“...The man who made me well said to me, Pick up your mat and walk.”
About three years ago, I attended the FUM Africa Pastors Conference at Lugulu (Kenya), on my way to Belize. After John Muhanji introduced me to the gathering, Friends wanted to know how I was going to do church planting in Belize. Some offered advice and plans. All these were great, but too much to absorb in a moment. Before Colin Saxton prayed for me, he told me not to walk ahead of the Spirit or behind the Spirit, but with the Spirit. This has become my ministry framework -- to seek and to find where the Spirit is, in all that is happening.
One of the conversations we have had this year at Belize Friends Church is about creating multiple sacred spaces for people with various needs within the church. I find that the Spirit is in this conversation. This theme emerges out of both ministry training discussions, as well as knowledge gathered in ministry in this particular context. Creating multiple sacred spaces can be an alternative to, or can supplement, the more traditional mobilizing of people to know and experience God by focusing on a sermon.
There is a way this theme resonates with scripture as well. In John 5, there is a story about a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. Jesus healed him, then told him to carry his mat and go. It was the Sabbath. The temple had a designated place for the sick, the lame, those with different needs to come and wait for healing, and that’s where Jesus encountered the paralytic. But the temple regulations had no space for someone to receive healing on this holy day, to take their mat and walk. In my view, Jesus was recreating the temple space. He was creating an alternative space for people to rise up, heal and walk.
Here is what Friends at Belize Friends Church affirm the church means to them:
This is the way Friends here come to know and experience God. We are seeking to create sacred spaces where these needs are met.
When I was a teenager, I attended church sometimes. One of the sermons that I will never forget is one that gave me little hope. In that sermon, the preacher said that God has a video camera. He records everything we do. On the last day, he will play it all, before he sends us to hell, to burn forever. I don’t remember the Biblical text he preached from but I remember that hopeless message.
However, there were three songs from church that gave me hope. Two of these, that is the “Rock of Ages” and “Just As I Am”, were unfortunately classified as funeral songs in the Kenyan Quaker tradition, so I hardly heard them sung unless there was a funeral. However, there was a third song that I found faith in: “The Love of God, how Great and Far”. In our monthly meeting, it was always the second song, sung after the beginning of the service. Singing that song created for me the sacred space where I experienced God’s presence. These songs were the divine promise that I, too, had a place in the Kingdom of God.
To ground our work, to create multiple sacred spaces in both scripture and the Spirit, one of the places I find meaningful to look, is the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’s messages were not all sermons. Some were conversations, or answers to questions in which healing, hope, and miracles happened. In John 5, Jesus was not preaching to that man. He was listening to him, then he told him what to do to get out of the situation that had held him for 38 years. The miracle was in the conversation.
Some of the miracles we see here at church happen in multiple sacred spaces. A teen who never wanted to step his foot in church, and struggled to sit through a 30-minute devotion at school, one day told Nikki that he wanted to come to church, just to sit in. After several months of coming, he is still here with us. Our church grows in part because young people who are there love it. They invite their friends, who in turn invite their friends. When we speak with them, we realize that they are at different places in their lives. Some of them are not even sure whether they want to have a relationship with God but they love coming and participating in worship and fellowship. And we don’t drag them to that place of perfection, but we create spaces for them. Over time, we see transformation in their lives. Guys who were restless at the beginning can now complete a one-hour service with calm, including a ten-minute time of silent waiting worship. Some who just sat and watched now participate in church committees, leading worship, praying for others, reading scripture etc. Creating multiple sacred spaces means being open to the work of the Spirit who is at work in many ways that we do not see, until the fruits emerge.
Last year we distributed Christmas food boxes to vulnerable members of our community. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 restrictions, we've been feeding about fifty families every week or two. This year, with generous support from several donors, our Christmas boxes will be extra special!
—Oscar Mmbali, Belize Friends Pastoral Minister