It is the second day of the Women’s Conference at the Nzega Moravian Church, Tanzania. Marion Perrin and I are just arriving in Nzega, having traveled from Canada on behalf of Likewise HIV/AIDS ministries.
We enter the conference and are invited to join the distinguished panel, which included both lay and ordained women from Tabora, Dar Es Salaam, and Mbeya.
We sit facing two hundred women dressed in the varied colourful fabrics of Africa some with heads wrapped, others with shawls of contrasting colours. Marion is joyfully reacquainted with some of the women from the 2008 Women’s Conference, and brings greetings from the Unity Women’s Desk.
My First World eyes look around the church and notice what is not here. The Nzega Moravian Church is a large new round brick building. So new, in fact, that it still has a red dirt floor. There are no doors or windows, but large openings where the doors will be. Here at the Nzega Moravian Women’s Conference there are no microphones, no computers, no projectors and no flipcharts. In fact there is no electricity, no piano, and no organ. I quickly absorb another truth, however: what is present among the women gathered here is a deep love for God, faith, personal strength, determination, courage and hope.
My head is still reeling from our lengthy travels as the singing begins. A single voice calls out and the others join in response. There is movement and rhythm—hands clapping, bodies moving. A baby balances trustingly on a generous swaying hip. Soon a flowing shawl wrap appears, a woman waving it as blessing as she moves among the crowd. The women were enjoying each other and this moment of singing together. I could feel their love and devotion to God through this joyful expression of faith, and I wanted to join in the dance!
Later that afternoon, something unexpected happens. Bright sunlight is streaming in through all the openings into this beautiful round church. The sunlight illuminates the whole church and shines on the colorfully dressed women, who are praying loudly, passionately, each with her own voice —separately yet in unison. Some women are weeping. Cries of lament are heard. Several fall on their knees on the red dirt floor, their eyes are closed, and tears streaming down their faces. These prayers are coming from the deepest part of their hearts and souls. The sounds of anguish and sorrow are palpable in the round church.
During these moments of intense prayer, I feel like an intruder—have I ever prayed like this—so publicly, or with this much passion? I am more comfortable with the controlled, scripted or silent prayer that we practice in my home congregation. The unrestrained devotion to God that I witness in Tanzania deeply moves me.
Marion and I sit silently listening to the chorus of the women passionately praying to God. We know that these sorrowful laments give voice to the tremendous loss, grief and distress long carried in the hearts of these women, whose lives have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. Many are caring for their orphaned grandchildren or their own ailing spouses or children. It is an emotional experience; one that I will never forget.
The next morning, the conference begins with all of us eating breakfast outside. The women had slept on mats on the floor in the old church. Several of the women have brought their children with them. The older ones play outside the church; the little ones are snuggly wrapped and carried on mom’s back. Some women have brought their handmade items to sell, and several displays of dresses, tablecloths, sardines, teas and beadwork are set up just outside the church.
When it is time to reconvene in the church, each of the women carries her plastic chair back inside with her. Marion and I join in the spontaneous singing and dancing that breaks out in the middle of the church, and my heart is full. The connections made here, the relationships forged among the women of Tanzania are very important: offering a chance to share each other’s experiences, their faith, and the realities of their lives—the joy and lament.
As another day fills with dynamic presenters, energized, rhythmic dancing, joyful acapella choirs, and soulful prayer, I recognize again how grateful I am for God whose spirit moves in such diverse and powerful ways, and for a church through which we can share our experiences and forge life-giving relationships.
Alice Sears is a member of the Likewise/AIDS committee of the Board of World Mission and a member of Rio Terrace in Edmonton, Alberta