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In spring 2000, my family spent three weeks in Thailand visiting and working with the amazing ministry of a Thai Presbyterian clergywoman, the Reverend Dr. Sirirat Pursinkham, of Maesai, Chiangrai (northern Thailand). She also oversees an orphanage, AIDS hospice, drug rehab, small seminary, and a rural school. One day a patient in the AIDS hospice died and we were asked to preach at his funeral (Sirirat would interpret). Stunned, we responded, “What can we say to someone we do not know?” Sirirat’s response: “Tell the family that God loves their father and God cares for them. It will mean so much coming from you.” I realized then that many people think that the U.S.A. is blessed by God while other nations are left to struggle and are abandoned. Hearing the gospel from a citizen of the U.S. lifted them into the communion of all saints of all nations. It was a humbling experience for me and has informed my preaching since, with God’s radical justice and unconditional love as well as a foretaste of the heavenly feast where people will come from east and west, from north and south—from every corner of the world!
Anne Marie Meyerhoffer (M.Div., 1988)
In the spring of 2005 I was part of a delegation from the PCUSA to Israel/Palestine. For most of the time we were in Bethlehem, guests of the Lutherans, and worshipped at a beautiful stone church built by the German Lutheran church. Since our Sunday there was shortly after Easter, one of the hymns was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” where each line ends with an “Alleluia.” But just before singing the hymn, the pastor told us to each sing in our own native language. So as it began, I could hear “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” in Hebrew, English, German, and Arabic. And to be honest, it was a mess. It was the vocal equivalent of muddy water. But then we came to the “Alleluia,” and regardless of the language, it was still “Alleluia.” As we went through the stanzas of that great resurrection hymn, it became a metaphor for our unity in Christ. We had all our differences to be sure, symbolized by the languages, but then we found our unity in the praise of God, our Alleluia.
Arthur Suggs (M.Div., 1983)
Binghamton, New York
During the month of November I embarked on my first trip to the Holy Land. I spent fifteen days traveling throughout Jordan and Israel—quite an affirming spiritual pilgrimage. What enhanced this journey all the more was traveling with an interfaith group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews! We traveled with an organization called World Pilgrims. While in Jordan, the Christians organized a Sunday morning service (with the Lord’s Supper) for the entire group outside of Petra. It was a wonderful time of praise and worship in a nation and culture outside of my own. During the trip we also shared in Jewish services at a kibbutz and in a Jummah service with Muslims. In each service, it was quite moving to have Jews, Muslims, and Christians joined together in unity—worshipping!
Victor D. Tate (M.Div., 2004)
I am an Egyptian living in Egypt. I currently serve as chairperson for Philip Ministries, a Reformed Presbyterian Church organization engaged in a variety of ministries, including supporting the church in the Sudan. On February 18–23, 2007, we conducted a conference in Khartoum that brought together Presbyterian ministers and church leaders (men and women) from all presbyteries of the Sudan.
An important part of worship at the conference was serious and prayerful consideration of important topics that have serious implications, such as marriage and family, and peace and reconciliation.
For most attendants, tribal customs presented burning questions, one of which dealt with a very common practice that made it obligatory for a man to marry the wife of a deceased brother. We made it clear that while one had to care for the wife of a deceased brother, one is to continue with one wife.
Another topic was the building of peace and the message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Fighting between South and North continued for twenty years (the longest of its kind in history) until the peace accord was signed in January 2005. Even young children born in the South were given guns to fight. Strong feelings have developed through the years and some questions are not yet resolved...the burning question is: How is the church to build up peace and bring about the message of forgiveness and reconciliation?
Abd-el-Masih Istafanous (Ph.D., 1963)
It was Christmas Eve 2005 in Amman, Jordan, as I waited to enter Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in the wake of the kidnapping of four colleagues. I went to Midnight Mass with a Catholic colleague, a Jewish girl and her lapsed Protestant boyfriend, and a Muslim man.
During communion I stayed with our guests. Jamil, my Muslim friend, asked why we didn’t all go up. As we sat, Jamil said, “I like this—it is very nice—it reminds me of Jesus loving and feeding the poor.”
Our guests and I continued to watch quietly as the question occurred to me: who, starving to death, would I not feed? It is the question I am left with as I marvel that my Muslim friend wanted to participate and saw no reason why he should not.
