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)