Do this in remembrance of me
Students prepare presentations during their course break.
PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR
Several months ago, the campus of the seminary where I teach was under water, accessible only by boat, and visited occasionally by hippos from the nearby river. The rainy season in central Africa was extraordinary this year, resulting in the highest water levels in sixty years in N’Djamena, Chad. Many thousands of people have temporarily or permanently lost their homes to the flooding, including students and faculty at the Shalom Seminary. To my amazement, this crisis did not deter the school from beginning the academic year as planned. We shifted the various programs to church buildings that were not flooded and started classes (albeit without a library, offices, or electricity).
My colleague Sali Salomon and I co-taught a course on ecclesiology, the study of the church. The topics included the mission of the church; images of the church in the New Testament; practices of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, foot-washing, and mutual care; and challenges facing the contemporary church. Some good-spirited sparring took place every day. The students were from a variety of denominations, and when the conversation turned to church structures, discipline, and leadership issues, the disagreements were enthusiastic. There was debate about whether we should call the practices of the church sacraments (which the Lutherans in the room preferred) or ordinances (which the Ana/Baptist-oriented preferred). We discussed the idea that these practices are both for the church as a community and also as a witness to the broader society of what God intends for all of us. Baptism reminds us that God has created a new community that is deeper than our ethnic divisions. The Lord’s Supper has not only the spiritual meaning of participating in Christ’s body, but also that we share our food with one another so that no one goes hungry.
A heaviness fell on the room when students described the ethnic divisions within the country, divisions that play out also in the church. We read together a French translation of Emmanuel Katongole’s Mirror to the Church, about the Rwanda genocide that split churches and congregations. Just weeks before we met, Chad had also experienced political violence, with no just solution in sight. Where was the hope? At that moment, a delivery of rice sacks arrived. The students helped stack them up in the back corner of the simple church sanctuary. I asked them, “What are these sacks for?” They replied that the church had arranged, out of its limited resources, to provide food for the members of the community who had been displaced by the flooding. Muslims, Christians, and others would receive urgent help because the Chadian church remembers the broken body of Jesus.
The challenges are immense. But the Chadian church is practicing Jubilee, doing exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The sacks of rice were a powerful image for all of us that bearing witness to Jesus happens in the context of following him together, keeping the practices that he gave us as a gift of grace.
Peter* serves with EMM and Mennonite Mission Network in Chad, where he lives with his spouse Christy and their three children Moses, Celeste, and Felix. Peter is a member of EMM’s Christian-Muslim Relations Team.