After visiting the Sisters of the Deaconess Community of Karagwe, Pastor Nixon and Jeannie and I headed to the Iringa Diocese of central Tanzania. I am very familiar with this area as my home congregation has a companion parish here.
On our first full day Nixon declared that we needed to visit the Bishop and tell him about the Deaconess Community. We showed up at the Diocese offices and were able to get in to see Bishop Mdegella after only a short wait. He listened patiently as I shared with him our experience with the Karagwe Sisters. I also shared with him my experience as a Deaconess of the ELCA. [Pastor Nixon, Jeannie, LaDonna, Pastor Ajenista ]
He leaned back in his chair and told me that he has been doing research on curriculums to introduce a diaconal program into the courses taught at the seminary. He has been in touch with seminaries in South Africa and the U.S. Then he shared that in only the last month he had placed a woman pastor in the village of Kilolo to start a diaconal program. The Diocese had been able to purchase 4 acres of land near the village and he assigned this pastor the task of developing a program. He advised us to go to visit Pastor Ajenista and tell her about the Deaconess Community model.
I was amazed at the synchronicity of these events. It was on the advice of Pastor Nixon that we visited the Bishop. I really had no expectation that my sharing with the Bishop would amount to anything. Then we discovered that the Bishop was already laying the groundwork for a diaconal program in the Diocese. I was still doubtful that Pastor Ajenista would be interested in what I had to share but I was looking forward to traveling to a new part of the Diocese.
We had contracted for a vehicle and driver to take us to visit my church’s partnervillage of Wasa. We spent three days in Wasa with our friends there. We returned a day early so that we could arrange for a motorcycle for our pastor. We were able to get the motorcycle ordered and since we still had the driver and vehicle we headed to Kilolo.
Pastor Ajenista Maliga Mwenyeji was expecting us but had no idea why we were coming. She had just moved into a new house near the church at Kilanga Pass and we were welcomed inside after meeting the two treasurers of the Kilolo and Kilanga Pass Parishes.
After refreshments and introductions, I began to tell Pastor Ajenista about the Karagwe Community and our Deaconess Community. She had many questions and was anxious for us to see the land that the Diocese had purchased. We piled into our vehicle and drove over a narrow path and even narrower bridge made of rough sawn wood. The 4 acres were mostly woods with a clearing close to the “road”. We were able to meet the evangelist Alex Mhole, who had brokered the purchase of the land. The trees on the property would be quite valuable and perhaps help provide an income source to a diaconal project.
We returned to Pastor Ajenista’s house and she asked more questions about deaconess training, community life and diaconal service. Pr. Ajenista is unmarried and I believe is in her forties. Besides being an ordained pastor she also has a degree in counseling. At the end of our visit she disappeared into the back room and returned with a large piece of fabric which she proceeded to wrap around us as a sign of our building a partnership. We tearfully said goodbye with all kinds of plans ideas swimming in our heads.
Back in Iringa, we arranged to visit the Bishop one more time before our departure. He was anxious to see us. He was preparing to meet with his district pastors and explain the new diaconal vision. He had decided to put Pastor Nixon in charge of our new partnership with Pastor Ajenista to begin research on the project. The Bishop asked that I work closely with Pastor Nixon to oversee the project. I asked the Bishop how we would decide where to start on such a huge undertaking. He said there is an African story about a baby rabbit who asked his mother about his four legs. The rabbit’s mother said that the legs were for walking. The baby asked the mother how it would learn how to walk. The mother replied that the baby just needed to start walking.
So back in the U.S. I am still amazed at how things unfolded. Had I gone to Tanzania last October as I had planned, perhaps none of this would have happened. My simply sharing the experience of the Karagwe community and my own experience as a Deaconess opened the door to many possibilities. I have been in contact with Pastor Nixon in Iringa and with Sr. Florence in Karagwe. I am planning on traveling to Tanzania for two weeks in late May so that Pastor Nixon and Pastor Ajenista and I can visit the Deaconess Community in Karagwe and also to go to Moshi and Arusha to visit Deaconess communities there. I am excited about what might develop. I am also excited about the many ways that this might connect with our own community and the future possibilities for cross cultural visits, developing internships and ideas that we have not thought of yet. Please keep Pastors Nixon and Ajenista in your prayers and pray for God’s guidance and our own faithful discernment as we venture forward.
Mungu akubariki (Swahili for “God bless you”) -Sr. LaDonna