Finding God in this New and Different Pace

A Letter from Josh Heikkila, serving in West Africa

December 2020

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Dear friends,

The Mondays I’m not traveling and am home in Accra, I always join a running club in the evening for a four or five-mile jog through the city. Because of COVID, I haven’t done any of the usual travel in West Africa this year. And since it never became very widespread in Ghana, we were able to pick up again running after the lockdown period ended in early May.

Each week, this club meets at a different “spot” – the name used in Ghana for the outdoor, roadside bars where you can sit, buy beer and barbeque meat, and spend time with friends. After a 45-minute run, we do just that – sit for an hour and enjoy each other’s company before heading back home for the night.

More than any other activity I’m part of, I think this running club has exposed me to all the varied and interesting neighborhoods of the city. Running through streets, alleys, paths and sometimes even drainage ditches, I’ve seen much more of Accra than I could driving around. Occasionally, I’ve even retraced the same running routes a couple days later, only the second time around by walking. While running is fun, walking, of course, is the best way to get to know a place intimately and on a human scale!

If you were to only see Accra by car, you’d think it was a city built for you. The wide main thoroughfares, sometimes two or three lanes in each direction, are either bumper to bumper with traffic, or full of cars speeding along at more than 50 miles an hour. Unfortunately, a high number of pedestrians are killed each year trying to cross these streets. But as soon as you get off the main roads and into the neighborhoods, things change dramatically, and the pace slows down.

Neighborhood life often feels more like a village. You have your local shops and markets, the schools and churches that are the center of community life, the bars and restaurants where people gather to socialize, the shade underneath particular trees where people play checkers and chat with friends. I often feel like these locations – where every day and ordinary events take place – have been the best education for me when it comes to learning about people and their lives in West Africa.

The Bible is full of places like this, as well, and we read so many stories about how people were transformed while taking care of the mundane. When they were mending their nets, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to begin fishing for people. While she was out fetching water, Jesus promised the Samaritan woman some water which will quench her thirst forever. (Even in this capital city of millions of people, you still see girls and boys fetching water at community taps, because there is no piped water at home.)

In Acts 17, we read about the Apostle Paul, who walked through the city of Athens, and noticing all the different shrines and altars, came to understand how religious the people were. All the churches, billboards, and shop names in Accra might give you the same impression. In Athens, Paul listened to the poetry of the people, and in the marketplace, he gathered with the philosophers for discussion and debate. There, he shared with them something of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Before coming to Ghana, I lived in St Paul, Minnesota, and the church where I worked was less than a mile from my house. On the days I knew I wouldn’t have to drive anywhere, I would take the 15 minutes to walk there, and then walk back home at the end of the day. Although I would pass a coffee shop, grocery store, diner, and a couple bars, it wasn’t quite as interesting as walking in Accra.

Around the area where I now live, I often go and buy from the men and women selling fruits, flowers, vegetables, and peanuts, or from those who have fried egg sandwiches, or cooked rice and beans for takeaway. You get to know each of these people, and when you pass by, even if you’re not buying something that day, you have to take a moment to greet everyone.

In past letters, I know I’ve referred to the Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama, who has an interesting little book called Three Mile an Hour God. Koyama notes that this is the casual pace at which humans walk – about a mile every twenty minutes. And he concludes that this is the speed of God’s love for us, because God is moving with us when we interact with other people at this casual walking pace.

If it’s possible where you live, and you don’t do it already, I’d encourage you to get out and walk around your neighborhood. After COVID passes, if you live in a place with public transportation, try getting around by bus. You can’t get to where you’re going as fast as by driving, but you begin to see God in new and different ways – in all the people and the details you notice while moving more slowly.

As we enter the season of Advent again, my prayers are with you in this challenging time. Despite all the difficulties, I pray you can find something of God in this new and different pace. Thank you again for your continued prayers and support, and I wish you all the best for Christmas and the New Year.

– Josh

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