Good Friday morning ...
I could hardly believe it ... but there he was!
It was June 21st, the first day of TEAM work on our project at the church in Olkeleriti. I had no sooner left the Land Cruiser to inspect the project with Dr. Steve when he appeared in the open doorway of the unfinished church. I knew him immediately, even after having met him only once, the year before. He was tall and lanky, his long arms hanging limp at his side, and his clothes in disarray as if he had slept in them (which he had).
But it was his face that gave him away. His dark skin drawn tightly over high, boney cheeks, his lips slightly twisted as if he had had some simple cleft palate issue, his pointed chin a distinguishing character of his face. But it was the sunken, sad eyes that gave him away.
It was Charles.
As was his nature, he was quiet and reserved in greeting. No bombastic, jovial salutation. No slap-on-the-back welcome. Just a kind acknowledgment to see me again and probably not wanting to remember our last meeting ... though there was no way to avoid the remembrance.
Our greeting was short and simple and then we were on to the work that lay before us. Charles was all business from then on, laboring with our TEAM and the local Christians of the Olkeleriti church to fashion a concrete floor for their church. It was hard labor at every step.
First, we removed some of the dirt floor, then carried larges stones by hand and positioned them to cover the entire area, then filled the holes between the large stones with smaller tennis ball- sized stones and finally with even smaller golf ball-sized stones. Then there was the mixing of concrete on the ground with short-handled shovels: 60 buckets of sand mixed with four bags of cement, then mixed with 60 buckets of gravel and finally adding water to make the concrete wet and soupy. Then it was transporting the wet concrete in five-gallon buckets to pour over the entire floor area. It was several days’ work, even with a large platoon of TEAM members combined with church members and local villagers of all ages.
And then there was Charles. He stayed with us for two days working his heart out, digging, mixing, carrying, shoveling, smoothing. He did it all ... and did it with relish. He held nothing back. He was a work horse, strong and able, and he knew what he was doing.
During the time we worked together, he said little. But early Saturday morning, he came to me saying he had to leave to get back to his three girls and his church. It would take him a full day to make the journey, most of it on foot. We quickly gathered together some gifts: a metal tumbler for hot chai, some candies, pencils, markers and booklets for his girls, several Maasai Catechisms, a children’s book of Bible stores in Swahili, and some snacks.
We walked together, Dr. Steve, Charles and I, to the edge of our camp and bade each other farewell. I am not aware that I will ever see Charles again, but I am still touched by his determination to come to see the "white face" from America and to lend a hand at the church project our TEAM undertook as his way of saying THANK YOU for what happened a year ago.
It was in May of 2017 that Dr. Steve, my friend Fred and I traveled for the first time to this distant area. It was the rainy season and we traversed many muddy trails in four-wheel drive and crossed many swollen ditches to reach the small congregation which Charles served with his brother as an Evangelist. It was late evening when we arrived, but his congregation was waiting with songs on their lips and joy in their hearts to greet us. It was raining as we sat under a leaky blue tarp that had been thrown over a stick structure that served as their "church". Water dripped through holes in the blue tarp drenching our clothes.
We sat on a "bench" constructed of knotty sticks strung together with dried tree bark and attached to Y-posts sticking up in the ground. Charles sat beside me as his brother led the Christians in singing. They were raucous with excitement to be visited by "white faces" from America. And we were excited to be among them and to witness their strong faith and eagerness to know the things of God. It was a precious moment.
And then it happened.
There was a small tap on Charles' shoulder. He turned to see another brother whispering in his ear and he immediately left in a quick rush. The singing carried on a for short while and the worship was ended. As we milled about with the Christians, I wondered what happened to Charles. He had left so suddenly and did not return. We never saw Charles again that night.
While we were worshiping, while he was welcoming Christian guests to his church, Charles' sickly wife, Sarah, had died after a long bout with cervical cancer. It was a devastating blow, leaving him with three young girls to raise on his own. Needless to say, the crowd was shaken. There was a gloomy sadness that settled over the Christians. We struggled to pitch our tents in the dark drizzle and snatched a few snacks from our provisions to tide us over until morning. It was a sad ending to a very busy day.
The morning brought more rainy drizzles and the promise of an overcast, mostly miserable day. Not a good setting for the current mood of the locals. A brother of Charles approached Dr. Steve, Fred and I asking for our assistance. There was no money for a proper burial box for Sarah. Together we provided the needed amount (90,000 Tanzanian shillings or about $40USD). The brother was off to the village to have the casket made that very day.
We were taken to a nearby hut in a compound of several huts where the action was centered around a burial hole that had already been started. We quickly learned that this is where Sarah would be buried as soon as the hole was completed, and the burial box arrived. It was to take all day. We nestled in and out of the rain into and out of the hut. For the most part Charles squatted in the corner of the hut, his head bowed and covered with a hood. Occasionally he would get up and wander about, but he always returned to that spot, in that corner. He took neither food nor drink the entire day.
The day wore on as the hole got deeper and deeper, men both young and old taking turns, two at a time to descend into the pit and dig with shovel and pick, tossing the dirt and stone onto a big pile beside the burial hole. By four in the afternoon it was declared finished and stood a gaping five feet deep.
But the burial box had not yet been completed. We waited until its sudden arrival and then in a flurry of activity, the body of Sarah was placed in the casket within the shelter of another hut and was then passed out through the small entrance. Pastor Filipo immediately began the burial ritual.
It was a mass of people, standing together tightly, surrounding the box, Pastor Filipo and the family. The rain continued to drizzle, but the people stood firm. Pastor Filipo delivered a powerful message, shouting and pointing and emphasizing to all the need to know Jesus. The crowd was mixed: Christians, traditional spiritualists, atheists and Muslims. It was, and always is in that culture, a community event.
We finally processed to the open hole where we all gathered around, pressed tightly. The burial box, with some kind of purple garland covering the top, was lowered into the ground with singing and the reading of Scripture. The hole was then covered with dirt while everyone stood and watched, the earthen grave mounded over with the moistened soil from the all-day rain. In the end members of the family were called forth by name to place a freshly-cut branch into the mound of dirt, a symbol of ongoing life beyond the death of a loved one. I was touched when my name and that of my friend, Fred, were called out and we followed Dr. Steve in tribute to a woman we had not met and yet somehow seemed to know. You can imagine the tears that dripped from my swollen eyes as I walked through that mass of people to place my branch.
It was well after dark when the proceedings were ended, and we made our way to our Land Cruiser to prepare for our departure. We were unable to partake in the food that had been prepared throughout the day, but we were able to find Charles and bid him farewell before taking leave. He was a broken man but gracious in every way.
And there he was this past June 21st, standing in the doorway of the church in Olkeleriti prepared to say THANK YOU in his own way for our presence a year before.
I marvel at the fortitude, the courage and the faith of these Maasai men who serve as Evangelists in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. The are remarkable men in every way. I pray that God will bless Charles with another wife to be his helpmeet and the mother of his three girls. And I also pray that some day God will bring us together again to celebrate the life of faith that we share.
Have a great weekend in the Lord ...