than they ought ever to be. And dull. Like her general skin tone. And the slack apathy of her face. Extreme anaemia, there could be no doubt. This girl needed hospitalization without delay, if she was to make it through another night. I phoned Raoul: we need to talk, I said. The baby is dying.

You should understand that there is no professional care at this centre. No-one trained in doing diagnoses. No nurse, psychiatric or otherwise. There is a lot of love and a lot of commitment, a few volunteers (mostly ex-patients) who help with the cooking and with supervision, and there are Raoul and his wife. The latter two decide on and dispense medication, assign tasks to volunteers and to patients, and try to keep the centre financially afloat. Not easy to do. We had arrived that morning around eleven o’clock. It wasn’t until I opened the children’s Bible to the story of Jesus’ multiplying of bread and fish, that we discovered how hand-to-mouth existence is. I asked, by way of introduction: Avez-vous bien manger? In Benin that question is a courtesy question, like  How are you?  in English. No-one expects to hear: Non, in response. But that is what I heard. No-one had eaten at all this morning. There was no diesel to run the flour mill. No corn flour, no boullie, no pâte. No-one had eaten. Which means that Joyce hadn’t eaten either. And even if she had, there would have been little nutrition in it for her. All the love and commitment in the world doesn’t provide a malnourished little girl with what she really needs.

Raoul arrived 15 minute later, harried: he had been on his way from Azove to Lokossa, trying to ferret out where the funds for the centre – which had been wired to Ecobank – had ended up. Yes, he said, he knew the baby wasn’t doing well.  But everyone was hungry, and there wasn’t anyone who could look out for her better than the girl who was playing mother. I said: we’ll take her, but there’ll need to be some authorisation, won’t there? Do you have any papers saying who she is, or who is responsible for her? He looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues. No, he said. Just take her, if you will. I’ll find someone to go with you, and to stay with her at the hospital. (That bit didn’t surprise us: at the hospitals here the staff do not do more than strictly, strictly medical duties. Washing, cleaning, cooking: that’s what the family is for.) One of the kitchen volunteers was asked to go along. Time came to go: but not before Raoul and Mariette and Marijke had been able to almost convince the girl whose baby Joyce had been for the last few weeks that we weren’t taking her away forever.

We arrived at Gohomey: the hospital where Joyce would most be most likely to survive, Mariette was convinced. The hospital is run by Catholic sisters and is reputed to be clean and able to do blood tests and transfusions. The verandas were lined with mothers and fathers awaiting their turn. Mariette, very assertively, managed to negotiate a consultation well ahead of most in the line. Second, actually, right after a baby with extremely high temperature. The nurse did what nurses do: Joyce was temped, examined and a chart was opened. We were sent to another veranda with another door labelled laboratory. Where a very kind technician did very unkind things to Joyce, trying to extract sufficient blood from veins virtually impossible to find. We were all in tears by the time she succeeded.

The test results were ready 15 minutes later. Blood count almost off the bottom end of the scale. This baby needs a transfusion, right now, the doctor said. But we don’t have any blood. He shook his head. I do, I said. Same blood type: 0 positive. And if that’s not enough, Marijke has lots more… There was a lot of relieved joking on the veranda after that. A man we did not know offered blood of his own. No, told him, yovo blood is much stronger. Mine is what she gets… Another blood test followed, this time to verify that I was indeed 0 positive. And not long afterwards I was lying in an ancient recliner, watching myself fill a 400cc blood bag. Don’t forget to have some soft drink afterwards, I was told. And then the bag was detached, brought over to the other veranda, and Joyce was taken to the ward.

We stayed until the drip was regular, and then we left. The kitchen volunteer remained. Joyce was semiconscious, but there was no more we would do.

Tonight we went back. She was still attached to tubes, but now just receiving saline. She was sleeping. Her colour was amazingly normal. Fingers, eyes, lips. Joyce was back. All four kilos of her.

Some time later we were back with food. Which she refused to eat, incidentally. Because her right hand was still attached to the immobilizing board and the tubes. And her left hand: she never eats with that. And no one, no one else but Joyce herself gets to feed her face.

Back to my question: how much is a year-old child worth? Well, I don’t know that. But I know what she cost us today. A pint of blood. And FCFA 38.000 or €58,00 all-in: from syringes to analysis to hospitalisation to a bag full of medicines and vitamin solutions. That makes about €14,50/kg. A bargain.

(And that in times when aid to developing countries is being decimated… May I make a modest proposal?)

Sunday, 25 November 2012


A year ago I began my first blog with these words: ‘Today we said goodbye to Holland and our African adventure began in earnest.  I don’t remember ever having been so  completely enveloped in love as during the hour we had at Schiphol. God has truly blessed us with a wonderful family!’ So many things have happened in the past year, so many things have changed also, but this one thing remains. If anything, it has become even more true. Family is God’s miracle. Sometime a miracle that hurts, in the missing. But also a miracle that heals, when brothers and sisters come together to give each other support. We love you, kids! And so does God!

And God loves Vovokame too. I’m actually not sure of the spelling. There is no sign to this village, about 3 kilometres from Dogbo. Just a mud track turning off to the left along the road to Ayomi. The track passes a half kilometre of rice fields, then on higher ground the manioc and corn, and then, there it is: undistinguishable from the many other villages we have seen here in the Mono-Couffo. Mud and thatch, mud and corrugated iron, concrete and corrugated iron: huts laid out with no apparent pattern or design. At the entrance to the village on the left an unfinished and slightly unkempt church. No name. And to the right a frame to which is attached a pipe coming out of the ground from which water gushes permanently, falling into a ragged pond and streaming away in the direction of the rice fields.

