By Nola Crooks
Complete. Irrepressible. Joy.
From the moment we entered the country and were greeted by the women of Kagiso Baptist Church to the closing moments of the Baptist World Alliance Congress a current of joy existed across every spectrum.
I learned a lot about South Africa this summer when I became part of an American Baptist Women’s Ministries Mission Encounter to South Africa and the Baptist World Alliance Congress. Twelve women traveled together, first to Johannesburg to attend the BWA Women’s Department Leadership Conference and then to Durban to attend the 21st BWA World Congress.
We arrived in Johannesburg a few days early and our first activity was to be the guests of the women of Kagiso Baptist Church in Kagiso township. The word ‘kagiso’ means peace in Tswana. Arriving at the church we could hear the music before we opened the van door. The women were worshipping as we arrived and we were led into the church in a line by Momma Dorothy Selabano who danced us up the aisle of this simple brick church and into our places on the front row. At this point we couldn’t understand a single word the women were singing, but they were singing with enthusiasm, joy, and an earnestness that belies the inauspicious neighborhood we had passed through to get there.
The women shared worship with us and cared for us, giving us tea to refresh us after our journey, and then spent the afternoon sharing with us the status of women and issues they face in South Africa. During the program there were the usual pauses between speakers. If the pause extended for more than three to five minutes, a woman would lift her voice in song and quickly the band would begin accompanying her, then other women would join in, and before we knew it we were up on our feet again for a ten minute interval of praise. It was an absolutely incredible way to begin our journey in South Africa.
That first encounter set the tone for the entire trip.
Throughout the BWA Women’s Department Leadership Conference the African women initiated worship in the same manner as the women at Kagiso Baptist Church, and it was spontaneous and heartfelt. Worship had women from all seven continents on their feet singing songs in African languages, languages we didn’t speak, but with words whose spirit we knew. It was joyful. I wondered if this was what heaven would be like: people from all the tribes joined together for one purpose.
Not only was worship filled with joy but I believe I was hugged and loved on by every woman in Africa. I also received the same treatment from women from South Korea, Brazil, Chile, India, the Netherlands, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia, and Canada.This list is incomplete because I haven’t had time to go through all the address cards I received and count up the women I met and conversed with.
I learned that my faith is global.
I often don’t think of my faith in terms of my residence. I am an American Baptist. I worship in an American Baptist church. Although I was raised in many different regions of the United States, in many cultures, I still have this quintessential American faith. I believe that we as Americans forget that our faith, our structures, our norms are American-based and until we are exposed to women from around the world our understanding of the “globalness” and breadth of believers all over the world will be limited. When we limit our faith experience to our own church, neighborhood, and culture we limit our ability to respond and understand the context of Jesus command to be a light to the world
How can I be a light if I don’t know my neighbor?
After a week in Johannesburg, we traveled to Durban. In Durban we were attending the 21st Baptist World Alliance World Congress, meetings that began in 1905 and have met regularly every five years since that time. However, this was the first time a congress had been held on the continent of Africa. In addition, the next president of the BWA is Paul Msiza, a pastor from South Africa.
The people of Africa celebrated. I had never thought that a whistle and a vuvuzela could be used as an accompaniment in worship. I know now that they can.
For five days approximately 5,000 Baptists spent time in worship, study, prayer, meetings, and friendship. It was another opportunity to learn about the Baptist faith from the perspective of other Baptists from every corner of the world. This was an opportunity to hear from them their concerns and their celebrations of their church and in their countries and to share the same with them about America.
From my first encounter with my traveling partners at JFK airport in New York, to Johannesburg and learning about the history of a country that recently overcame apartheid, on to Durban and the assembly of thousands of Baptists, and finally the farewell hugs of the women who are now my lifetime sisters, I experienced joy.
I am thankful for this time and, to be honest, I am still processing much of the experience, wondering how God’s purpose for me will be revealed in the upcoming years. I do know that saying “yes” to this opportunity made all the difference to me.
Nola Crooks serves as Coordinator of the Midwest Section on the national board of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and teaches fourth grade in Parsons, Kansas.