This is where my trip starts to get interesting.
First, a couple of pictures of the Selbourne Hotel, a charming relic of old Rhodesia:
The Selbourne even features its own crockery.
Down the hallway and out the door. Isn’t this like the 1950s?
After stashing my bags with the front desk at the Selbourne, and very worried about lodging costs, and wondering and praying about what to do, I went and had breakfast at this place:
Sometimes Zimbabwe reminded me of the 50s, and sometimes of the 70s! But whichever decade, the nicest thing was, they actually had real coffee from a pot in this town, yay!
Then I checked the i-cafe for the first time in a couple of days and after a couple of hours, was ready for a snack at a nearby lunch spot….
The place is crowded and I sit down with this obviously American guy reading a heavily annotated bible with extremely wide margins, great for taking notes. So I ask him what version it is. We get to chatting, and I find out his name’s Brian, and he’s a “pastor and church planter” with “Iris Ministries”, which he claims has 2000 churches (many, admittedly, “in the dirt” or “under a tree”) in Mozambique.
Looking up the site to write this blog, I discover that apparently it’s true, and they do have a lot of nice pictures on that site! You can even find Brian on their Zimbabwe page, which also reads, “Our calling in Zimbabwe is to bring the love of God to the last, the least and the lost by living an Isaiah 58 lifestyle among them. Through demonstrations of God’s love, we desire to win a generation to the Lamb and bring the Kingdom of heaven on earth.”
Isaiah 58, if you recall, is the source of one of the first lessons of our Lenten cycle: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to free the oppressed and to break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor who are cast out into your house? when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (58.6-7). So if that’s what they’re into, I’m all for it!
Problem is, Iris Ministry isn’t Orthodox. In fact, it”s all about miracles and Holy Ghost Power. And indeed, Brian tells me, “Poverty is a spirit before it’s a physical manifestation”— and man, I can sure see where that’s something people around here might want to hear, because anyone can fight evil spirits by the power of Jesus, but you can’t so readily fight Mugabe and his kleptocrats, or the IMF, who are causing your poverty! So, university-trained Marxist that I am, I can easily see “Holy Ghost power” as a way of avoiding the issues of real power(lessness) in society. Well, but I also can’t deny that the world’s evil is spiritual (because it comes from the hearts of men, and human institutions), or that the Holy Spirit can bring light into all kinds of desperate darkness. After all, isn’t the Bible’s basic metaphor— exodus? Brian even tells me, bragging a bit, “We’ve seen multiplication of food, etc”— hard to argue with it, though I’m ever sceptical of course.
Well, this isn’t the place or time to debate points of religion, even if I could; Brian’s busy and I’m desperate to find a place cheaper than the Selbourne. So I mention my quest and he tells me he knows a place I’d probably like, and kindly offers to take me there: “Burke’s Paradise”, which you can find easily enough by Googling “burke’s paradise bulawayo” even though they don’t seem to have a website of their own. I’d describe it as an obscure backpacker lodge, not far out of town— and as a gorgeous, quiet, almost monastic retreat— for $15 per night, hot water and kitchen included. I feel this is the missing link— from here they can advise me of further backpacker places and hopefully, I can now keep on the backpacker trail all the way to Kampala! Yay! I might be able to afford the rest of this trip after all!
Before they take me to the lodge, Brian wants to pray over me with his crew, so I let them put their hands on me while they “just” thank Jesus and ask for blessings and guidance on my trip, and to use my gifts. May it be blessed. I note, though, that Brian is “davening”— rocking back and forth the way some Jews do when they pray. I really don’t care for the Judaizing that seems to be overtaking what I might refer to, somewhat inaccurately, as the fundamentalist world, but ok, whatever— I see it as fundamentally mistaken. But again, this isn’t the time to say anything. Brian then prophecies that he “sees the Lord using my gifts abundantly”, and makes some noises like shalalalalalala (I mean, that’s literally what he did, “shalalalala”), as if speaking in tongues, but I’m sorry, sincere as he is, this is fake. But I know they’re trying their best and if their sincere prayers help, good; if not, no harm, they tried. They’re already giving me a great gift by taking me to the backpacker lodge. I will certainly be glad for beauty, complete quiet, and privacy, after getting hammered for two days and a night on African buses!
Here’s Burke’s Paradise Backpacker Lodge, where they brought me:
—as I say, a real paradise indeed! I will end up staying here for eight days. It’s good to have a quiet spot to read, study, and pray in solitude and silence after the noise and confusion and chaos and heartbreak of my final days in Johannesburg. And further interesting things will unfold during this time, as we’ll see in subsequent posts.