We were there a few weeks ago at the invitation of a group of young men. Gregoire, our friend and occasional driver, who lives in Dogbo, originally hails from Vovokame. Four or five years ago he was firmly pagan, recently married to a second wife, and filled with jealousy and greed, he says. But God took hold of him. Gregoire accepted Christ and his life was given new direction. Unknown to us, he did what Christians do: he spoke of his faith to his friends and family in Vovokame. They had seen the changes in his life and they were curious.  And then, about a month and a half ago, he arrived with a surprising bit of news: Pasteur, there are people in our village who want to have a Reformed church planted there. Could you meet with us at my house in Dogbo to explain what needs to be done? This was the first time I had ever heard of Vovokame. But obviously God had been a bit more observant than I. 12 young men were waiting for us that Friday evening at Gregoire’s house. Gregoire introduced us and pointed to the oldest, a man of perhaps 30. This is Lambert, the leader of the church. And then the others introduced themselves. One had been baptized, in a Pentecostal church, or was it Apostolic: he wasn’t sure. The others were new converts or still on their way. All confirmed: yes, a Reformed church is what we want for our village. We talked, we read the Bible, we prayed, and we made an appointment for a visit to the village.

Sunday evening a week later we arrived. Together with Norbert, elder at Agame, and Théophile, our Beninese pastor from Cotonou. We threaded our way through haphazard Vovokame. Past the unnamed church and the village spring, between the houses and across the yards. I almost tripped over a Legba: a clay mound decorated with bicycle parts, the horns of a buffalo, and assorted knife blades, the whole encrusted with a oily paste of blood and feathers and maize porridge. To our left a grave was being dug. Adult-size. Just off the porch of the house where the deceased had presumably lived. The dead and the living stay in close proximity in traditional African culture. Gregoire had said: 85% of the people in my village are still pagan. One of the larger houses had been prepared for our meeting:  a table, with three or four chairs at the far end of the room for the visitors, benches filling the rest of the space. Norbert later said: there were more than 50 people in that room! Children, teenagers, women, men. Once again we had the chance to talk, to ask questions, to clarify motives and to explain possibilities. We left, encouraged, if not to say slightly overwhelmed.

Look, said someone: this is the parcel where we can build our church. Right in the middle of the village. Yes, said someone else, but we also have another parcel along the road to the village, if you like that one better. Two prospective members had already pledged a piece of property. We said that it would be better for them to make a decision themselves, independent of us. Best for us, not knowing the unspoken realities of Vovokame, to avoid creating dissension or envy. We walked back to the car, past the church already there. One thing, I said. Before we do anything: there is already a church in Vovokame. And it would not be right for us to come into your village in order to compete. We want to share the gospel. But we do not want to steal another church’s members. If we are going to establish a Reformed church here, we first need to talk to the elders of the church that is already here! Our companions were not taken aback. We expected you to say that, one said. We will arrange a meeting with them as soon as possible.

And so we were in Vovokame again a week later. Besides Gregoire, Joseph, deacon in Dogbo, had come with us. Three elders and a deacon, I think it was, were there to meet us in the house of the head elder. They were kind and courteous and welcomed us as we have become used to being welcomed here. Gregoire introduced us, we explained how we had come to be invited  and what we would and would not be willing to do in Vovokame. You are here as Christian church already, I said. This is your village, God’s field in which He put you to work. In this village, you are the senior brother. And should we come here to start a Reformed church, we would be no more than your junior brother, come to help you on God’s field.  And then the head elder, Rigobert, spoke: in all honesty, it disquieted us to hear that there had been a yovo Pasteur from another church here. We were worried. Had he come to take away our members? Would the new church cause disunity among the Christians here? But we know Gregoire. We know who he was before. And we have seen how he has changed into a new person. We have heard your words. And we understand why you are here. On behalf of our council and of all our members, we would like to welcome you. We need you. God’s field here is too large for us. Besides, in all honesty, our lives as Christians fall short. Joseph, our deacon, asked a question. What would you say, if for example one of your own children would decide to join the Reformed church? Rigobert replied:  I would be happy. I, for one, have not been a good father for my children. I have been such a bad example in so many ways. How can I hope to convince others in our village to accept Jesus Christ when my life has so many faults? Please, come into our village and help us start again.

Humbled, we said goodbye. God must have plans for this village, we concluded. We invited the group to come to Dogbo, to visit a church service there and see for themselves how a Reformed church service is conducted. They did, a week later. About ten of them, all piled into Gregoire’s four-passenger taxi. They came, they saw, they shared a time of worship.

And then this afternoon, Gregoire came by. I had given him a package of materials for the group: Bibles, catechism books, liturgical booklets.  I was in Vovokame today, he said. And the people there have come to a decision. Since visiting Dogbo, they have held meetings every Sunday afternoon. And today they decided that they were going to form a church. Today they read what Paul writes to Timothy about church leaders, and they have confirmed their decision to let Lambert take that position. They would like to build a simple chapel on the parcel of land in the middle of the village. And once they are ready, they will be asking the elders of the ERCB to accept them within the church as a new parish.

What else could we do but praise God? I started to tell Gregoire about what DVN would perhaps be willing to do to provide some financial assistance, but he interrupted me. No, he said, God has done a miracle. They do not need or want any help like that. Everyone there has pledged to buy materials and to take part in the construction, the parcel has already been cleared, and within four or five days, the chapel should be standing. And next Sunday there will be an inaugural church service.

Guess where we will be going to be, God willing, next Sunday morning at 10 o’clock? I think it will be a good Sunday. Enveloped in God’s love at Vovokame. Family of a different kind. We still miss our own, more than we can say sometimes, but something like this is an enormous encouragement. Miracles still happen.

