This June and July, Russ Hilliard and Jo Whiting are in Tanzania serving as BKB Ambassadors. In that role they will be traveling to ten different congregations in the Iringa Diocese on behalf of their companions in the United States. In each of these visits they come with letters and greetings from distant friends and they return with stories and reports.
Their work is holy work and it is work that they handle with great care. As ambassadors they are privileged to enter into, and bear witness to, a multiplicity of covenanted relationships between companions - observing and discerning the stirring of God's Holy Spirit in these cross-continental partnerships. More often than not their task is a joyous one as their visit is part of an effort to strengthen or rekindle a sense of connectedness. Sometimes, however - as was the case this past week - their task is more somber.
On Sunday I traveled with them to a certain parish in Iringa. We were received with a warm welcome and the offer of chai or breakfast. We gathered together in worship where Jo delivered an inspired message. And then we met with the Parish Partnership Committee to share news from their friends in Minnesota. Russ read aloud a letter that described their decade-long relationship and celebrated their accomplishments. The letter also announced with sadness that their friends would no longer be able to continue as official companions on this journey. An aging and shrinking membership paired with no clear leadership stepping up to shepherd this relationship meant that the Minnesotans could no longer be the faithful partners that they aspire to be.
The leaders from the Iringa parish received the news with heavy yet grace-filled hearts. They spoke of continued prayer and the promise of fellowship in Christ that extends beyond the bounds of formal partnerships. They asked questions about what this may mean for students in school and projects in progress. And then they gave thanks for what was, for what is, and for the honor that was conveyed by telling them of this difficult decision directly.
As the meeting closed, the Pastor of this congregation had us all sing the hymn "Mungu Awe Nanyi Daima" or "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." Translated back from Swahili, the first verse goes like this: God be with you always, until we meet again. He will tend to you with grace. God be with you always... As these two companions turned to go their own way, it was a fitting song and a poetic reminder of the One who abides in all places, at all times, and with all people.
This ambassadorial visit will be one that lingers with me for quite some time. It underscores the simple fact that relationships not only require work but that, occasionally, they also run their course. Over time things changed and demographic patterns beyond one's immediate control meant that what had been a flourishing partnership is now coming to an end.
As sad as that is, what I appreciate most about this exchange is the openness, honesty, and transparency that each congregation had toward the other. It was gracious. It was grace-filled. And it speaks to the sense of mutual respect that will continue to carry on until one day, in Christ, when they meet again.
And for that I give thanks.
The Rev. Peter Harrits
Director of Bega Kwa Bega and Assistant to the Bishop