Tag Archives: Religion

On God and Finding Faith in the Shadow of Uncertainty

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The woman points toward an unimpressive house adjacent to the recently constructed gas station parking lot. The cement extends toward the house before breaking up, exposing thick grass that rests upon a lanky, wooden fence that obscures the view of the yard.

“A woman used to live in that house,” she says staring in the direction of the house and barely blinking. “She died last week.”

“That’s so sad,” I say in response, now also staring toward the house. “What happened?”

“She died from some disease,” now she’s looking in her lap and fiddling with her cell in her hands. “Not sure what disease.”

I tell her that I work in a hospital up the road about 100 kilometers and see a lot of patients who abandon their treatment early for various reasons and end up dying from the complications.

Seemingly unsurprised by this information, she raises her eyebrows and rises from her chair to go and help a customer who is putting gas in his car’s tank. “If it’s God’s will,” she says as she continues toward the man, “it’s God’s will.”

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I’m taken aback by the sight of it. A familiar symbol (above) is painted above the entryway to the church: the thick, black cross with the red cloth resting upon the arms. The words Igreja Metodista are painted above the symbol.

Until this moment, I had not seen a Methodist Church in Mozambique. Sure, I’d seen places of worship for other beliefs – Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical – but this was different. This was personal.

It’s a few days before Christmas Day, and I’m visiting close friends in the southern province of Inhambane in Mozambique. I take a moment to let the sight of the church sink into place before continuing on to my friend’s house located next door.

A few days later, I excuse myself from my group of friends and head toward the church. I expect to encounter life and jubilance and, instead, am surprised to find the church completely empty. The front door is propped open, and the wooden shudders that act as windows are spread wide, flooding the interior of the church with the remaining light of the day.

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I slowly move through the small church, taking in the familiar and appreciating the unfamiliar. Long, wooden pews stretch in rows through the room. Tucked in the back of the pews are hymn books. I brush my fingers along the smooth wood as I pass toward the front of the room. Each window I pass reveals something new: a child running past, thick trees producing fruit, the sun setting in the distance.

I find myself at the front of the room looking down at a table adorned with flowers, books, and pieces of cloth. In front of the table is a podium. I let the image of a packed church fill my senses.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I turn it on to find messages from home wishing me a Merry Christmas. It didn’t feel like Christmas before, but today it does.

I sit down in one of the empty pews, lift a hymn book from the back of the pew in front of me, and I open it to a random page. I tuck my nose into the crease of the book and inhale deeply, pulling from the book a familiar scent and welcomed calm.

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I’m standing next to my father in a packed worship hall with the rest of the congregation. We are all singing a hymn while the pastor and co-pastor walk up the aisle and out of the room following the service. I notice that nobody is really singing, and I strain my voice to match the volume and pitch of those around me. I know I can sing better, but I don’t try.

I’ve been going to church with my father and siblings for as long as I can remember. The church is a beautifully constructed building tucked in my small town in my small state. The triangular, main worship hall is home to a towering plate-glass window that stretches from the floor to the highest point in the ceiling.

In front of the window is a sizeable, wooden cross that hangs high above the heads of the congregation, held in place by chains. The pastor stands below this cross in sermon, and during each service, it’s hard not to worry that one day the cross will fall. It doesn’t.

I grew up in the walls of this church, attending summer programs, joining my family for Sunday and holiday services, and volunteering to help younger kids. Some of my closest friends grew up in the walls of this church. Some of the cutest girls in our town attended this church. Each Sunday, I would scan the room looking for a current crush.

We follow the congregation out of the church and head for our car. We won’t return to the church until the following Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that I leave everything inside its walls.

Each night as a teenager I find myself praying in a similar routine before I sleep. Using the same script but splicing in names of people or concerns of the week, I fold my hands together, close my eyes, and whisper my message into the world. I don’t know who’s listening, but I have hope, optimism, faith that someone is.

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The document is opened on my computer at my desk, but I’m staring out the window. On the opposite side is a row of bushes and a patch of grass that stretches to the cement parking lot. A grasshopper has landed on the window. I rise from my seat and get closer to the window to look at the colorful details of the insect, but it jumps away as I approach.