(Photos by Jurrien)

Thursday, 8 November 2012


“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4.33)

I saw Nebuchadnezzar today. She was about thirty, I think. I have no idea whether she was humbled for walking in pride. But humbled she was. On all fours, down in the dust with the same sinuous subservience that you see with a dog too often beaten. Her mouth gaping in a rictus of appeal , an arm raised as if to beckon and to shield herself, both at once. Every shred of human dignity departed, naked from her bush to her breasts. Marijke said of those, as we were leaving: small like a child’s, but obviously used for suckling. What happened to the children this woman must have borne, before she was driven away?

It was on the way back from Madjre. Marijke’s blog tells of what we do there. A centre for the mentally disabled and psychiatrically afflicted. Men, women, children plucked from the roadside, from village hovels, freed from shackles and given shelter by a man called Raoul Agossou. Facilities beyond primitive, but home to love and respect. Every week on Thursday morning we spend an hour or so with the people there, talking, touching, playing, singing, reading and praying. There are those in that place who perhaps no more than a few months before were totally unaware of themselves as people, as human beings, as creatures after God’s image. Like Nebuchadnezzar.

On the way back from Madjre this morning we stopped to greet our friends the Celestes. And as we walked onto the terrain, there she was, calling out to us with incoherent cries from the other side of the dusty square. No-one but us paid her any attention as we sat down to talk. It was about two weeks ago that she had arrived at this place, we heard. From somewhere near Toviklin, about  15 km away through the bush. Since then she had been hanging around like this. One of the many nameless fou’s that wander about in Benin, scouring the countryside for things edible.

She didn’t approach us; but she kept calling out. So as we were getting up to leave, Marijke decided to walk towards her. I watched as the smile widened, the body arched upwards. Again, for all the world like a dog; you know, the kind that can hardly believe someone is actually coming over to pet it.

Two things happened at that moment. I don’t know which affected me more. She became a woman, grabbed hold of Marijke’s outstretched hands and wouldn’t let go. What she meant to do, to say: God only knows. It was a moment of human contact; but so intense that it was a bit frightening as well. Marijke struggled to be released.

And at the same time, the people around me laughed. They laughed at Marijke, I think, for treating this woman like a human being. That was the kind of laugh it was. With a touch of amazement, a helping of scorn, and a portion of amusement. They laughed at the woman too, the spectacle she presented. No-one seemed troubled, no-one was shamed, no-one moved to help. Then the moment passed and Marijke was able to step away. The woman lowered herself back into the dust and her animal existence.

It was an awful thing that came upon Nebuchadnezzar.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

It takes a village to raise a child

“This ancient African proverb teaches eternal truth….”  I read somewhere. And somewhere else: This proverb exists in different forms in many African languages. The basic meaning is that child upbringing is a communal effort. The responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger family (sometimes called the extended family). Everyone in the family participates, especially the older children, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even cousins. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods with their grandparents or aunts or uncles. Even the wider community gets involved such as neighbours and friends. Children are considered a blessing from God for the whole community. Inspiring, isn’t it, African wisdom?

Take Synthia, for example. Eleven years old. Only just starting to become a bit self-conscious about the tiny growths which have begun to appear on her chest. Yes, she is reaching the age of particular vulnerability. So, when we heard from her mother that she had now already twice tried to run away, we immediately began to worry. Synthia wasn’t living at home with her mother. But with an aunt, the sister of Synthia’s father, who had died when his daughter was but a toddler. Indeed, ‘it is not unusual for African children’ to stay for long periods with closer or more distant relatives, sometimes loved, sometimes exploited as little servants, sometimes abused in all the ways you can imagine. We had once visited the household where Synthia was staying: various family members and apprentices and vague hangers-on around Synthia’s aunt, whose tailor-shop at Azove provides the breadwinning. Why would a young girl start running away, if she is happy and safe there, we wondered?

What was she actually doing there to begin with, you wonder. Well, when Synthia’s father died, leaving his wife a widow with three young children, Synthia’s mother lost her home as well. African wisdom suggests that an official marriage is not really that necessary. Which means that the mother, in this case, had not actually become part of the family. And the house, built in their village by the father, was not hers but theirs. Even as he lay in hospital dying, they had arrived to begin removing the furniture. And after he was dead, the house was taken.  Synthia’s mother had the good fortune that she soon found a job with Médecins Sans Frontières, so she was able to keep the children. But then her job became redundant. And there is no unemployment insurance or welfare in Benin. Stefan, the oldest, went to live in Dogbo, with his maternal grandmother. Louis, the second, went to Bohicon, to a great-aunt on his father’s side. And Synthia was taken in by the aunt in Azove. Synthia’s mother found a home too, in Lokossa. A man, already married, took her in. For services rendered. Services which soon left her pregnant, in conflict with the man’s first wife, and trapped. Exaucé was born: God has heard my prayers, his name was meant to say.

But not all her prayers. Bad news came from Bohicon. The paternal great-aunt there had succumbed to a stroke. The family blamed Louis. He had begun running away, staying away two, three nights and then reappearing without much of an explanation. He’d been with friends, he would say. One of those friends died. Or rather, was killed. Particularly gruesomely. His body is still at the morgue to this day, two years later, Louis’ mother told us. Only his body. Not his head. That had been taken by the murderers, criminals who specialize in the sale of body parts. No, not for transplanting. But for voodoo practices. A young boy’s head has particular power and is therefore worth a lot of money. You will understand that the great-aunt worried, each time that Louis was gone. Is he coming back? All of him? And then she had a stroke. Louis’ fault, the family said. And his mother actually thinks so too. So he was sent away from Bohicon. By default, back to his mother in Lokossa. Another mouth to feed. Another body to clothe. Another contribution to pay at the local school. Another reason for the first wife to take offense.