Some further thoughts about Iris and other such ministries
I’ve always thought pentecostal phenomena come more or less “as the wind blows”, but Brian seems to have organized a regular “Holy Ghost training program” for his disciples, who are mostly teens and younger kids. We pick up a couple of these kids on the way to the lodge, becasue he was actually headed for a meeting with them before he met me, and I envy the obvious rapport he has with them. If you visit the Zimbabwe journal page on the Iris site, you’ll see the only entry there so far refers to an event that took place just after I met them—
“a HIP HOP HOLY GHOST party for different youth in the area. Most were from churches, but 4 gave their lives to JESUS & many got ROCKED by the HOLY GHOST!!! It was so fun!”
— that pretty much gives you the flavor of what it was like being with Brian and his kids.
A phrase Brian keeps repeating, though, is “the last, the least and the lost”. It’s worth visiting that Iris Ministries site, because it really is pretty amazing to see all they’re in fact doing for the last, the least and the lost. It has to be admitted that the Orthodox Church is accomplishing absolutely nothing like that.
“In Mozambique, without exception, we are also committed to offering a home to every child we find who does not have a family.”
I’m pretty sceptical about almost any kind of Christianity in Africa, though, for a number of reasons and from a number of different angles, and I expect I’ll talk about some of that as this blogging project goes on. I’m particularly sceptical about anything that strikes me as having to do with the “prosperity gospel” that’s taking over the Christian world. I voice some of my scepticism, and Brian admits that opportunism is a big reason for the conversions he’s seen. I’m thinking that from an African point of view, Iris Ministries would be as good a “prosperity church” as any and, in any case, its extreme emphasis on Holy Spirit phenomena would accord well with African ideas of power, worldly benefits, and expectations of shamanic or mediumistic contact with God and the spirit world, etc.
In fact it strikes me that there’s very little difference between Pastor Brian’s ministry and sangoma— traditional African shamanism— except that they use the Bible rather than herbs, and call upon the Holy Spirit rather than the spirits of the ancestors. It’s all, “God spoke to me”, “God showed me”, and so forth. In fact, the story of Iris’ founders and main leaders call is similar to those of shamans everwhere— “taken up in a vision for several hours [she] heard Jesus speak audibly to her and tell her to be a minister and a missionary…”. It occurs to me that pentecostalism can perhaps be described as “shamanism Christianized and therefore democratized”. Is that bad? But at least at Iris, it sounds like a lot of people are getting fed, and lives are changed.
But there’s this:
“Teacher, we saw someone who doesn’t follow us casting out demons in your name; and we forbade him, because he doesn’t follow us” (Mk 9.38).
This passage is hard for someone who is committed to a certain position (and organization) as the “True Church”. But in that whole section of Mark’s story (usually referred to as the section on the “way” of the Messiah— 8.22–10.52), Jesus repeatedly warns his disciples against attitudes of superiority— and the disciples repeatedly fail to get it. In fact this is John’s answer to Jesus’ dictum that
“If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all… Whoever receives one of these children in my name, receives me” (Mk 9.35-37).
Isn’t there something about us that doesn’t want others to know or to show God’s power?
“But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for no one will do a miracle in my name, who can lightly speak evil of me. For he who is not against us is for us” (Mk 9.39-40).
I envy Brian’s rapport with the kids. I’m personally amazed and, as an Orthodox Christian, humbled by all the work reported on Iris Ministry’s website. I don’t care for davening and tongues (especially fake ones), or for people being “slain in the Spirit”— and I suspect that, while these kinds of spectacles are exciting— especially for young Africans— they’re ultimately not needed. About miracles and the rest— well, my students used to ask me, “Mr John! Why don’t we have miracles like everyone else”, and my answer always tasted like sour grapes: “Can you really trust those ‚miracles’?” But I’m increasingly convinced that we need to struggle against our instinctual desire to “forbid” those who don’t follow us (and note that John said “he didn’t follow us“, not “he didn’t follow you“. And this is hard, somehow.
In their 8 Sept 2010 newsletter, Iris reports on the riots that broke out in Mozambique because of poverty and corruption and rising food prices, and points out that “this keeps us aware that Mozambique, now the world’s 6th poorest country, is still a land of desperate poverty for most. We have seen a huge number of people come to the Lord, and great blessing come to many, but we must press on until the Gospel covers the land.” I, too, believe that the good news of God’s Messiah is the only thing that will cure the world. And there’s a lot more that we Orthodox could be doing to spread that news.
If you feel this way too— well, one thing you could do is make a contribution to the St Nicholas African Education Fund— send a check, or click on the “Donate” button in the right-hand column of this blog. That will help. But for the rest, I’m sure that “the love of God is impacting Mozambique, and people are responding with a desire to give their lives in ministry”, and that “The people are desperate to encounter God and preach this Gospel that burns like fire.”
Yet I’m heading back to America because the Greekorthodox Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria is closing its seminary and selling the property.
Selling it, in fact, to the Seventh Day Adventists, from what I hear.
In fact, it was my SDA Greek student who first heard it was available, and got his congregation interested in it.