Ibale is a mountain hamlet about two hours inland from Bukoba, the big town on Lake Victoria’s northwestern shore. Our Archdiocese of Mwanza and Western Tanzania had selected Ibale as the site of this year’s youth seminar, and Panagiotis and I were going out to do prep. The plan was to deliver the supplies and then transport several hundred poles from a nearby grove to Father Eleftherios at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, where they would be used to construct tents. We had hoped to arrive in the morning, work hard all day, and return to Bukoba that evening.
When we reached Ibale about five hours behind schedule, Father was out in another village doing catechism. Pappadhia (the priest’s wife) didn’t know when he’d be back. So she fed us roasted peanuts and we waited.
Missionaries spend a lot of time waiting.
As afternoon turned into evening, the youth of Holy Resurrection danced in the dust beside the church, practicing songs for the upcoming seminar. Most were original compositions celebrating the arrival of guests from many different mountain towns, and even some from overseas. Their finale number was the showstopping “Tuwapambe”- “Let us adorn them”- to be sung in procession, waving branches and flowers, as the foreign visitors walked from their bus towards the church to pray the Doxology of Thanksgiving for a safe arrival.
Panagiotis joined in the dancing and taught a few moves, while I sat in the shade and listened.
There’s one thing a missionary does: sit still and listen.
Father showed up in time for Vespers. A catechist and I chanted the service together in Swahili.
Missionaries do that, too: Pray. In foreign languages.
It was dark by now, too late to start work for today. After Matins the next day, Father assured us there would be youth present to help with the hard work. So, we would spend the night.
What else do missionaries do? Change their plans. Often.
After Vespers, we waited another two hours for dinner to be ready. Rural Tanzanians cook over wood fires, supporting their pots on three hearthstones. It takes time.
Did I mention that missionaries do a lot of waiting?
The sky was clear and the stars were out. The catechist and I listened to the rumble and ring of cows returning from the pasture, and to the sound of drums as neighbors danced to pass the time before dinner.
I don’t know if all missionaries dance to drums under the stars, but it’s part of the job where I work.
The next morning several youth showed up for Matins, and helped unload the truck. Then they piled into its high truckbed and we drove to the eucalyptus grove that we’d be harvesting. The track to the grove was a footpath, not designed for vehicles and especially not for a big dump truck.
Eucalyptus are fast-growing trees, perfect for poles. We had ordered nearly three hundred. It takes time to chop down three hundred trees with machetes, so we left the youth at their work and went to collect firewood.
The firewood was at Fr Iakovos’ parish, on a nearby mountain about 45 minutes away. We loaded up enough wood to cook meals for 150 young people for three weeks. It’s a lot of wood, and it takes a while to load.
We dropped the firewood off at Holy Resurrection and drove back up the mountain path for the poles. By now it was two in the afternoon, and there were still a hundred trees to go. “We’re hungry,” complained the youth. “We haven’t had breakfast yet.”
After breakfast/ lunch, a fresh batch of youth showed up to chop the remaining poles, and by nightfall Panagiotis and I were on our way back to Bukoba.
A person can be a missionary with just about any skill set or job description. What makes you a missionary is your vocation: whatever you do, you do it for the purpose of welcoming people into the kingdom of heaven.
That vocation is bigger than the skill set or the job description. Missionaries have to be flexible. Doing church work in a poor country with limited resources... you do what needs to be done.
Some days, I’m in a remote village, teaching for hours to a group of catechumens seated on the ground under a tree. Those days feel like authentic missionary work. Other days, I tally bundles of firewood. Some of our missionaries right now are working through government red tape to open a clinic.
The bureaucratic stuff, or the business stuff, or the plain old hard labor, doesn’t always feel like missionary work. But it is necessary for the Church to do the work of the Church. It is necessary to open doors for the spread of the Gospel. It’s missionary work, too.
What does a missionary do?
Pray a lot. Sit still. Listen. Learn foreign languages. Keep books. Wait. Change plans. Improvise. Chop tent poles. Pray some more. Dance to the drums under the stars. Listen for the voice of God. And do whatever needs doing.