Synthia’s mother stayed in Lokossa for about five years, until earlier this year, at last, she found a dwelling in Dogbo. A job she already had, part time. House help, four mornings in the week. Enough, just enough, to start dreaming of life as a real family again.

The first to come home was Stefan. 18 years old, almost a man. He actually moved in before his mother did. Because moving away, for her, was more difficult than you might think. Though she was but a concubine, Exaucé’s father was her man, her protector, her sometime provider. To leave, to burn this bridge behind her, rickety as it was, in the hope that she would be able to make it on her own, not just now, but until the children were raised…?  But the conflicts continued, her dreams and hopes grew, and the new house, where she spent more and more nights away from Lokossa, felt more and more like home. A few months ago, after a particularly nasty argument with the first wife, and the discovery that their mutual husband had been seeing yet someone else as well, she came to a decision. After the summer holidays she and Louis and Exaucé would join Stefan in Dogbo permanently. She would find a solution for the increased expenses, she would economize wherever possible, and at least most of them would be together. Not Synthia, but all of the others.

No sooner had she decided that, than a creeping suspicion grew. How long had it been since her last period? No, that one time… ? Yes, that one time… Pregnant again. And still she persisted. She would manage, God willing. And she did. Stefan could continue at his old school, Louis was enrolled there as well with a bit of help from us for the inscription fees, and for Exaucé a kindergarten nearby was found.

And then came the news that Synthia was in trouble. Running away. Being brought home by the police. The Bohicon nightmare loomed again. What if something like that happened again? No, Synthia’s mother did not say, what if Synthia is kidnapped (although of course this was a very real fear). She said:  I do not want another one of my children to be the reason someone has a stroke. Take a moment to reflect on that. Here is at least a little chink in the armour of the village that raises the African child. Not the well-being of the child, but the possible effect on the well-being of the village is what counts.

Synthia’s mother worried. Her own mother said: bring her here to live with me, in Dogbo. I need someone to help me with the housekeeping. Jocelyn, the girl I have now, is starting to look at boys, and is getting more and more disrespectful by the day. Jocelyn, another story. A distant relative, taken in by grandmother a few years ago. Fed and clothed and sent to school, but in fact there as an unpaid domestic. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods… Synthia’s mother didn’t see that as a good alternative. If she’s going anywhere, it is to be with us, where she belongs. But how to make that work? Louis’ new school, a public school, was not working out at all. Two weeks now he had been leaving home each morning, and each day he had been sent to wait under the trees in the schoolyard while the teacher and the group to which he was assigned that day tried to find a classroom in which to work. To no avail. Even with 80 or more children crowded into a single classroom, there was not enough room for all the grades, and Louis, as a newcomer, was always in the wrong group. How long can this go on? his mother asked. And what am I going to do about Synthia?

There are times when you discover that there is only one right thing to do. It is not possible to take all of the world’s problems and injustices on your shoulders. But here was a situation that needed more than an occasional hand-out on our part. We said to Synthia’s mother: if you are ready to bring Synthia home, we will commit ourselves to the education of all your children. Stefan is in the final year and doing fine. Let’s see if we can find a place for the others at the local private schools. We’ll pay for the uniforms, the school fees, the books and school supplies. You be a mother as well as you can, raise your children with your heart and soul, and trust God to do the rest.

Synthia came home last Sunday. Not without difficulty. She wanted to come, but her aunt didn’t want to let her go at first. It took us some time to grasp the intricacies. Synthia’s mother didn’t just go and take her. She negotiated. She asked permission. Not just of the aunt. But also of the aunt’s husband. One of the factors, she explained to us, is this. The girl is mine, she said. But her value is theirs. She’s eleven now, and it won’t be long before a marriage can be arranged. And when the time comes for that, the bride price goes to the family, which has raised her. That’s the bottom line. A girl is raised by the village. Not necessarily for love. Money counts double.

