The Ministers' Training Series in Matebete Village

May 25, 2013

tims blog In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul wrote, "For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life." I have never experienced that measure of distress on the mission field; in comparison, my endeavors look more like exotic vacations than real gospel work. But I am encouraged by Paul's words. You see, there is a piece of bad doctrine lodged in a corner of my brain that is like a sliver of old meat stuck between my teeth that I can't dig out. It suggests that if God is really involved in my work and I am really walking in obedience to him, I will not encounter any trouble along the way. Whenever this foolish notion presents itself, I try to remember that things didn't always go according to plan on Paul's trips either.

Last week I returned from my mission to Matebete Village in Tanzania. This was the longest mission I've made for several years and my first solo trip to Africa (as solo as it can be when you are elbow-to-elbow with other passengers the whole way). Despite the many challenges, this turned out to be a very satisfying and encouraging occasion. But as you will see, this mission wasn't like running a long-distance race. It was more like running the hurdles!

Fair warning: This is a rather long story so feel free to walk away at any time.

Before I set the dates for this mission, I contacted Samwel Naikada from Kenya. I wanted to know if and when he could serve as my interpreter. We picked out some dates and with the Matebete elders' approval, travel arrangements were made and things were set in order. But less than two week before my departure, Samwel learned that his school exams had been postponed to the very week of our mission. Now I would have to reschedule my trip or find a new interpreter. I learned that rebooking my flight would be very expensive, but I didn't know anyone else to ask to interpret. It was a big relief when Irene Lobara found someone who seemed enthusiastic to do the job. After a few letters back and forth with this young man, I felt sure that the class could go on as planned. First hurdle cleared.


As I looked over my travel itinerary, I was a little worried. My layover times in Atlanta and Amsterdam were very short. Any delay along the way would make it highly unlikely I'd make the next flight. My worries became my reality when my plane out of Baton Rouge was delayed for over an hour, making it impossible for me to make my other connections. The airlines issued me a new set of tickets and sent me home to try again the next day. I sent an angry letter to Delta Airlines and an apologetic message to my friends in Tanzania telling them of my delay. The next day Nelly took me back to the airport and I started my journey anew. Other than a very drunk and annoying passenger seated next to me from Atlanta to Amsterdam, my passageway to Africa was uneventful. I arrived in Dar es Salaam late Monday night. Second hurdle cleared.


On Tuesday we traveled to Morogoro, knowing it was better to break the long journey across Tanzania into segments. I was very happy when a friend offered to drive us to Chimala in his car, saving us from the long busride. We took our time and arrived in the village late that night, long after most of the welcoming party had gone to bed.

But there was a surprise awaiting me. My interpreter was a no-show, and classes were scheduled to begin in the morning! Now the only person in the village capable of doing the job was Irene and I knew she did NOT want to do it.

Serving as an interpreter is a very demanding job. You need a good vocabulary and a quick and decisive mind to juggle two languages. You also need to recognize words being pronounced in a way you are not used to hearing them. We Americans have a much thicker accent than we realize, and worse yet, we tend to mumble. My Swiss friend Tresa once told me that in order to imitate an American accent, you must first fill your mouth with potatoes!

My wife Nelly is a very skilled interpreter and I learned a lot working with her when we taught Spanish-speaking congregations. Nelly taught me to give her complete sentences and not just phrases. (Not "I went...to the store...to buy bread..." but rather, "I went to the store to buy bread.") What comes at the end of the sentence in one language comes at the beginning in another. Nelly also taught me to keep my sentences as short as possible. Of course there were times I forgot her advise, and that is when she would give me that look.

Making the transition from a Bible name in one language to another is not always difficult. In the Spanish Bible the book we call Deuteronomy is 'Deuteronomio'. But in the Swahili Bible it is 'Kumbukumbu La Torati'. You must already be familiar with both names to make the connection. This is one of the reasons Irene did not feel qualified to serve as class interpreter. She did not know the English names any more than I knew them in Swahili.

