On Sunday I enjoyed an African adventure. I woke up early because a pastor friend had invited me to join a group he was taking to visit a rural congregation he supervises. That congregation was dedicating a cement-block, thatch-roof building they had just completed, and also baptizing about fifteen people.
With my waist pack and backpack stocked with items that might be useful during an unpredictable day in the African bush, I arrived at the pastor’s house before 6:00 am to begin our journey. When everyone had gathered, he sent me with his wife and three honored guests in the church treasurer’s car, while he himself joined other members of the group on public transportation for the hour-plus drive outside of town. After speeding along the highway and then bouncing down a dirt road, we arrived well before the service started around 8:30 am.
With the congregation and visitors packed inside the new structure, worship began with singing, dancing, prayer, and welcome. The head pastor verified the presence of the baptismal candidates on his list, asking their ages and disqualifying those under eighteen. A visiting pastor commented on the importance of baptism, unfortunately mentioning nothing about faith in Christ or repentance from sin. In contrast to the exuberance around me, my heart was burdened by the disconnect between what I was hearing and what I understand Scripture to teach.
We then undertook a brisk forty-minute trek in the African sun down rural trails to arrive at the picturesque baptismal site in a river, which we forded at knee depth near the journey’s conclusion. A strong volunteer carried the head pastor across to keep his dress pants and dress shoes dry. Not having been advised of the hike ahead of time, I was grateful that drinking water and sunscreen were among the essential supplies I’d carried.
On the riverbank, the visiting pastor said more about baptism that concerned me, speaking in the national language because he doesn’t know the local language. When he asked me to pray, I did so in the same national language, centering my prayer on the atoning sacrifice of Christ which saves us from our sins. Exclaiming, “Amen!”, he then entered the water together with a local church leader. With the congregation singing enthusiastically, the two of them called each baptismal candidate in turn into the water; talked with him; and plunged him under. Afterwards, while we retraced our steps back to the church, I enjoyed conversing in English with two young men eager to practice my native tongue.
By that time it was nearly noon. We entered the church for another three hours of worship, including preaching, music from several choirs, congregational singing, prayer, and observance of the Lord’s supper with bits of store-bought bread and a red soft drink presented in re-usable miniature cups. As it was being served, we sang in the local language, “King Jesus, King of Kings, died for us on the cross . . .” An offering was taken, which included, as best I could see, five gigantic stalks of sugar cane, a small bag of sweet potatoes, a large sack of cassava roots, and two melons, in addition to coins and notes of the local currency. The head pastor introduced special guests, and when my turn came, he called all the young ladies to file by and give me the traditional greeting of a kiss on each cheek with hands clasped.
The head pastor preached in the local language and translated the visiting pastor’s sermon into the same language because members many don’t know the national language. Following his lead, I used the local language when called upon to pray for the Lord’s supper. It was also my privilege to read Bible texts cited during the preaching, as no one else seemed comfortably literate in the local language, and few besides me even had a Bible in that language.
When the service was dismissed, the young people sang and danced vigorously for another thirty minutes, stirring up dust from the dirt floor that set me to coughing. Then I was called to a nearby mud hut along with other honored guests for a delicious meal of chicken, beef, rice, and porridge. Washing our sticky fingers afterwards, we thanked our hosts, bid them goodbye, and loaded the car for our drive back into town.
It was dusk when I stepped out of the car and into the front gate of my home, to which our driver had kindly brought me. Worn out from the day’s adventure, I went directly to bed, thanking God for a wonderful outing and asking Him for wisdom in interacting with my pastor friend soon regarding his beliefs on baptism. Please join me in these prayers.