Have you ever bought a present for someone because you actually wanted it for yourself? Yes, I do that too. Mostly books, since I love to read. Well, I came across a book entitled Christianity Rediscovered, by Fr. Vincent J. Donvovan, and bought it as a Christmas present “for the family”. It is the remarkable story of Fr. Donovan’s daunting task of bringing the Gospel message to the Masai people of north-east Tanzania. In 1966, when he began his work, he was the lone missionary in a 5,000 square mile region trying to reach out to these pastoral people. Learning to effectively communicate the Gospel message to them shook him to the core of his being, (hence the title of his book). The spiritual insights Fr. Donovan gained from them are both surprising and enlightening. He spent 17 years among them before returning to ministry in the United States.
His book has become classic reading material for missionaries preparing to move into a cross-cultural ministry. Many ideas presented in it challenge nominal Western concepts of salvation and the Church; some of them in disturbing ways. But let us think. How would the Gospel message be perceived and received by a community of herdsman living on the rolling grasslands of East Africa, as their ancestors had for innumerable generations before them?
Here is an excerpt in which Fr. Donovan has a paradigm shift about what it means to Be a community, and, to be baptized Into the Community of Christ -- the Church.
"As I was nearing the end of the evangelization of the first six Masai communities, I began looking towards baptism. So I went to the old man Ndangoya’s community to prepare them for the final step.
I told them I had finished the imparting of the Christian message inasmuch as I could. I had taught them everything I knew about Christianity. Now it was up to them. They could reject it or accept it. I could do no more. If they did accept it, of course, it required public baptism. So I would go away for a week or so and give them the opportunity to make their judgment on the gospel of Jesus Christ. If they did accept it, then there would be baptism. However, baptism wasn’t automatic. Over the course of the year it had taken me to instruct them, I had gotten to know them very well indeed.
So I stood in front of the assembled community and began: “This old man sitting here has missed too many of our instruction meetings. He was always out herding cattle. He will not be baptized with the rest. These two on this side will be baptized because they always attended, and understood very well what we talked about. So did this young mother. She will be baptized. But that man there has obviously not understood the instructions. And that lady there has scarcely believed the gospel message. They cannot be baptized. And this warrior has not shown enough effort….”
The old man, Ndangoya, stopped me politely but firmly, “Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones on the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn out and drive off the lazy ones and the ones with little faith and the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We Believe.’”
We Believe. Communal faith. Until that day I had never heard of such a concept, certainly had never been taught it in a classroom. But I did remember the old ritual for baptism of children, the first question in that ceremony. “What do you ask of the church of God?”, we inquired of the infant. Of course, he couldn’t answer for himself. He couldn’t speak for himself. He couldn’t even think for himself. He certainly could not believe. And there is no such thing as a valid baptism without belief. Such an act would be magic, witchcraft.
The answer to that question, supplied by sponsors, was not “baptism” or salvation.” It was, “faith” That is what the child asked of the church of God, of the community of believers – faith, their faith, to become his, to make baptism possible.
I looked at the old man, Ndangoya. “Excuse me, old man,” I said. “Sometimes, my head is hard and I learn slowly. ‘We believe,’ you said. Of course you do. Everyone in the community will be baptized.”
I would also like to share a hymn of praise from this same region, possibly written by the very people that Fr. Donovan taught. (But, I don’t know for sure, since I found this in a different book compiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu, entitled An African Prayer Book.)
An African Canticle
All you big things, bless the Lord.
Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria,
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain,
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees,
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees,
Bless the Lord,
Praise and extol Him forever and ever.
All you tiny things, bless the Lord.
Busy black ants and hopping fleas,
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae,
Flying locusts and water drops,
Pollen dust and tsetse flies,
Millet seeds and dried dagaa,
Bless the Lord,
Praise and extol Him forever and ever.
May the peace of our Risen Savior be with you this Easter season,