By Liza Kittle
One doesn’t often think of lush, colorful gardens when thinking of Africa. Most people think of barren lands with little vegetation, intense heat, and roaming wildlife. I think of the beautiful dresses I have seen on the African women I have met. They remind me of a beautiful garden—bursting with patterns and colors reflective of the richness and diversity of this massive continent. I have thought many times over the past several months about our fellow Methodists in the African church in light of the constitutional amendments being voted on at annual conferences that would have separated the American church from these faithful witnesses. A devotion I was reading the other day again brought them to mind in a powerful way.
The song of the vineyard written in Isaiah 5 describes the pleasure God has in his people, described as “the garden of his delight,” and his expectation that they follow his law and bear fruit for his kingdom. The devotion described how God has given the law to his people as a revelation of his character and a blueprint for a lifestyle that is pleasing to him. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is 22 stanzas and 176 verses written as a hymn of praise for the law of God and the joy we receive when we choose to obey his Word.
Many find the law of God burdensome and restrictive, without grasping its intended loving purpose of providing freedom and joy to all who choose to receive it. This is so true in America where many, even Christians, possess a worldview that sees any encroachment on their “rights,” particularly religious interference, as an assault on their freedom. One doesn’t have to look very far to see the name of God being wiped out of our institutions, traditions, and way of life.
As Christianity—including United Methodism—explodes in Africa, one can see that the hearts and minds of these believers truly grasp the divine purpose God intended through the revelation of his Word. They believe what the Word of God says, they are passionate about their freedom in Christ, and they exhibit a supernatural joy that can only come from him.
I have seen it at General Conference as African delegates stand up boldly proclaiming the truth of Scripture in face of the endless time spent debating the acceptance of homosexual behavior. One delegate testified that many Africans ceased the practice of polygamy when our missionaries brought them the gospel and expressed dismay that, with all the challenges facing the world and the church, we were spending so much time “talking about sin.”
I have seen it through the words of the Rev. Jerry Kulah, the Monrovian district superintendent of the Liberian Annual Conference, who presented an “African Declaration” before General Conference 2008, calling for the church to return to scriptural faithfulness.
I saw this joy passionately displayed at the North Georgia Annual Conference this past June in Athens, Georgia, and at the 2008 General Conference in Ft. Worth by the Hope for Africa Children’s Choir. These children are the epitome of a garden of God’s delight! The joyful exuberance and praise coming from these 23 children was such a testimony to the love of God and the freedom we receive when we allow Jesus into our hearts.
The story behind these children is remarkable. The children were rescued by the United Methodist Church of the East Africa Annual Conference under the leadership of Bishop Daniel Wandabula from horrific displacement camps established by the Ugandan government during the country’s 20-year civil war. Many of the children in the camps have lost their parents, are infected with HIV/AIDS, have been traumatized and maimed by war, and live under deplorable conditions where sickness, hunger, and despair are a part of everyday life.
Once selected, the children go and live at the United Methodist Hope for Africa Academy in Nasuti, Uganda, where they receive care, love, and education. Eleven adults work with them, daily teaching them how to pray and sharing Bible stories.
The choir was started in 1984 by Ray Barnett and has gained international acclaim, performing all over the world. The current director, Tonny Mbowa, was himself a child who suffered under the brutal regime of Idi Amin, the “Butcher of Uganda” who ruled the country during the 1970s. At nine years old, Tonny witnessed the murder of his unarmed father, a pastor who begged to say the Lord’s Prayer before he was shot to death in front of his family.
Left to care for his four siblings after his mother died of cancer, Mbowa learned at an early age the importance of prayer. He was later selected for the children’s choir, which he said saved his life and gave him a new hope for the future. Now Mbowa shares the same hope and love with the children under his charge as he had received. He composes, sings, and plays the piano and drums for the choir and is never short of inspiration for material. With a life touched by so many stories of God’s love for him, he says it is “easy to come up with a wonderful song.”
Mbowa says the children “have gained a desire to do what is right and pleasing to our Lord Jesus Christ. They have been so good in picking up values of Christianity, and they all want to walk in the perfect ways of God.” What a delightful offering to the Lord, a psalm of praise for their Savior and King. What a garden of delight for our God.
We as a people of faith have much to learn about being filled with joyful praise and humble obedience to “the perfect ways of God.” Let us look to our African brothers and sisters as examples, join them in ministering to their people, and tend this beautiful garden of God’s delight.
Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Network. In addition to visiting their website (www.renewnetwork.org ), you can write to the Renew Network at P.O. Box 16055, Augusta, GA 30919, or call them at 706-364-0166.