When Cynthia taught at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, her department worked on outreach with local Hispanic/Latinx pastors seeking theological education. The team worked for months on plans for an intensive workshop, securing good speakers and teachers, working on logistics—food, teaching and hospitality spaces, books, lodging, and partnering with local ministerial associations to invite pastors and leaders. Finally, the big week came—but many pastors who had shown interest did not! The first day was a pretty empty experience, with the team feeling a rising sense of anxiety about the investment of time, money, and resources and how everything done had resulted in failure. THEN, in the late afternoon, pastors started showing up. The day was to have started at 8:30, and pastors started coming—in large numbers!—around 4:30! By 6 the room was full—which was wonderful—and also confusing. What had happened? Was the communication strategy wrong? Was this cultural—did people understand a full day late as on time? And, there was anger—how much disrespect did people have for the efforts that had been made on their behalf???
NO. None of these were the case. The reality was that the SOCCER (FOOTBALL) WORLD CUP was taking place. The matches were being played in Europe, so fans in the US were watching very early in the morning, resting during the day, and working at night. WE HAD SCHEDULED OUTREACH TO SOCCER FANS DURING THE WORLD CUP. It was the Western Seminary team’s mistake, and it was a big one. By God’s grace, they were able to work with the pastors and leaders to flip the schedule and have teaching every evening that week. It was wonderful! The team was grateful! And there was a lot of discussion, during the week and for some time after, about how much the team and the seminary, led almost exclusively by non-Hispanic, non-Latinx people, had to learn if they were going to offer effective educational strategies to this new culturally-different student population.
As we write this, it is Eid al Fitr, the celebration for Muslims of the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. On the Tanzanian mainland, 35-45% of citizens are Muslim, and on the island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of the country, more than 90% are Muslim. Here in the Arusha area, there are mosques in most communities. We hear the call to prayer every morning from a local mosque before the bell that rings from the University chapel at 6 am. There are many Muslim students at the University, and all of these have been fasting while taking full time classes over the last month.
Tanzania has worked hard since independence for peace between peoples of different faiths. Our students in the Faculty of Theology are all Christian, and many are already ordained pastors. Most of them have good friends who are Muslim—they grew up going to school, and playing, and having close relationships with Muslim kids and Muslim families in their neighborhoods.
Every day, we see school kids walking to and from school—mixed groups of Muslim and Christian kids walking together, holding hands, and playing—as a soccer/football game might break out at any time when space and a ball present themselves. In classes, we discuss ministry strategies where pastors and imams work together so that people facing illness, or poverty, or hunger, or drought can be served. We can get lulled into amnesia, and have to remind ourselves that these relatively easy, normal and straightforward conversations might be very different if we were teaching at a variety of seminaries in the US.
The celebration of Eid is not a set date. The decision about when it starts happens based on leaders in the Muslim Council of Tanzania sighting the new moon. So, at the beginning of this week, our Dean told us—it might be Wednesday, or it might be Thursday, and we will tell you as soon as we can. As Eid is a national holiday, and classes do not meet on the day that it is celebrated, this makes planning for teaching a bit tricky—for us. No one here, students or faculty, seems to see this as a problem, as they have lived with this religious and cultural uncertainty all their lives. So we have to learn to
do the same.
When wishing people a blessed Eid, the proper greeting is Eid Mubarak. The Kiswahili verb to bless is kubariki—based on a borrowed word from Arabic for blessing. Hebrew shares the root, with the very common Biblical word for blessing in Hebrew, berakah ( ברכה ), sounding very familiar to our Kiswahili-speaking students and colleagues. As we study and speak Kiswahili and find more and more Arabic borrowed words in the language, many of which have Hebrew cognates, we find ourselves thinking about the marvel of language and how it carries and mixes cultures.
Becoming interculturally competent is crucial for mission. From the first moment of an interview to enter mission service, this key skill is emphasized, discussed, taught and encouraged. We work on this daily, opening ourselves to learning new things, new ways of thinking, new understandings of life and ministry, new ways to share the good news.
We enjoy the learning and we are happy to increase our competence. And we struggle. We struggle with learning new things, new words, new vocabulary, new ways of being. There are times—many times—when we are tired, or homesick, or both, and we are just plain frustrated with having to learn new things in order to operate effectively here. There are times when every missionary just wants to go home where things are
easier, more familiar, and where those we love the best can be greeted face to face rather than over a Skype call. We are like all of our missionary colleagues in this. And like all of them, we know that living and serving internationally means that we have no choice but to work to become more interculturally competent—both because we enjoy sanity as a feature of life and ministry, and in order to teach and serve effectively.
We have been blessed—tumebarikiwa (can you see that Arabic root in the word?)—to serve internationally, both in Madagascar and now here in Tanzania. Our view of the world and the church has broadened in ways we couldn’t imagine before. Our international service has changed the way we serve, preach, teach and lead in the US. And, as the US becomes ever-more diverse and international, we wish the blessing—tunataka baraka—of growing intercultural competence for every US pastor, and every US believer, and every US congregation. There is joy in this work to which Jesus calls us all.
ELCA BISHOPS VISIT THE ELCT THIS MONTH!
We are both very much looking forward to the visit of ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Bishops Patricia Davenport and Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, the first two African American woman bishops elected in the ELCA, later this month! They are coming to take part in and help lead the ELCT Clergywomen Consultation, a quadrennial event. We have been blessed to share in planning for this event!
Please pray for us, for the ELCT Clergywomen, who are hoping and praying for the election, at some point in the future, of women bishops in the ELCT. We know that the visit of three ELCA women bishops will prove a blessing to us all and to their ELCT clergywomen sisters.
Blessings to you all! We look forward to the blessing of seeing many of you face to face later this year. Your prayers, notes, emails, comments, and financial support make our service possible. Thank you for blessing us!
In Christ, Cynthia Holder Rich and Mark Rich
Lecturers in Theology, Tumaini University Makumira, Arusha, Tanzania