I expected the class to be translated into Maa, and I designed a nice graduation certificate that Samwel translated for me into that language. But some of the students were from other tribes and did not speak Maa. Since almost everyone in Tanzania speaks Swahili, it was better to present the class in that language. (It is interesting to note that Samwel is not fluent in Swahili and this job would have been impossible for him. The plot thickens!)

We used the Swahili Bible version that is considered to be the closest to the King James Bible. But this presented another difficulty for Irene and the rest of the class because it uses words that are not common to everyday speech.

On top of all this, I came to Tanzania prepared to teach not one but FIVE courses totaling over 60 hours of instruction. The schedule would be very demanding. I expected to teach six days a week, presenting four or five lessons each day with a ten minute break between each lesson. I would also need an interpreter for every conversation I engaged in! Believe me, I would NOT have been surprised if Irene ran off into hiding until I returned to America! I am very grateful that she accepted this burden, and for the outstanding service she provided. Third hurdle cleared, but not by me.


Class began Thursday morning with 17 participants from various denominations. In the first hours of an translated class, I try to find the comfort-zone of my interpreter. I want to figure out how fast or slow I should speak, and get a sense of how much freedom I will have in my word choices. After making my opening remarks on how the class would run, I taught the first two lessons from The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ. By the end of the first day of teaching I felt certain that the rest of the class would go very well.

It was extremely helpful to have Rev. George Ole Oripu in the classroom. George speaks English very well; in fact, he translated my book In the Power of His Might into Swahili. But George suffers from poor health and he simply did not have the strength to carry the load of interpreting. Nevertheless he was able to advise Irene regularly and that was a big help to us all.

As we left the teaching center, my elation was cut off by some tragic news. Enita Kisota, a dear friend and beloved relative to almost everyone in the village, had died. The whole village was in shock, but none more than the four women in my class who were Enita's sisters, a group that included my interpreter.

* * * * *

It may sound odd, but I think death is hardest on the people left behind. This is especially true when our sorrow is mixed with regret. In a place like Matebete where almost everyone is related by blood or marriage, it is impossible that everyone will always live in harmony. That is just life. And in life our most painful relationships involve the people we care the most about. The more we care, the more we hurt when thing aren't right.

It is the finality of death that is so unsettling. So many things can be left unsaid or undone. Few people get the blessing of that last great conversation with a loved one before he or she slips away. Too often people must cope with the memory of the foolish, mundane, or hurtful things they said the last time they were together, not knowing it would be their last conversation. All of us who loved Enita wished for one more time to tell her how dear she was to us, and to thank her for her friendship and love. We know we will see her again, but that ointment usually takes awhile before it brings relief.

Enita was a member of the Lutheran Church and on Friday afternoon her body was buried accordingly. There was a funeral service at Dorcasi's house, and later at the gravesite I was asked to say a few words. I was glad for the opportunity. Afterwards everyone returned to the house for a meal, the men in one area and the women in another. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, I saw a few men snickering as they watched me trying to scoop up rice with my fingers, the local way. It is a good thing I wasn't hungry!

I left the gathering and went for a walk. There was a lot to pray about and I needed to be alone. I'd been told that the customary time for mourning was two weeks. In two weeks I'd be starting for home! I'd come with a teaching plan that was tighter than a drum; each day we missed put me five lessons behind. But I was not going to corral a bunch of grieving people back to the classroom just so I could satisfy my teaching plan! When I thought about how another heavy burden had been placed on my reluctant interpreter, I felt completely lost.

I wandered back to the Worship and Historical Center. To my surprise people from the class started showing up, one after another. Without my knowledge they had already decided to get together after the funeral to talk about what they could do to get all the sessions in. Some said they were ready to start again the next day. I was profoundly touched by their determination. Still I felt it would be wrong to start again so soon. I suggested we start Monday morning, and they asked that classes begin at 7 AM. A seemingly impossible fourth hurdle had been cleared.


