Driving counterclockwise around Mount Kilimanjaro, we made it to Rombo. We were in Tanzania, but had expansive views of the Kenyan plain. The area is rich in tropical vegetation, but financially deprived. There are many ways to be wealthy and many ways to be poor. We drove up next to a corn field with the assistant to the bishop of the Lutheran Church in this area.
We were greeted by some locals who had cleared and leveled a space in the middle of the field for the people of God to gather, along with a small altar and a baptismal bowl. It was Saturday, the 4th of January in the year 2020, and a new congregation was about to begin. The little flock decided the best way to begin a new work would be to baptize their first new member right on that field. A single mother handed little Joanne to her godmother, and we gathered around the simple font. We joined them in rejecting sin, death, and the devil, and confessing faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mama and the congregation promised to nurture Joanne in the Christian faith. We poured water over Joanne’s head, naming her as God’s own beloved daughter, and the same water splashed over, irrigating the corn field. Everything had just changed. The corn field became a church. The single mother is no longer alone in raising Joanne. Joanne has a Father. We have a way of paving paradise into parking lots (“Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell). God has a way of turning the forsaken places and people into a garden.
The nearby city of Moshi is a buzzing city with industry, business, tourism, and amusement. It is wealthy in contrast to this little place. Los Angeles is 29 hours away by flights and layovers and immeasurably more wealthy and busy. Anyone with a water heater here would be considered among the wealthiest strata of society. Pastor Saria said, “When I see the shame in the sideways glance of that single mother who is brave to bring her child to baptism or the celebrative dancing and singing of these people, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words from the side of the mount. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’” (Matthew 5.3). He went on to explain that the city people, who are a little wealthier, have less perceived need for God. So the poor in spirit are blessed because they see their spiritual poverty more clearly. They greet the coming of the reign of God with dancing. They are very poor in one way and very wealthy in a more important way – the most important way. If Moshi is spiritually distracted, San Pedro seems spiritually asleep.
We have hot water on demand, indoor plumbing, high-speed internet, access to education and healthcare. We have temperate weather, yet we control our indoor temperature. We have a Sleep Number bed. We have hobbies. We have Margarita Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, girls-night-outs, man-caves, and two-day weekends. We are unbelievably wealthy. Yet, in spiritual ways, we are very poor.
Those who track the spiritual practices of believers in America – Gallup, Barna, and Pew – all agree. People who used to worship weekly now worship fortnightly. People who used to attend monthly now go occasionally. Those who used to go for special services now rarely, if ever, go. Many will say, “I can be spiritual without being religious.” Or, “I don’t need to go to church to be spiritual.” Many others have left because they feel too sinful or feel the church is too sinful. There are many reasons, legitimate and otherwise, which are more complicated than I am able to cover in a magazine column. But the dancing of those sisters and brothers aware of their own spiritual poverty looked like a blessing most of us are missing. spt