My faith has always been unconventional. I have never been able to fit myself into the box of any church or organized religion. Messages that ring true to me come from all over—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, new age spirituality, indigenous beliefs, lakes, mountains, the sea, dreams, and beyond. But just recently, in Tanzania, for me, the Divine became real.
Last month, my UNITE traveling team arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. We were met by a darkened building under construction, a strong warm breeze, and our three Tanzanian UNITE teammates, Fred Mollel, Elias Shayo, and Geoffrey Manangwe who had driven hours through the night just to welcome us with bouquets of flowers and open arms. Instead of waiting until our pre-arranged meeting time later that morning, they went far out of their way to give us a “proper” welcome to their country.
After a brief sleep, we went together to Fred’s Lutheran Church in central Arusha. The large concrete cathedral dwarfs the next-door “old” church, made of wooden planks and tin ceiling boards that connect with gaps and holes at every corner. The new building is rising up from the labor, love, and devotion of the church’s many thousands of parishioners. Everyone contributes what they can. Inside the newly tiled floors gleam and the colorful alter glistens.
Western visitors are rare in this place. We receive a royal welcome. After some prodding, a few Tanzanian men moved their plastic chairs by ours so us wageni (guests) wouldn’t be sitting alone. The choirs, old and young, sang for hours. The parents and grands group, who had been singing and worshipping together for more than 20 years, took our breath away with their angelic and operatic voices. The younger choir, at least 60 strong, put on quite a different show. In their matching white shirts and black pants, or skirts, they danced and boogied. Their funky choreography would get J-Lo moving and their solos rivaled Celine Dion and even dear Whitney Houston. Unable to sit still, we all cheered, hooped, and hollered after every performance,
Hours into the service, the tone changed. The wife of one of the gentlemen sitting next to me had recently survived a car crash. He wanted to pay his glory to God. Dozens of people streamed to the front of the church, faced the alter, and the silence was soon replaced by chanting. Then, a man standing in front of us fell over straight backwards on to the tile floors. Stiff as a board, he began to convulse and make horrible loud guttural noises. His eyes rolled back in his head. No one seemed to notice. The service went on and the man convulsed. Noticing the discomfort and worry of us wageni, a few young men finally walked over, picked up the man, turned him on his side, removed his shoes, and carried him out the back of the church. That was it. No one else skipped a beat.
Hours later, after prolonged goodbyes and photos with the congregation, choirs and clergy, I asked Freddie, “what happened?”
“God was driving the devil out of that man.”
“You mean he was possessed by the devil?” I ask incredulously.
“Are you worried? Is that a problem.”
“No,” said Freddie without much interest. “It’s not a problem. They took him out and prayed over him. He will be okay.”
A week or so later, my team was visiting the New Life Foundation, an orphanage, school, and vocational center for more than 400 children. Based in Moshi, along the foothills of Kilimanjaro, who the locals refer to as Old Man Mzee, New Life cares for those that are abandoned, abused, neglected, and without hope. Jesus is at the forefront of their lives. Upon our arrival to the primary school, again we were met by song. Joyful and upbeat, soulful and serene. Hundreds of voices packed tightly together. Wearing matching school uniforms, the children sang loudly and proudly with their hands clasped together in front of their hearts, faces and even placed over their eyes. I admired their faith. I envied their faith. My heart swelled in my chest, my breathing quickened and I thought that perhaps I too could feel their faith.
Before every meal, I would pray with my Tanzanian friends. To them, I am Dada Annie (sister Annie) and we are one family under God. Our love and devotion to one another is honest and true.
The day before we left the country, we visited the family of Neema, a sponsored student of New Life. About a half hour off the main road, over a nearly impassable, rocky, ditch-filled path, is a tiny shamba, one of countless others, where Neema’s family lives in a dilapidated and disintegrating home made of mud and dung, and survives off the food they can grow on a small patch of land, which at the moment was starving for the soon-to-arrive rains. In one dark, windowless room, eight children sleep on wooden boards on the dirt floor, including Neema, when she is home on school holidays. There is nothing there.
When we arrived back to our modest hotel in time for me to prepare for more meetings and a UNITE-partner celebration for 20+ people, one woman commented about how she really didn’t want to share a room or a shower that night. A heavy weight came over me. I hastily made my way to sit under a tree in the hotel garden. I longed for a moment alone, a moment I had not yet had the entire time I had been in Africa. I began writing and venting in my feelings in my notebook when Josephine approached. The head of New Life Foundation (with her husband, Glorious), Josephine’s blue and white-fitted kitanga dress was somehow barely hardly ruffled after our long day in the dusty bush and her skin looked flawless. All it took was one glance into her kind and compassionate eyes to release the floodgates. My tears began to flow. “What does it take,” I asked, “to reach the human heart?”
She sat down by my side, took my hands in hers and said quietly, “Anne, the human heart is made of stone. Only God can break it.”
I told her that what upset me the most was not so much the behaviors or actions — or lack thereof – of others, but my judgment of them. She asked to say a prayer over me. I sniffled and agreed.
Josephine prayed that God would free me of my judgment and pain and that He would give us all the strength and courage necessary to do His Will here on Earth. It was a simple and only took a moment.
That was weeks ago. I have since been overcome by a sense of calm and peace that I can attribute only to Grace. Now, the words and behaviors of others that command my atttention are only those that inspire me. I feel free. I am free. And I know, without doubt, that the Divine is real.
Anne Wells is the founder and director of UNITE The World With Africa, a social organization working to provide impactful connections, resources and expertise to help advance women’s health, education and microfinance programs in Tanzania. She recently launched a new online store called the Ashé Collection, a 100 percent philanthropic initiative to grow an international demand for African artistry and raise funds to support UNITE’s work in East Africa. For more information, email Anne at email@example.com.