It takes a village to raise a child. Sounds good. Everyone gets involved. Everyone is responsible. But sometimes that means no-one takes responsibility in the way the child deserves. And no-one gets involved unless there´s something in it for them. We’ve seen too many examples already. Of lonely children who do not know what really belonging means. Who only know what they’re running away from, not what they could be coming home to. Of lonely mothers who are powerless to do what mothers are for, constrained by poverty, unjust power structures within the family, and the almighty draw of self-interest. I hope and pray our small contribution will make a difference.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Admit it. You want to take her home. This gorgeous little Beninese beauty. (Thanks Jurrien, for the amazing photo!) You want to take her home and keep her forever and try to make sure she grows up safe and happy and well-educated and well-fed and all those other things which are permanently unsure in this country. There’s no way of knowing what will become of her here. Of course, to be completely honest, there’s no way you can guarantee any of the above where you are either. Maybe God did know what he was doing when he placed her in Norbert and Elisabeth’s family at the south end of Dogbo. Where she came running into my arms when we arrived at her home this Saturday morning. Mama Elisabeth had given birth to a little brother at the beginning of this week, and we were there with well-wishes, a few baby things and a prayer. TOLEKON (surname comes first) Jerome Mawulolo (God is great, in Adja) is his parents’ fourth child. Third surviving, since Norbert and Elisabeth lost a child a bit more than a year ago to one of the many sicknesses that threaten Third World babies. He is as beautiful as his big sister. From his healthy head of black curly hair to the pink little toes extending from the colourful pagne his mum has him wrapped up in. Yes, pink. We had a good laugh about that: his toes and for that matter the rest of his feet are our colour, the rest of him theirs. We agreed that he was clearly part yovo.
We had a good visit. Papa Norbert was not at home, but we spotted him later near the market. Thank you so much for visiting, he said. And he obviously meant it. And then he said: you won’t forget the other thing, will you? And it’s really the other thing that I need your advice on, dear reader.
Last night Norbert had come by to speak to me. About many things of greater and lesser importance to the churches (Norbert is elder in Agame). And then, at the end of his visit, the thing that was troubling him the most. Pasteur,  he said,  the church at Agame has a big problem. I starting imagining all kinds of things ecclesiastical. But this was a thing ecclesiastical I could never have imagined.
A few years ago, the congregation had bought a piece of property (with help from DVN-GoWa) and built a church there (also with help from DVN-Gowa).  And now, he said, the man from whom they had bought the property had died. And what you should understand, he continued,  is that here in Benin, when you buy property from someone, your relation with that person becomes something like… he is your father-in-law. Which means, and I braced myself for what I knew was coming, that… yes, should he die, you are expected to do what other family members do. Contribute to the funeral ceremonies. But our problem in Agame is, we don’t have the means to pay for that. And obviously, then came the request. Would DVN-GoWa be willing to  help the ERCB in Agame make this payment?
He started digging in his pocket for the paper which all those who at any time had bought property from this landowner had received last Tuesday. Before he found it I had the chance to ask two questions: what if you don’t pay?  The answer was that you can then expect problems. ‘Problems’ with an influential family translates in Benin to everything from petty annoyances to intimidation to in the worst case terror. And what if you go to the police to say that you are being extorted? The answer is that the police will say that there is no law which requires you to pay, but everyone always pays so they advise you to do what custom dictates.
The paper came forth.
1.       One goat
2.       10 bottles of beer
3.       10 bottles of soft drink
4.       10 bottles of sodabi (90-proof palm-wine moonshine)
5.       One ½ pagne (6 metres of wax hollandaise)
6.       40.000 FCFA (about €60)
7.       One chicken
This all to be received no later than 12 October at 18.00.
I know what my immediate reaction was. No way will we even think about giving in to an extortionate demand like this. But I have learned here not to follow my first instincts too hastily. What do I know about the validity of local customs? What happens if the church at Agame becomes the target of intimidation? So I said that I needed time to consider the request. One: I needed to verify that this is indeed an obligation. Two: if it is, I need to think about whether that makes the problem DVN-GoWa’s problem. Norbert said he understood, but that he certainly hoped my response would be favourable.
Today I had time to verify. And yes, this is universally accepted as one’s obligation in case of a property vendor’s death. Tomorrow and the next day I have time to think.
So there it is, everybody. Is this what you give your hard-earned offerings to Mission for?
Best answer gets a reward. I’ll put in a good word for you when you ask Norbert if you can take her home. The gorgeous little Beninese beauty.

NOTE: Okay: this is what I've decided, after consultation with you all (thank you!) and colleagues Theophile and Richard. I accept that what may seem like extortion is in fact a dictate of local custom, known and accepted by the church at the time of purchase, and therefore an obligation. That does mean, however, that the church cannot claim that it was unforeseen. They should have made sure of having a reserve, or otherwise discussed it with DVN-GoWa at the time of purchase. That makes it their problem, not ours. The furthest I will be going, in this case, is to offer them a loan with money otherwise allocated to purchase/construction/maintenance. In other words, a loan from the ERCB-in-general's reserve. Which makes them responsible to the other churches, and the other churches responsible for making sure the amount is paid back as possible.

Monday, 1 October 2012


This is Bertin. There is a lot of drama in this man. Sometimes he drives me to drama as well. Saturday morning on the way to the meeting of the Consistoire. Richard and I stopped in at Bertin’s house. There was a little question of money not yet quite repaid. Yes, but, said Bertin, I’ve been working on a project that cost me quite lot. So if it’s all right, next month…? The project, he explained, is a CD. Christian music. New songs for the members of the ERCB to sing. And hopefully many other Christians. I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it, but we’ve been in the studio, and all we have left to do is make a video clip. Tomorrow, in Djakotomey, during the church service.
Richard and I resume our way to the meeting. Not a bad idea, actually, I think. If there is something the churches here can use, it is an expansion of the musical repertoire. No, I’m not sure that to be true churches they need to adopt the Genevan psalter. But what a welcome thing it was to actually sing psalms during the six week break in Holland from which we returned just yesterday. I don’t even think our brothers and sisters here even know that psalms are meant to be sung. Or for that matter, that hymns, judiciously selected, can complement and reinforce the message preached. Enthusiastically and completely from memory, the congregation praises God using the same selection each Sunday morning of about a dozen songs, French, Adja, Ewe (no, not a language they actually speak, but the tune is catchy), totally unimpeded by any liturgical awareness or suggestions on the part of the preacher.

Bertin shares the dream. And arriving himself at Consistoire, he informs the brothers that tomorrow there will be a special service at Djakotomey, and everyone is invited to be there to join in dancing and singing for the video clip. For a moment I think to myself: who will lead the services in the other places if all these brothers actually heed the invitation? But then Bertin turns to me and says: and would you, Pasteur, please be able to transport the instruments and sound system to Djakotomey. I realize that I have been ambushed. Normally speaking said equipment – common property of all the churches and intended for use at the quarterly culte d’ensemble as well as conferences and conventions – is stored far away in Kpodaha. But just before our departure to Holland six weeks ago, there had been a youth conference in Dogbo. And at the close, there had been some discussion about  what to do with the instruments. The storage at Kpodaha was dirty and damp and needed attention, said Bertin. And a little later, he came to me with a request from the church council, or so he said: you will be away for a while, Pasteur, so the office will not be used. Could we possibly store all the equipment there temporarily? Which I graciously allowed. Now I know why. To facilitate the removal to Djakotomey in the DVN HiLux for Bertin’s project.
(By the way, in doing so it seems I had also facilitated an infestation of mice in the office. How many mouse gestation periods go into six weeks, actually? During our absence, a number of Kpodaha-based rodents who had found a home in the speakers had gone forth and multiplied. Several applications of poison later, our domestic help Mariette thinks most of them may have been eradicated.)

