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…