After a quiet weekend in the village, classes resumed on Monday morning with more teachings from The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ. According to plan, we started having evening meetings as well. But at night the students were the teachers. At the end of class I would select two or three verses from each of the day's lessons, and assign someone to do a ten-minute teaching around those verses. During these evening presentations I did not ask for interpretation. I wanted to avoid adding even more work for Irene, and I wanted things to be as easy as possible for the teachers. Some of the participants had never taught in church before and they were understandably nervous. Others were quite at ease. It was a particular thrill to me when Nashon Ole Ngekee taught his lesson using drawings made by his late father, Rev. Yohana Ole Ngekee. It was like seeing a circle brought to completion. I didn't understand the words being spoken but the delight on the faces of the teachers and the listeners told me all I needed to know. Irene was especially encouraged because the clarity of the teachings proved she was doing a good job.

On Wednesday I started the second class, In the Power of His Might. I decided to teach some of the classes under the meeting tree, hoping the change in scenery along with the tea breaks would help the students keep their minds engaged. As I was finishing up the day's teaching I looked up and saw Paulo Kurupashi coming to greet me. In the past Paulo had been a vital part of my work with the Maasai but over the last years he had separated himself because of a controversy involving his father, Eliakimu Kurupashi, the first chairman of ITO, Workers Together With Him in Tanzania.

I had been told that the current chairman of ITO, Patrick Kinana, was leading an effort to mend the situation. This was welcome news, but I knew that making a lasting peace would not be easy. After years of accusation and counter-accusation, emotions were on edge. All the people involved were willing to sit down and talk with me, and that was good. I was very ready to hear both sides of the story and find the path to resolution. But once again everything that was said would need to be interpreted, and that meant more work for Irene. (I realize I'm going on and on about this, but this was a real concern to me. I will never again allow one person to carrying such a heavy load.)

A meeting was tentatively scheduled for Sunday night. In the meantime Paulo and I were able to make it clear to each other that there was no ill will between us. Paulo's love for me and this work was never in question. But a son's loyalty to his father is a big thing among the Maasai, and Paulo was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. In separating himself from ITO, he made the best choice he could.

Of course, I had to try to put all these other issues out of my mind when it came time to teach the class. By the end of Friday's teaching it seemed pretty clear that everyone needed a break (especially me) and I cancelled Saturday's sessions and said we would resume on Monday. But now I faced a new problem - I knew there was no way I'd be able to finish the class using the format I had come with. I would have to rewrite my entire lesson plan.

* * * * *

As a Bible teacher, I want to make my presentation as short as possible without sacrificing thoroughness. In order to accomplish this, I prepare meticulous notes that contain all my teaching points and the verses I plan to read (not the references only but the entire verses). It takes me about 12 minutes to teach one page of notes, so I usually allow myself four pages of notes per session. In preparing for Tanzania I cut that down to two pages per session. In my mind, everything was stripped down to the bare bones.

Every teacher knows that it is much easier to ADD to your teaching than to reduce it. On Saturday morning I woke up knowing I had to cut my notes down to about one-third of what I'd prepared. For example, I had prepared four lessons on the gift of the discerning of spirits, resulting in eight pages of notes. I had to turn that into ONE lesson, and one page of notes. I settled on three of the eight lessons from my class "The Prosperity of the Lord's Servant", and turned the eight lessons on "If Ye Do These Things, Ye Shall Never Fall" into ONE lesson. This wasn't a diet plan; it was amputation! I wanted to cry out for morphine! But after a long day of work I was satisfied that I was ready for final week of teaching. Another hurdle was behind me.


There are five denomininations represented in Matebete Village: the Lutherans, the Moravians, the Assemblies of God, the Church of Christ, and the Baptists. On the second Sunday of my mission I wandered into the Lutheran service. I wasn't trying to make a spiritual decision. It seemed as good a place as any to spend Sunday morning. I got there a little late (to avoid being asked to speak!) and I was relieved when the elders didn't fight my decision to sit back in the pews with the rest of the congregation. Usually I am expected to sit up front. I realize this seat is given me out of respect, but I've always been a back-of-the-church kind of guy! I was especially glad that I wasn't perched up front when the guest speaker presented himself. It was a former coworker of mine who had caused me no small amount of pain and trouble.