But this Saturday morning I prevaricated. Oh, I’m not sure I will be making it to Djakotomey tomorrow. I want to talk to Madame first. I knew what I wanted. This first Sunday, still tired and trying to acclimatise, I wanted to go to a simple service in the closest church, Dogbo. Nothing complicated. And certainly not having to load up the HiLux with three cubic metres of electronics early Sunday morning, getting to Djakotomey and waiting and waiting until it was finally connected and working, then waiting for the congregation to arrive, then having an unusually extended service, then waiting and waiting for everyone to be done so that we could load up again… No, you should make other arrangements this time, I said to Bertin. He looked slightly pained, then said thank you politely and the meeting proceeded.
Much later that afternoon, however, we discovered that there would be no church service on Sunday morning in Dogbo. Everyone had been invited to go to Djakotomey. So no, we would not be able do what I wanted… What else could I do but call Bertin and tell him that we would be going to Djakotomey after all and if he would make sure to be at the office at 9 o’clock to load up? He agreed joyfully. No, he had not arranged for an alternative means of transportation. Bertin is a man of great faith.

Sunday morning 8.45. The telephone goes. Pasteur, this is Bertin. Could you please ask your guardien to load the instruments? No, I did not think so. How was Gomaise to know what needed to go and what needed to stay? No, Bertin, please make sure that you are here yourself to do what needs doing. At 8.50 the telephone goes again. Pasteur, my wife Carole needs to ride in the vehicle with you. I cannot think of an adequate reason to refuse, but something in me wants to very badly. Okay,  I say, see you in a few minutes. 9.00: no Bertin. 9.05: no Bertin. Four or five others have gathered around the HiLux, most of them young men. Could we catch a ride to Djakotomey with you, a few ask. Well, I think, if Bertin is not here to load the vehicle, and these young men are, we will let them do the work and catch the ride, and Carole can walk. 9.15: I call Bertin to see  where he is. Meanwhile all of the equipment is being loaded. Yes, yes, I’m coming, says Bertin. And there he comes. At 9.25, or so. When the back of the pick-up has been completely filled and tied down, and there are more heavy electronics spread across the back seat. The young men have said they can manage with these on their laps. Bertin has Carole and a little neighbour girl behind him on his moped. Carole dismounts, and looks into the back seat. I take pity and say to one of the young men: here, you ride with Bertin, and Carole and the girl can take your place. But no, that isn’t good enough. Bertin shakes his head dramatically. Get on, he says to Carole, and they ride off, leaving the little neighbour girl standing there.
It turns out, when we all get to Djakotomey, that the instruments and the equipment don´t need to be connected at all. It´s not meant to actually be used. There is a large stereo in place, and the pre-recorded songs have their own musical accompaniment. Bertin sings along, the congregation joins in, but it’s all just for the cameras. The musicians pretend to be playing. There is no need for the microphones. No need for the monstrous speakers or the mixing table. It´s all simply window dressing. I feel a bit let down. Or perhaps I should say: I feel like blowing up. This is Bertin. Stringing me along, asking for a finger and taking everything up to the shoulderblade. And all for whose greater glory…?

But then I get caught up in what’s happening. I realize how good the music actually sounds. I watch Bertin gyrating and shouting praise to the Lord of mice and Hiluxes and video cameras and little neighbour girls. The music starts up for the third take. I still don’t understand the words, but I hear myself shouting along. I join the dance. At the director’s cue, I stand with the chorus line of elders from Agame and Migbowomey and Tokpohoue and Djakotomey and Pasteur Theophile from Cotonou and we turn our heads to the left, extending our hands  towards the congregation (and the cameras) in unison. We take a step and do it again from a different angle. We go out of doors and do it again in the sunlight. There is a great deal of hilarity. And then we go back in. The congregation sings one more song. We pray for the children who will be starting at school again tomorrow. We are blessed with the Trinitarian blessing. And then I realize I have truly been blessed. Bertin comes up to me with a huge smile on his face. I embrace him and say that I will be buying at least 100 of his CD’s. You really have a gift! He says: don’t worry, we’ll be leaving all the equipment here in Djakotomey. Thank you so much!
Anyone want to buy a CD? It would make a great gift…

Monday, 23 July 2012


There’s a game happening. All eyes are on the ball, somewhere out there near the edge of the dusty square.  The goat is headed the other way; for her it’s a welcome relief to have the children of the quartier tormenting that other black and white leather object for a while. All but this one boy, flashing a smile with teeth as white as the stripes on his bright red t-shirt, who has eyes only for me. This afternoon I heard and saw the youngsters worrying a straw-filled sock back and forth between improvised goals. There isn’t much joy to that when you’re trying to pretend you’re a star in the Africa Cup. I suddenly remembered that I still had a real soccer ball hiding somewhere under the bed in our guest room. With Francois, our day guardian this week, I walked over bearing my offering. Made in Pakistan, I read. And in prominent letters around the valve opening: NO CHILD LABOUR USED ON THIS BALL.  A responsible gift, in other words. Though none of these children would give that a thought. I’m fairly sure the concept of child labour doesn’t cross their minds for a moment as they are harvesting the corn in the family plot, walking five kilometres or more to the market with the basin on their head, and spending the rest of the afternoon arguing prices and hoping for a sale. Or as they are pounding metal in the forge instead of going to school. Or lugging 50 kg bags of Portland cement on a construction site. Or sweating behind a pousse-pousse (a two-wheeled cart) heavily loaded with teak on its way to the sawmill. They’ve never heard of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and wouldn’t realize it applies to them if they had. But right now they have joyfully taken possession of the ball, formed three teams under the supervision of our guardien, and are in the middle of the first game. All except my smiling friend, on his haunches in the dust with his left leg splayed at an impossible angle. This is my reward, and I love it.