(Sent from Sulaimaniya, Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq)
Elizabeth A. Pyles (M.Div., 2005)
Indonesian churches are quite diverse in terms of ethnicity. Upon our arrival in Salatiga, Central Java, my family and I chose the church closest to the place we were staying. To our surprise, the worship was in high Javanese and we did not understand a thing except for the word “Jesus,” which is universal. We managed to stay on until the end when everybody stood up to chant “Amen, Amen, Aaaamen.” Despite the difficulty that we had, I learned one thing. Although we are in a strange place where people, language, tradition, and even food are different and might distract us, when we come to worship the same God, listen to the same scripture preached, and sing the same hymns, though in a language other than our own, we feel “at home.” God in Jesus Christ with the guidance of the Holy Spirit makes us “feel at home.”
Nicolaas A. Likumahuwa (M.A.T.S., 1983)
Several youth leaders in our church agreed to assist me in leading monthly worship services at a jail north of San Diego. We went to our first Wednesday night service armed with three guitars, a box full of song books, and two Bibles. As we passed through the clanking metal doors and before the uniformed guards, we breathed in the heavy air of a windowless world.
About thirty prisoners were escorted into the large room where we were stationed. A few smiled back at us, but most did not make eye contact. Despair and anger were the faces we greeted. Awkwardly, we opened the service. Our praise music came out stillborn.
Then one of the prisoners approached me and asked if he could share a song. When this young African American pierced the death-like atmosphere with a familiar Black spiritual, the captive congregation came to life. He beautifully rendered the words of lamentation from his own well of sorrow. His song was the prayers of the people, and the Savior was summoned to harrow hell once again.
Larry Grounds (Th.M., 1984)
In 1983 while representing the Canadian and United Bible Societies and accompanied by the general secretary of the Bible Society in Poland, my late wife, Ann, and I traveled with an old Catholic bishop and his secretary to a Polish village a few miles from the Russian frontier to celebrate Mass and participate in the annual All Soul’s Day blessing and decorating of the graves in the local cemetery.
It was a bitterly cold November day as the townspeople flocked to the church in response to the pealing of the bell announcing our arrival. Inside the overheated little rectory, the bishop (speaking French, the only language he and I understood in common) expressed regret that I was not properly dressed in a black suit and Roman collar, and ordered the short, stout parish priest to furnish me with his own collar and vestments so that I could preach the homily during the Mass.
Trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey in my borrowed regalia, I sat behind the altar listening to the liturgy unfold in Latin and Polish—and realized with relief that the gospel lesson being read was Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes! I spoke briefly (in English, translated by the Bible Society’s general secretary) about our family’s recent loss of my wife’s father back in Canada, and how every occasion of grief is also an opportunity to proclaim the goods news of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
At the end of the homily, the bishop crossed the chancel, embraced me in a Polish bear-hug and proclaimed to the tearful congregation “Mon frère en Christ!” (“My brother in Christ!”). He then took me by the arm, led me to the altar, and insisted that I celebrate the Eucharist with him—an honor and privilege that, at that time, could not have been accorded a Presbyterian minister in a Roman Catholic Mass in Canada!
William R. Russell (M.Div., 1964)
I have always observed that children like learning different languages during the children’s message, so that is one way I incorporate different cultures and nations in worship. A little Spanish or Hebrew goes over well.
In my last church we enjoyed bedecking the sanctuary for Worldwide Communion, with treasures from many countries—textiles, baskets, works of art, anything people had that originated elsewhere in the world. We were amazed at how much international color was lurking in people’s homes!
Elizabeth Affsprung (M.Div., 1987)
In Guguletu, South Africa, I attended a Good Friday worship service conducted entirely in Xhosa. There were no instruments save a drum and the congregation’s collective voice, singing a cappella, the strong and somber and soulful music of the day. Not a word of English was spoken, yet I understood everything. I was there with a group of classmates from business school, but when they discovered I was a pastor they ushered me to the seat of honor in the chancel area of the rustic building. There I sat, looking out, taking it all in, understanding nothing and everything at the same time.
Sarah Sarchet Butter (M.Div., 1992)
As a navy chaplain in 1946 I visited the Bikini natives with a fellow chaplain on their new island of Rongerik in the Marshall Islands. We knew they were Christian, so upon landing we pointed to the cross on our collars and were warmly welcomed. The entire community of natives then sat down cross-legged before us, expectantly awaiting an address from these unexpected visitors. Without a common language, we decided the best we could do was to sing hymns: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Abide With Me,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” and others. Immediately, we noticed a spark of recognition on their part, so we urged them to sing. They responded with the same hymns in their own Micronesian tongue. This back and forth continued for more than an hour with deep oneness in a spirit of spontaneous worship. In the evening the families gathered as a community and shared a common meal. After five days our boat arrived to carry us back to our navy duty assignments. I have no idea what was said in parting, but we caught their sentiment. In a close bond of fellowship the community sang “God Be With You ‘til We Meet Again.” The entire experience was the closest witness that I have ever had to what the church of the first century must have been like.
