A sea of yellow daisies floats on the golden grass of Zambia’s savannah this time of year. Tall stalks of brown maize whisper and crackle in the breeze. The rainy season is over and as the bus zigs and zags along the ribbon of tarmac from Lusaka to Kitwe I admire the thatched roofs and mudbrick homes of villages dotting the countryside where women pound maize in mortars, or ibende, and cook nshima over charcoal fires. I prefer the simplicity of rural village life where subsistence farming generally ensures daily food for every person in the community, but I live in the urban Copper Belt where mines provide the money for daily milimeal and consistent electricity, and contribute the constant plume of sulfur dioxide that crowns our heads in town.
The young woman sitting next to me on the bus sings Christian praise songs throughout our journey and occasionally opens her cell phone to check for text messages. “Jesus Saves” is printed in Bemba across the screen and once again I am reminded that Zambia proudly touts itself as a Christian nation. “Praise Jehovah” and “Jesus is king” are printed on most welcome signs in the country, and as old Maranatha and missionary tunes mingle with contemporary American praise music my mind wanders to the humble mosque in Kitwe that calls its Muslim followers to prayer five times a day. I am curious to know what Muslims living in Zambia think of Christian pop artists crooning love songs to Jesus on the grocery store sound systems, and the evangelists that passionately preach to passengers before every bus departs the Lusaka station.
Zambia. One of the two-dozen countries in the global South where the church is growing exponentially. I was at the wedding of my good friend the Reverend Teddy Sakupapa recently, and he complained about an aching arm. “Why does your arm hurt?” I asked, amused at this strapping young man who massaged his bicep. Babies. He had been baptizing babies. More than 170 little ones were dunked in the Lundazi River while grannies and toddlers and everyone in between looked on with joyful affirmation. There is no doubt that God is uniquely alive and at work in this place and the people of Zambia are flocking in response to the gospel message. For those of us sitting in half-empty churches in North America this growth begs the question, “What are we missing?”
I have been living in beautiful Zambia for nine months working with an organization that has been doing grassroots theological education for forty years, training and equipping lay leadership all over the country to respond to the growing needs of a rapidly expanding church. I have had the privilege of traveling and teaching all over the country with two fine Zambian ministers, and as a recent seminary graduate I feel at home in the realm of Christian education. I resist the title of missionary, yet that is what my Zambian friends call me.
This term is fraught with all kinds of baggage when it is posited in a broader historical context, but it is not the title that bothers me as much as its implications. The term suggests that I am the one with the mission rather than one who participates in a mission much larger than myself. And so I often find myself asking alongside my delightfully critical heathen friends from home, “What exactly am I doing here and what does it mean to ‘do’ mission in Zambia?” I have come to peace with my work and perhaps with this title by responding to the question with another: “How have I been invited to participate in the mission of the church in Zambia?”
And indeed the invitations have come with strength and vigor. I attend kitchen parties where women wrap chetenge around their waists and sing praise songs to Yahweh in perfect harmony. I am invited to preach in small churches in the bush where the best conversations happen after the services under the mango trees as toothless old men and women kindly teach me about the richness of Zambian culture and the complexity of their painful religious and political history, and generously bestow wisdom upon a Westerner trying to wrestle with the nature of global ministry in the era of economic globalization. And together we participate in the mission of Christ in the church in Zambia. Together we participate in the mission of Christ. Together.
A 2007 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Carmen Goetschius was named the first “Global Fellow” of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in August of last year. She will return to Madison Avenue in December 2008 to work as a parish associate for six months following her year in Zambia.