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World Mission’s Africa team leads the PC(USA) Chapel service

Service combines celebrations of Africa Day on Thursday and Pentecost on Sunday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Bob Rice, a mission co-worker serving in South Sudan, teaches at Nile Theological College in Juba. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — To honor Africa Day celebrated on Thursday and Pentecost on Sunday, World Mission’s Africa team led the Chapel service on Wednesday. Nearly 50 of the PC(USA)’s national staff joined the team for an informative and thoughtful online worship service.

Mission Co-Workers Kristi Rice, Christi Boyd and the Rev. Bob Rice read Luke’s account of the first Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) in Tshiluba, Swahili and Juba Arabic, sometimes together. Bob Rice called the event “truly the Spirit of God coming down, even as the Spirit hovered over the waters in Genesis.”

At Pentecost, “God’s Spirit is now coming down and resting as tongues of fire on God’s people. It is unprecedented,” he said. “It is the reversal of Babel, dispersion through language. Now there is converging through language. It is absolute uncontrollability, outside human manipulation. It is 100% pure God. It is God’s gracious gift to God’s people, the birthday of the church, the creation of a people.”

Dr. Willie Jennings, a theologian at the Yale Divinity School, has called the moment “the revolution of the intimate,” Rice noted. “The hearers hear in their mother tongue, this connection in an intimate space … Hearing yourself in the voice of a stranger, making you feel you truly belong.”

Or, as Jennings puts it, “to speak a language is to speak a people.”

“Through this intimacy” at Pentecost, Rice said, “the people now know they are known, truly known by God.”

The domination of one people group over another “is a lie,” said Rice, who teaches at Nile Theological College in Juba, South Sudan. At Nile, nine of the 64 people groups across South Sudan are represented. This semester, Rice said he was “blessed” to teach an introductory course on African traditional religion. “It’s been a wonderful journey together,” he said. For their final exams, students presented to the rest of the class in small groups. One group that stood out for Rice sang a song honoring one of the people groups traditionally vilified by the other groups. Hearing them sing the song brought tears to their instructor’s eyes.

“To sing a language is to sing a people,” Rice said. “That’s the future,” and it occurred “now, in this moment. This is the revolution of the intimate, connecting places and people formerly disconnected, singing as one through language.”

The miracle of Pentecost cannot be replicated exactly, Rice said. “But can it be replicated somehow in us and for us? To speak a language is to speak a people. We mission co-workers have the opportunity to learn the language or languages of our host community … We come to understand their worldview and their way of being in the world. It is truly the revolution of the intimate, but it’s not easy. It’s hard, but it’s the greatest joy. As mission co-workers, we learn to speak a people as the Spirit gives ability.”

The Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather learns to brush his teeth with a twig in the South Sudanese refugee camps in Uganda. (File photo)

In order to speak a people, we must “learn the language of suffering, marginalization, displacement and diaspora,” Rice said. “It is part of our Matthew 25 mandate to be present with people so we can learn from them, with them and amongst them.” At that point, worshipers watched a brief video featuring mission co-worker the Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather, who is presently along the border of Sudan and South Sudan along with clergy and government leaders helping to bring peace to the region.

“It’s a small drop in a bucket of challenges,” Smith-Mather says on the video, “but every drop counts.”

“Shelvis is leading us into the bleeding points of our world, coming amongst those in pain and speaking the language of suffering,” Rice said. “May we be reminded this is our mission together: to learn the language of love with each other and to go out into the world to spread that love.”

The Rev. Paula Cooper

In her prayer, the Rev. Paula Cooper, World Mission’s regional liaison for East Central Africa, thanked God for “sending this power … to be able to work within the purpose and plan you have for each of us — to go where you call us to go, so we might be a vessel of peace, love, comfort and hope.”

“Each day, we live in moments of lament and hope for the return of your son, Jesus Christ. We live in the now and the not yet. We ask you to give us strength, power, excitement and energy to maintain, wherever you call us to be,” Cooper prayed. “Lord God, we are many voices, hands and feet. We ask you to continue to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Send a breath of air upon us one more time.”

The Rev. Cheryl Barnes, World Mission’s Africa coordinator, closed the service with a sending including these words: “Your purpose and your very being is often the disruption that pierces through the darkness and brings light. Go now, because the world is filled with brokenness and is in need of healing and restoration. Amen.”

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