Not quite two weeks ago I received an email from the Rev.Josh Heikkila, the Presbyterian Church’s regional liaison to our partner denominations in West Africa. Josh was an associate pastor at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul when I began to serve here in Hudson, so we have had a friendship for several years. Having served in a short term mission in Ghana almost [gulp] twenty years ago myself, I am always interested to hear what is going on in the life of the church in that area of the world.
Josh was here at First Presbyterian Church last spring, leading one of our Lent Bible studies and sharing about the state of the church and the church’s ministries, particularly in Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger. He ignited some interest among some of us who heard him about what we might do to partner with brothers and sisters in faith around the world. He also shared with us some pictures of some of our churches banners that were now hanging in churches in West African churches - - worship banners like the one you see here now.
In the mission field these days, most responsible leaders do not encourage blanket donations or handouts that can feel paternalistic or even do more harm than good. Huge donations of used clothing and shoes, for example, can actually destroy local business people who are trying to make a living and build the economy. However, when a specific request for something like a worship banner that can connect two worshiping communities on different continents comes in, something that can give new life and enhance the spirituality of two congregations at once, it isn’t difficult to try to fulfill the request. Knowing we had several banners that we weren’t likely to use as often as a church in West Africa would, the Spiritual Growth and Mission Outreach Ministry Teams worked together to pick some banners to send to Josh and pay to ship them to his home in Accra, Ghana.
Over the last several years, Josh has hand delivered our banners and banners from the Presbyterian church in Plymouth, Minnesota to congregations around West Africa. Periodically he will send us pictures of our banners adorning the sanctuaries of partner churches. We have shared those pictures with you in newsletters and announcement slides when they come back to us.
In his email last month, Josh related to me two stories about some of our banners. Last year in a trip to Niger, a landlocked African nation directly to the north of Nigeria, Josh was able to deliver banners to congregations of the Evangelical Church in Niger, our partner denomination, in the capital city of Niamey. Less than 1% of the population in predominantly Muslim Niger is Christian, with less than 0.1% of the total population identifying as “Evangelical” or Protestant Reformed Christian. What seemed to us to be a relatively easy gift to give was to the church in Niger a connection to brothers and sisters in faith, a reminder that they are not alone, a witness to the broad love of God that binds us together across distance, race, and culture.
In the aftermath of a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Mohammed that was published by Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine, there were protests in a number of Muslim communities around the world, particularly in Algeria, Niger, and Pakistan. Niamey, Niger experienced some of these protests some of which grew violent and even deadly. On January 17, almost a week after the publication of the cartoon, Josh posted this call to prayer on his Facebook page, “Friends in Niger have had to leave their homes for safety, and many Christian churches, schools, homes have been burned ... because of what's happening in Paris. In this world of ours, foolish actions instigate foolish responses, and the innocent suffer.”
In the end, the church where this banner was hanging was burned. The cement walls still stand, but the pews inside, the appointments like the banner, and anything else that could burn, was burned. A picture from the French Press Agency shows the outside of the church as it was still smoldering with some of the contents that were part of a bonfire in the foreground. All that is left inside are the metal frames that held together the wooden slats of the pews.
Another church in Niamey that was attacked by what I have to be sure to point out was a small minority of very angry people who were Muslim – they do not represent all Muslims in Niger or around the world any more than so-called Christian members of the KKK represent all American Christians or Christians around the world – was also a recipient of one of the banners from our presbytery. Josh had intended to return this spring to take a picture of it hanging in the sanctuary to identify whether it was from our congregation or the congregation in Plymouth, but that had not yet happened. Either way, the story of what happened with that church and that banner from our presbytery is extraordinary.
When word that angry protesters were moving toward the church with intent to destroy it, some of the church’s Muslim neighbors went out to meet them, placing themselves between the church and the young men. The Muslim neighbors negotiated a different resolution to the protest, bringing out the pews and the banner which were burned symbolically, in exchange for sparing the church building itself. The banner was lots, but it in essence saved a church. As Josh said in his email, “I'm sure no one imagined this when they were being made! God works in mysterious ways???”
Who knew? Who knew thirty years ago that a banner made to aid the worship of Presbyterians in Minnesota or Wisconsin would eventually be repurposed to aid the worship of Christians in Niger? Who knew an act of loving creativity would adorn our sanctuary and then adorn theirs? Who knew the work of our hands would be such and poignant sign of our unity in Christ across generations and across many miles? And most definitely who knew this small act of love that brought together a few women around a sewing table in the United States would eventually, through its sacrifice, would save a sanctuary for Christians in turmoil, distress, and danger?
In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 today what we heard about was an act of love. Jesus had love for the crowds that were following him and were likely hungry as the day was growing late. He knew they needed to eat to fill their bellies as they were waiting for their souls to be filled, too. The disciples knew of five loaves and two fish on hand, but that wasn't going to come close to feeding the crowd. They could have held onto it because what difference would it have made any way. How could such a small offering make any sort of dent in the need in front of them?
But it did. Who knew?
So many times we have choices before us, choices to make about simple acts of love and compassion that may not seem like much at all - filling a backpack with food for elementary school families in need, increasing our giving to the church or special offerings for disaster relief or assistance programs, providing soup for a simple supper, serving dinner at Grace Place or networks. Youth ministry, teaching children in our Sunday School or leading them in a Camp in a Van. So many times we have opportunities to be a part of simple loving acts, but so many times it is hard to see what difference they will make in the long run. But they do, whether we see the results or not, our acts of compassion can change the world for individuals whose names we may never even know, for communities we may never even see.
A family receiving food will be fed and nourished for another day because of the food delivered in a backpack. An otherwise unchurched child or youth in our community will hear the good news that he or she is a beloved child of God because of the ministry we provide. A home will be rebuilt and shelter provided after a devastating storm on the opposite side of the globe. We can hardly begin to imagine what these simple acts will mean in the lives of others, and neither could the disciples when they handed over two fish and five loaves.
Who knew five loaves and two fish would feed a multitude?
Who knew a banner would save a church?
Who knows the long reach of simple acts of love, but God who reached far to love us first?
May our days be filled with simple acts of great love in the name of God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Amen.