Missionary Diary: When Westerners have watches but Africans have time

Daniel Webster and his wife Olivia have been serving with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Namibia, Africa, for four years. They live in the capital city, Windhoek, with their four sons. Daniel teaches at a theological seminary. Olivia homeschools their sons and works with Side by Side to treat and train people in women’s health physiotherapy.

What do I need to wear this Sunday? Ah, I remember. It’s a clergy collar kind of church. “Have you got your sermon?” my wife asks as I head for the door. “Yes, darling.” I have a page of notes and lots of prayer. As they say, if you want a 20-minute sermon, give me a week to prepare. If you want an hour, I can start now. Last time I visited, after my 20-minute sermon (35 with translation), Pastor Moses asked, “Is that all?” Fail … So this time, I’ve gone with less notes. That should do the trick.

They are filled with joy and thankfulness. No entitlement issues here.

Moses said that church starts at 9am. So I’m on the road by 8:45, driving north through the suburbs and up into the shantytowns where most of Windhoek lives. I’m praying that God reminds his people that they are his beloved children.

Just before 9am I pull off the tar road and onto the gravel. I park outside a blue tin building. Wow! Last time I visited, the church seated about 50. Since then, it’s more than doubled in size. It sits about 25 metres back from a sealed road, beside which chickens peck at piles of rubbish. Behind the church, as far as the eye can see, is an informal settlement. This is where Moses’ beloved congregants live.

I get out of the car to a wide smile and a warm hug from Pastor Moses, one of my students at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary. “Can you drive us to the petrol station?” he asks. Church can’t start till we get fuel for the generator. He tells me how glad he is to have me. “When you visited last time, people gave the whole offering.” Does that mean what I think it does? He wants me to preach because then people give more money? I’m going to hope that I misunderstood that …

Daniel and Olivia Webster with their four sons

When we return, the tea I had for breakfast is asking to come out. So I step into the toilet, four pieces of zinc on the side of the road. It’s my first time visiting such an establishment. Confusion … I’m not sure where to pee. There’s nothing there but soil. Oh well. Exiting, I get a few curious looks. White man, in a suit and clergy collar, using our toilet? It’s good to be with the people.

The generator is running, so the keyboard is blaring out its African melodies and cheesy beats. The service formally begins around 9:40. It will go until around 1pm. Like they say, the Westerners have the watches, but the Africans have the time. They honour God partly through the amount of time they dedicate to corporate worship. And how they worship!

The MC says that we are behind time. Therefore, each choir can only sing one item. So each sings three.

In such an environment, one is tempted to think these people have so little. But in this church, I am inclined to think that I am the poor one. They are filled with joy and thankfulness. No entitlement issues here. They thank God that they woke up today, for the shoes on their feet, for a God who loves them. It is refreshing to meet with these brothers and sisters.

It’s time for the choirs to sing. First the youth, then the mothers and finally, the fathers. (If you are older and single, we don’t know what to do with you here …) The MC says that we are behind time. Therefore, each choir can only sing one item. So each sings three. One while they get out of their seats and walk to the front. One item. And one while they return to their seats. One of the reasons behind all of the singing is to energise the preacher. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect on me. I feel the life draining out of me.

I’m confident, once again, that I received more than I gave.

It’s my turn. As is expected, I begin with a lengthy greeting. “We are different in many ways. But we are together in the Lord Jesus. So I have come to visit family today.” Much happiness. I turn to my main message, the wonder of adoption into God’s family. Next time I look at the clock, 90 minutes have passed. Perhaps that’s why the translator is flagging. It seems that the last time was too short. This time is too long. I’m learning …

After the sermon, there is prayer for two sick women. But I’m not quite sure what is going on. It seems more like deliverance. I think they assume that all sickness is caused by demonic possession. Noted. Another topic to cover in class.

As I drive away after church, I’m asking myself the same question as usual: “Is it possible they got more out of that experience than I did? Unlikely.” There was quite a bit of output and discomfort for me. I don’t like choirs or clergy collars. But I’m confident, once again, that I received more than I gave.