I spent three nights in the provincial village of Momajo earlier this week, participating in a workshop with representatives from 4 ELCSL congregations. The workshop targeted those communities actively engaged in micro-finance and other income generating projects. The workshop was coordinated and lead by the head of the development office for the ELCSL, Pastor Moses Momoh Kobba, and the coordinator for the women’s programs, Princess Kobba (also known as “Aunty P,” she is no relation to Pr. Kobba). I lead the morning bible studies for our time together, focusing on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14 – 30), and the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15.
Workshop participants were from neighboring congregations in Jimmi, Momajo, and Yegele, as well as from Ngolahun some distance away. Each congregation was requested to send women as well as men. The group is standing in front of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church. The front wall of the church building is new since my last visit in April.
In the course of our bible study conversations, one of the participants asked: “does God’s grace cover someone who worships in the church on Sunday and goes home to worship their traditional gods too?” This led to a rather spirited discussion about the intersection of Christianity and traditional Sierra Leonean beliefs and religious practice. I find these conversations quite intriguing, and I continue to struggle to grasp all the elements and nuances of traditional beliefs and practices.
This store in Momajo doesn't seem to be operating, but it is one of few buildings I've seen to display any type of artwork
Evangelist John Squire from St. John’s in Ngolahun noted that the question that came up in our bible study is typical of the kinds of questions asked by members of his congregation. He shared the challenges he faces as a Christian leader in his village setting, where traditional religious practices and secret society activities are dominant in daily life. Squire said that he is very careful to avoid confrontation and arguments with non-Christians in the village, particularly with those looking to challenge and find reason to condemn the church as disruptive or detrimental to cultural traditions. (A Christian critique of the traditional practice of polygamy would be one example of a potentially contentious issue in village settings and beyond.) For Squire, the best way to evangelize and to strengthen the church is through the children. His vision — alive and well in Ngolahun — is to operate a Christian school, and to teach the ways of Jesus to the children so that they grow in faith and in knowledge of scripture.
"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105)
I have often heard the ELCSL pastors and evangelists talk about the value of Lutheran primary and secondary schools as an evangelism tool, but I hadn’t previously heard Mr. Squire’s argument. In years gone by, in an era of great support for world missions, the operation of Christian schools was integral to missionary efforts in countries like Sierra Leone. These mission-operated schools succeeded in raising a generation of faithful and well-educated Christian leaders in this nation — men and women who are now committed to passing on their faith to new generations under very different circumstances.
These children were some of my constant companions in the village. This time, in addition to calling me "pumwe" (white person), some of the kids learned to call me Pastor Kate.
An interesting example of the power of “tradition” arose in the course of the journey back to Freetown from Momajo yesterday. I was traveling with 2 colleagues and our driver Abu. We stopped briefly in one local village to buy some ears of roasted corn for a morning snack, and I spotted pumpkins for sale by the side of the road. When I expressed my interest in buying one, my companions insisted that Abu should make the purchase, as I would be asked to pay a higher (ie, unreasonable price). My driver, however, refused to cooperate with this plan.
On one previous occasion when we were traveling in the provinces I had purchased a small pumpkin to take back to Freetown and had loaded it into the car without Abu’s knowledge. When he later saw the pumpkin, he asked me if I had cut it before placing it in the vehicle. That question seemed a bit mysterious to me, but my driver explained that it is necessary to cut or nick the skin of the pumpkin before placing it in a vehicle, or else a breakdown or other problem might occur. Cutting a pumpkin prior to transporting it is an established and necessary custom — so I learned. (We did manage to arrive home safely without problems on that occasion.)
Given my understanding based on that previous experience, I thought it would be a simple thing to buy a pumpkin, to cut it, and to take it home in the car yesterday. Abu, however, was adamantly opposed to the idea based on his own traditional understandings. In light of chronic problems with my car in recent months, I decided not to press the issue as I had images of the conversation we might have if something did happen on our journey. It seemed far better just to buy a pumpkin in Freetown.
Oranges, like pumpkins, are typically green in Sierra Leone. These boy picked the oranges and some limes for ELCSL staffer Halima George.
This morning I asked two people about this custom related to carrying pumpkins in a motor vehicle. Both people were familiar with the practice and when I asked them for more information, they just said: it’s tradition. But when I asked “why?” neither could explain the practice. Still, these conversations led me to explain some of the American traditions surrounding pumpkins, with an eye to demonstrating one particular custom late in October.