For a second I thought about standing up and exclaiming that wonderful line of anguished amazement from the movie Splash, "What a WEEK I'm having!" (Forgive me if you haven't seen the movie). Of course I stayed quiet, but I'm sure people wondered what I was giggling about.


* * * * *

I have no animosity toward this fellow, but there's nothing I can do until he admits his sin and makes a move toward returning what he stole. I'm not very optimistic; the last time I saw him, he said he forgave me. After his short message he said he had to be going, and he stopped to shake my hand on his way out of the church. I honestly don't remember what he said to me. By this time I felt a little punch drunk.

After the service concluded a few of us were invited to the home of the Lutheran pastor, a very fine man indeed. As I said before, I was expecting the big meeting for reconciliation to take place that afternoon. But evidently that meeting was still a little premature, and later that afternoon Paulo took Patrick, Irene, and me over to his father's house for what amounted to a pre-reconciliation meeting. I must admit, at the time the significance of this get-together went over my head. I forget that people think it is a big deal when I visit them in their house; I'm sure you can understand that I think I'm the one who should be grateful. But to them it was not unlike the father welcoming home his prodigal son. Tears were flowing as much as the tea. It was very, very heartwarming. (By the way, do you know what 'prodigal' means? A person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. There is nothing new under the sun!)

I am especially grateful to Patrick for his role in all this. He could have used the division to his advantage, to fortify his new position as chairman. But Patrick is a peacemaker not a troublemaker, and I commend his virtue that was so vital in clearing this difficult hurdle, hurdle number six.


On Monday morning, I began presenting my abbreviated messages. All in all, they went very well. My teachings ended up being more like line drawings than oil paintings, but at least the end product didn't look like a Picasso. I finished up the lessons from In the Power of His Might on Tuesday, and on Wednesday taught from The Prosperity of the Lord's Servant. The class seemed to particular enjoy the teaching on "The Deceitfulness of Riches."

Paulo needed to leave the village on Wednesday afternoon to return to his job in Iringa. That gave us one last chance for this reconciliation meeting Wednesday morning. I purposely finished teaching early to make room for that in the schedule. As it turned out, several of the key people were not in the village and so the all-inclusive meeting was an impossibility. I decided to ask for a meeting with one singular goal - to ensure there was no lingering controversy between me and the Kurupashi clan. I knew this was a small piece in the puzzle, but an important piece. I asked for a private meeting with Eliakimu and his son with just a few witnesses: Irene to interpret (yes, Paulo could have done this job, but think how awkward that would be for him), and from the ITO board, Patrick Ole Kinana, and Teten Ole Kaney. Let me just say it was an amazing meeting and the Lord made his presence known in a great and remarkable way. And just so everyone would know that this peace had been secured, I asked Eliakimu to be my special guest at the graduation ceremonies scheduled for Friday. A MAJOR hurdle was cleared!


On Thursday I taught my most successful class, The Week of Millenniums. Funny enough, this was the presentation I felt least confident about, given the restrictions of an interpreted message. But people were actually sitting on the edge of their Maasai stools and we had a great time. On Friday morning I finished up with the abbreviated If Ye Do These Things presentation. This was my least successful class. We were all worn out and ready for things to be over. But you would have never known it by the time our graduation ceremonies began that afternoon! What a grand time it was! Singing, dancing, heartfelt testimonies, and great festivities in the awarding of some very handsome certificates of completion. It was simply grand. And yes, the final hurdle was cleared. This particular segment in my Christian race was over.


It is a shame to leave so much unsaid, but this report has gone on long enough. My heart is filled with gratitude to God for allowing me such occasions in life. I am thankful for the neverending love and support I receive from my wife and children. I am grateful for those people, few though they be, whose generosity helps make these events possible. I am so appreciative of the people who were my coworkers and helpers on this great mission, a first for Workers Together With Him and the fulfillment of my dream for this ministry - the presentation of a ministers' training course. God bless you all in Jesus' name. Amen.

Photos from this event can be viewed HERE.


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