As I leave the field, a young man comes from behind one of the houses. Attendez, attendez, he calls. It turns out he is one of the quartier’s organizers. Thank you, he says, for your gift to our children! And then he invites me to an event which is to be held August 1st. A soccer match between the men of the quartier: married against the singles. I promise to be there, but I’m already thinking about an appropriate excuse so that I myself won’t have to play: soccer has never been one of my strong points, after all. But the fact that I am being welcomed into the community in this way feels very, very good. Another reward, and I love it.

Francois, the guardian, smells an opportunity for gospel proclamation. He had already written ERCB Dogbo on the ball with indelible ink, and we have just heard that the soccer match is to be held in the field next to the church. Perhaps it would be possible to combine the soccer with some kind of evangelistic activity, he proposes. The young man listens, nods his head, and says he would be happy to come and discuss the options with us sometime soon. As we walk home, Francois is full of enthusiasm: first we can attract the children, he says, then we will attract the parents, and then the whole quartier! Indeed, think big. The reward for the gift of an inexpensive soccer ball might well surprise us all.
It has been a weekend of rewards, in fact. Saturday in Bohicon: graduation ceremony for the students at I3B. Four of our dirigeants have completed three years of theological training there. They have worked hard, leaving their families and employment behind for a full week each month. Jonas from Tchangba, who struggles to understand even the most basic French, wears his toga and mortarboard with unstudied dignity, his wife Melanie at his side. They have done as well as could be expected, and we trust that the church at Tchangba will be blessed with the results.

Church service on Sunday in Noumonvihoue: what an impressive experience! As is our habit, earlier in the week we spent a morning at the village: which we had planned to visit the Sunday after. Our guide, Samuel, had made a few phone calls, and virtually the entire congregation was there to meet us that Tuesday. Probably about 35 people. Average age no more than about 14. One adult woman (48 years old), then  about 20 teenagers, and the rest children, as young as 4 or 5. Three years ago, a few from this pagan village, at school at nearby Djakotomey, had connected with young church members there. A small team of evangelists, including Jonas from Tchangba, had come to present the gospel. And around a core of three or four teenagers a congregation had developed. Each Sunday, two young men, barely out of boyhood, lead a service. As well as they can, they follow the liturgy, teach the songs, explain a portion of the Bible, and lead the congregation in prayer. We had asked, last Tuesday: what do you need, here, most of all? They were quick and clear in their response: 1. We need a dirigeant of our own, who can lead us, teach us, and help us to live as Christians. 2. We need proper catechesis, so that we can be baptized as soon as possible. 3. We need help with evangelisation, so that not only our village, but also the totally pagan villages around us will hear the gospel too! It was so good to return to Noumonvihoue on Sunday, to worship with them, to share the gospel, and to be encouraged ourselves by this evidence of the Spirit’s power.

And then Sunday evening. With Gregoire, our taxi-driver friend, we went to bring Rosa home. Finally, three months after her breakdown, she seemed well enough to rejoin her family. I don’t need to explain how joyful everyone was to be reunited, so I won’t. But as we were leaving, Gregoire said: Pasteur, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for us, together with Marijke. And then he surprised us. Of course he was referring to our visits and our prayers, which to him were indubitably the key to Rosa’s recovery, fragile as it is. But what he meant especially was a piece of advice we had given him some time ago. I think it was Marijke who had broached the subject: how important it is that husband and wife pray together. This is something (with all the great things which we have seen in the life of Christians here) which Africans do not seem to know much about, and as far as we know do not practice. Family prayer, or more intimately, prayer between partners. Gregoire took my hands in his. Like this, he said, just as you showed me. Every day, before it is time to go to bed, we fold our hands together, and I pray for Rosa. Thank you so much!

This is the kind of thing that encourages us at moments when we wonder what we’re doing here. Unexpected rewards, shining bright like the smile on the face of a small boy crouching in the dust.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Monsieur, pouvez-vous expliquer… And then followed a question which took me right back to my childhood. When I was a little boy, perhaps 9 or so, I used to think about things. There were some things I knew about. For example, I knew about breathing in and out until I was incredibly dizzy, and then jumping into the water at Middleton Beach and staying under for much longer than anyone thought possible. I knew about the Bible too. For instance that David used the shocking expression: pisseth against the wall. On my red OXO metal lunchbox I had scratched the same initials Hansie Vermeulen and Andy Wagenaar had scratched: BM. Nobody else knew whom that represented. But after 51 years, the secret must out. Bloody Man. Without foreknowledge, Shimei had cursed David most effectively for Dutch-Australian boys who knew only the King James. 2 Samuel 16.2: Bloody was about as bad as you could get.
Back to my narrative. I thought about things a lot at that age. Perhaps because my world had fallen into confusing pieces with the death of my father. It was clear that all those Australians had inherited a great Bible  from the home country. Good enough for us to use at school and in the English services at our Free (NOT DUTCH!) Reformed Church. (Although my father had not allowed it at home. Only Dutch there. De taal waarin je vaderen geleden en gestreden hebben!) However, questioned my troubled thoughts, how could it be that all those Australian had a good Bible but weren’t Christians? For it was perfectly clear to me that the only Christians in Albany, the real Christians that is, went to church with us.
And don’t think that that perception disappeared with the advent of the Revised Standard Version, as disputed as that was when it happened. In 1975 (two years later) Marijke and I were married. We had our wedding photos taken at Toews Photography in Abbotsford. The proprietor was Mennonite, and we somehow fell into a discussion of the Bible. At a certain point he said: well, whatever our differences now, we’ll all be with Jesus later. To which I didn’t answer what I distinctly remember thinking: I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you…  And I didn’t mean that there were doubts about my getting there. Yes, I am truly ashamed of ever having thought like that. But that is what I was reminded of when the question came this afternoon:  Monsieur, pouvez-vous expliquer
The young man who asked the question was about 18 years old, member of the Celestes… Remember them, a few blogs back? Home-grown Beninese religion. Claiming to be Christian. Since then, I’ve done a bit of research. Test the spirits, and all that. I know about the Celestes now. We were back visiting Rosa, who was still being harboured there after a psychiatric breakdown. We had talked to her. But then there were all those others. Not the illiterate pastor from the first visit. But his assistant. And his son, the one who was going to be reading Bibles and the Reformed literature I had left behind. A few other boys in their late teens. And a number of women of indeterminate ages.

