I traveled to Bo late last week for a workshop with a select group of ELCSL evangelists. Rev. Edward Lavally (chair of the Commission on Evangelism and Outreach) and I worked together to teach these lay leaders about the sacrament of holy communion in the Lutheran tradition and to train them to preside at the Lord’s table.
The evangelists have been asking for this training for some time, and the Commission on Evangelism debated at length about the best way to address the need for communion services in congregations not served by pastors. In the end, the Commission selected 7 of the 23 ELCSL evangelists to participate . Five of these are in remote provincial congregations and two are serving in Freetown in congregations without pastors. The evangelists who participated in the training will be “tested” in August and be eligible for certification as Eucharistic Ministers thereafter.
I’m always struck by the variety of issues that arise as we seek to train and support the churches in Sierra Leone. Language is an ongoing issue. Rev. Lavally asked the evangelists to learn the communion liturgy in English. He said the upcountry evangelists would be able to translate easily into Mende once they know the service by heart in English. During the workshop last week, we also talked at length about the elements used in holy communion. A visiting pastor shared his experience of being asked to celebrate holy communion in a distant village and using coconut water and cassava root for the elements. In that instance, he needed to be creative, and to use the resources available. He believed, (and I concur) that in those extraordinary circumstances, he was indeed celebrating holy communion, and that with the words of promise and command spoken by Jesus, God was present in the act of sharing food and drink. In our teaching, however, we instructed the evangelists to stay within the ancient tradition of the church, and to use bread and “juice” for holy communion. Most village congregations will be able to procure bread, as long as they plan ahead. Communion wine is not easily accessed and so the question of the cup presents a greater challenge here. Grape juice is not easily found either, and with wine is also very expensive. The alternative communion drink used by most ELCSL churches is a cherry soda.
Additionally, none of the remote village congregations have communion ware or easy, affordable access to suitable alternatives. Most plates, cups and dishes used in daily life here are plastic, and that is by far the most practical and affordable material for this context. We encouraged the evangelists, however, to set aside special items for holy communion. I was able to purchase simple, durable wine glasses with short stems to be used as the chalice in the village congregations, and we encouraged the evangelists to purchase a suitable plate for the communion bread.
In addition to their own learning about holy communion, the evangelists now have the task of returning to their communities and teaching their people — what it means; the liturgy itself; as well as the very practical details about how to receive the bread and wine. In my experience here, baptism and communion are often occasions for “holy chaos,” as worshipers (especially the children) eagerly seek to participate. It is my hope that local congregations and the ELCSL as a whole will be strengthened and renewed as “Christ is known [anew] in the breaking of the bread” — especially in those places where the bread has not often been shared before.