Dave Chambers (M.Div., 1945)
Chevy Chase, Maryland
The truth is that I came to the Christian faith in a global, missional context. It was a professor and priest of the Orthodox Church of India that slowly, wisely, brought me to faith in Jesus Christ. It was at the three-hour Easter service of “Holy Qurbana” (Holy Eucharist) that I preached my first sermon for the Malankara Orthodox Church of the Syrian Rite of India. And it was that same professor and priest who became my spiritual director and guided me to Princeton Seminary in 1977.
For the past three years I have served as a field pastor for a group of Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries in the African nation of Gabon. On my last trip, I had the privilege of preaching at a Gabonese church. As I do not speak French, I had to preach through an interpreter. While I could not understand much of what was being said or sung in the worship experience, I was struck by the delightful awareness that I was among family. We had one common faith, one common Lord, one common baptism. That realization enabled me to appreciate the songs and prayers in a language that was not my own. All praise be given to the God of all nations.
Richard Allen Farmer (M.Div., 1980)
In July of 2006 my wife and I had the opportunity to attend the World Methodist Conference in Seoul, Korea. During our time there we attended an outdoor worship service held on the border of North/South Korea known as the DMZ (De-militarized Zone). One of the high moments of that service involved several women who were interpreting God’s word through liturgical dance. The women had escaped from North Korea several years ago. (An estimated 2,500 North Koreans escape to South Korea each year.) Finding refuge in the church, they later experienced God’s amazing grace in the birth of their faith. The service closed with 500 worshippers releasing balloons as a symbol of hope and a prayer for unification.
Steve Shuster (M.Div., 1985; Th.M., 1988)
Millville, New Jersey
In March of 1999, I was invited to deliver a series of lectures on the prophet Isaiah at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. During my time there I was also invited to preach in several churches up and down the eastern side of that country. One Wednesday evening my invitation was from the local Pentecostal church.
This was my first experience with a full-blown tongues-speaking service. I had been raised among German Presbyterians in Eastern Wisconsin, a “sit down and shut up” kind of faith. Here I found myself in a setting in which people started spontaneously to pray out loud, usually in the middle of a hymn or spiritual song, and the rest of us would simply hum the song as long as the spirit was present in that person. So far as I could track it, all of the speaking was in Croatian.
By the time it was my turn to get up and preach, I found that I had a sense of spiritual and emotional freedom that was not normal for me. I was able to cast my notes to the side and let the message flow more from my heart than was typical on a normal Sunday morning.
One of my students, a very linguistically gifted young lady, was my interpreter for the service. I was preaching on the story of Jacob stealing the blessing from his brother Esau (Genesis 27). I was waxing away on a telling of the story of how Jacob had made the “savory food” to take to Isaac while wearing the guise of Esau. I said, “He went in before his father bearing the dish of animal stew.” Suddenly the translation stopped cold. Mirella glanced at me with a puzzled look on her face and asked, “STEW?! What is stew?!” In front of an audience I found myself struggling for some quick explanation which would give her a lead. All at once I remembered that we were about twenty-five miles from the Hungarian border, so I said, “Unh, Goulash!” She smiled, turned to the audience, and went right on.
Ralph E. Nelson (M.Div., 1963)
Writing from Istanbul, this past week I have been part of an interfaith group traveling in Turkey. Last Sunday we stopped at an interfaith center that consisted of three beautiful new places of worship—a mosque, a synagogue, and a church. Our interfaith group took time to worship in each of the three settings led in prayer first by a Jewish couple, then by a Muslim who is also a corporate vice president with Microsoft, and then by former PTS student Barry Keating (Special Student, 1977), a native of Ireland. In the Christian setting Barry shared comments on the Lord’s Prayer, and then we shared in the passing of the peace. All three worship experiences were very meaningful.
Gary F. Skinner (M.Div., 1962)
A woman from Mongolia, an Asian traditional doctor, began joining us for worship at the Warsaw International Church. Soon she and her two teenage sons confessed faith in Christ and were baptized. Shortly thereafter, a second, young woman from Mongolia, already a believer, began joining us for worship. Together, the two began to speak of their faith among the small Mongolian community of Warsaw. Shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to begin to teach a number of the children of their community the basics of the Christian faith. Language was an issue; these children did not speak English. I recruited a Nigerian man in the congregation to do the teaching. Each Saturday in the church office there would gather about ten Mongolian children being taught the Christian catechism in Polish by a Nigerian.
Mark Atkinson (M.Div., 1983)