Jokingly, I had said, when I saw the son: hey, you’re wearing red! That’s forbidden for you, isn’t it? That’s one of the things I know about now. Celestes are forbidden to wear red or black, unless it is strictly necessary for their employment. (McDonalds, you’re welcome in Benin, much as I hate to say that.) You’re right, he said. Actually I’m not supposed to be wearing this… And that led to a great discussion about the many, many rules and regulations which circumscribe the life of the Celestes. Indeed, they agreed, these were not Biblical regulations, but rules which their leaders had imposed
And from there our discussion led to the freedom we have in Christ. And the confident access we have to God’s throne through Christ’s intercession (no need for bare feet in the sanctuary, another Celeste regulation.) And then came his question. Monsieur, pouvez-vous expliquer… Oh, no, sorry. There was another question before that. Could you please tell us what the difference actually is between our church (the Celestes) and all those others? Can you believe it? Handed to me on a platter. An unbelievable opportunity!
I said:  probably the most important thing is this. Your founder, Samuel Bilehou Joseph Oshoffa, claims to have received visions from God. And based on those visions, he founded your church. All those regulations, prohibitions and commandments you live by are based not on the Bible, but on your founder’s visions. Of course, nobody can verify if he really had those visions. Nobody else was there, nobody else saw what he said he saw or heard what he said he heard. Yes, I know about these things now. And they nodded. They could tell I was well informed. What do you think? one of them asked, a bit hesitantly. Well, with all respect for your founder, and I do not want to insult you or anyone, but I don’t believe it’s possible that it was really God speaking to him. I asked if they would bring me their Bible. And there it came: the Bible I had brought them about a month ago. Along with another in Adja. And a tattered old version of the Scriptures as well. Would have been King James if it were English, I imagine. Let’s read the very last few verses in the Bible,  I suggested. What does it say? And one of them read the warning against adding anything at all to what God has revealed. (I know, I am taking a few shortcuts here.) The assistant pastor read the same words in Adja, and nodded thoughtfully. That’s why, I said, I cannot believe that if your founder had visions, they came from God. God himself has said that He has nothing to add to what has been written in the Bible. That seems pretty clear language to me. Of course, I then had to explain what I thought was the origin of those visions.  I know, I said, that your founder had a very real desire to purify religion of all kinds of superstition, and to rid Benin of all kinds of gri-gri (voodoo practices). It was something his heart and mind were really full of. They nodded. Clearly this was something the Pasteur knew about. You know that when your mind is full of something, you tend to dream of those things at night. If you think about women a lot in a certain way, they appear to you like that in your dreams. We men all nodded at that. If you’re always thinking about your business and making money, that can be what you dream about. And that’s not God talking to you, that’s what your mind does. Perhaps that was what happened. I don’t know, but we just read in the Bible what God says about Himself and his revelation. So I cannot believe that what your founder saw or heard was actually from God.
And then we got back to those many, many rules and regulations. That gave me an opening to have them read Hebrews 9, about the old alliance with all its rules and regulations, and the new alliance in Christ which changed all that. (Sorry, I don’t remember what ‘covenant’ is in Adja, but it was great to hear the assistant read about it!)
And then, finally, we got to the question which I have been teasing you with. Sir, could you explain to us why it is that other Christians refuse to greet us when we pass them on the way to church? And like I said, that question took me right back to my childhood. To the time when it was absolutely and indubitably clear (not that we were ever instructed to refuse greeting others, although playing with Georgie Holzmann next door was not really the right thing to do) who was truly a Christian and who wasn’t. I found a way to answer the question. But it was an answer to myself as much as it was to this earnest young man.
Yes, I said. I do understand and I can explain it. But it is very wrong, nevertheless.  (How is that for ecclesiastical diplomacy, well-honed by 10 years in Deputies for Churches Abroad?) Perhaps I can use an example. Imagine we are all a family. And then I get up, walk off, and refuse from that point on to have anything to do with the rest of the family. I am the only one who knows truth from falsehood, and you are all wrong; I want no part of you anymore. Can you imagine how that feels for the ones left behind? Yes, they definitely could.  Africans are finely tuned to the concept of family. That is another thing I know about now. Can you imagine that the ones left behind are so angry that they refuse to greet me when I pass them on the way to church? Yes, they definitely could. And still, I said, that would be the wrong thing to do. Family is family, whatever happens. And it’s the same thing in the Christian family. Even if someone breaks away for the wrong reasons, makes all kinds of mistakes, and even claims that no-one outside of his church is really following Christ…
And that’s why we’re here today. To greet you. And to invite you back, if you can find your way, into the family.
To be continued. I’m fairly convinced of that…