The pews were full. I was a few minutes later than usual. Maybe the children were particularly cantankerous while getting ready, maybe I woke up late, or early and lost track of gained time, maybe it was simply another morning. I don’t remember now. Carmel had gone ahead with Christopher, extra chairs and the pulpit. Zion was tied to my back, eagerly peeking around my shoulder. We made a space at the end of one of the concrete backless benches, squeezing in beside Christopher and Carmel. It was a few months back. Last year’s severe dry season was still inflicting hunger, even more so as the rains had started and anything that could be spared had been sown in the field. Four pews were packed with ngakimat (old women), another three with ngikaskou (old men). It’s a title of respect here. You call someone old man or old woman and they smile, flattered. By the end of the service, not only were the pews full, but the back step and empty concrete slab. Children sat on the step or the floor, men brought their own wooden stools (akin to a Karimojong wallet with how attached they are to carrying it), women chose to sit in the grass on either side. Our church of ten pews simply wasn’t cutting it.
Since we’ve worshiped in Karamoja, we’ve had many interesting guests in the service. Everything from a snake stalling the sermon for its beheading, herds of goats or cows, dog fights and even a herd of donkeys who were exemplary listeners. They stood peacefully behind the pulpit resting their heads on each other’s backs with their sleet grey hides and striking black stripes, periodically swishing away the flies. We parents began to tell our children, see how the donkeys are listening? Be like them! One Palm Sunday there was a flock of white storks that circled the church and then landed in a nearby marsh. More recently, bats have taken up residence in our rafters. I love worshipping in nature. It had also become a shelter for shepherd boys and their herds during rain storms. Every week, we scraped cow dung off the floor, even benches and looked up hoping that the excrement the bored boys had thrown on the ceiling wouldn’t fall during the service.
Over the summer we were blessed to add an additional eight pews, still concrete and backless, a latrine and a fence around the structure. It is still open air. It is still on a thoroughfare where those who know the word and those who don’t pass by. There are still bats in the rafters, but no more cow dung pervading the floor, and more fixed seating that doesn’t have to be transported every Sunday.
The church isn’t full every week. The harvest has come. Many of the old women and marginalized are now satisfied. It isn’t as hard to find a seat. But those days will come again. Whether it is Hurricane Harvey, Irma or a starving dry season, suffering reminds us of our need for the Savior. We are encouraged that the scriptures say, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:11). We pray that the needy will continue to flock to the church, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” Rom 10:17. Let your church be filled, O Lord!