The next day I decide to quit my job at the bank. It’s a great job working with friendly, passionate people, but I didn’t share the same passion for the work. Something inside me had been leading me to this day, shaking at me and alerting me to a life unlived. I pack up all my belongings and make the drive from Nebraska to Washington State.

During my two years in Seattle, I spend my Sundays at a middle school located close to my house that hosts Mars Hill, a popular Christian congregation in the northwest and west. The group isn’t without controversy with some members calling the group a cult and denouncing the church’s leader, Mark Driscoll, for his sometimes radical practices.

For me, the group is a place to find the familiar calm felt growing up. While that calm had since been replaced with stress, sadness, insecurity, and uncertainty, deep within my soul was a faith that everything will turn out fine.

I continue to spend my days living with this notion in my heart, although my faith has always been a private one.

Looking back, the decision to leave Nebraska saved my life, but whose decision was it? For the longest time (and still today), I knew it was my decision, but I also know that it was driven by faith, a belief strengthened through the church.

So I ask again, whose decision was it?

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I’m sitting with a book in a restaurant in my small town in Mozambique. A doctor friend who is visiting from the provincial capital to work with cataracts patients in my area approaches my table. Behind her is a short man with a large smile on his face.

“Alek, I want to introduce you to someone,” my friend says as she gestures toward the man. “This is Jose, he is the pastor at the Catholic church here in Namapa.”

“Nice to meet you, father,” I say and extend my hand.

He grabs my hand and, with a smile on his face, says “It’s very nice to meet you too. I’m very happy that we are able to meet.”

He continues to tell me that he’s been living in Mozambique for about a year, is originally from Mexico, and wants to learn English because he has family in Scotland. I tell him that I’m happy to help, and he leaves the restaurant thanking me numerous times.

A few weeks later, the father contacts me and says he wants to have lunch with me at his house. Joined by another volunteer from a nearby town, we head to the church and meet him by the main road. He leads us through a set of large, metal doors that lead to his house and main yard.

He tells us that 14 young boys work with him at the church, and that with time they’ll be able to preach as well. My friend and I meet a couple of the boys, and we continue into the pastor’s main living area that has a table set for our lunch.

On the walls are pictures of religious leaders, including Pope Francis. The pastor has bookshelves stacked with literature on religious practice, language books, and other materials. Set on the table alongside the plates is a small speaker. The pastor turns on the speaker, raises the volume, and The Beatles’ Let It Be fills the room.

“I love this music,” he tells us. “The Beatles!”

We tell him that we also love the Beatles, and the smile seen at the restaurant grows across his face as he gestures toward the food to help ourselves. The meal consists of corn on the cob, potatoes, salad, and rabbit, which the pastor raises at his house.

We finish the meal, and the pastor tells us how happy he is that he met us. “Thanks be to God,” he says as he raises both his hands toward the ceiling.

“Thanks be to God,” my friend and I say in unison as another Beatles song plays from the speaker.

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Her comment catches me off guard. How could the death of a woman from a preventable disease be the will of God?

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this in Mozambique. When someone passes of old age or disease or accident, it is common for the people to find their comfort in knowing it’s God’s will.

While it’s easy to be cynical of this view (and many volunteers are), who are we to try and tell anyone how to find comfort, how to find faith?

How are we supposed to be strong volunteers without faith in something? Having faith in the better, the stronger, the more righteous can guide our hands, our actions.

Will we be able to work in cooperation with the many churches here to deliver beneficial health information? Information on prevention? Long-term behavior change?

Perhaps the answer is simply: If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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Ten Things You’ll See In Mozambique that You Won’t See in America (But Maybe We Should)

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Same-Sex Friends Holding Hands

A recent study (LiveScience) in the United States found that the majority of the population still feels uncomfortable when they see two people of the same sex holding hands. While our country has, thankfully, made much progress in terms of accepting and understanding the diverse communities that share our home, we are still far behind in creating a safe climate, especially when as individuals we are not questioning our own thoughts and beliefs.

A couple months into my site, and I found myself holding hands with a male friend of mine as we joked, laughed, and walked back to a mutual friend’s house. Walk around Mozambique and you’ll quickly notice that the gesture of holding a friend’s hand (regardless of sex) is common and just as beautiful as it sounds (header photo).

Teenage students walking out of a school, an older adult leading his friend through a busy market, two doctors having a conversation in the middle of the hospital, two friends walking and joking down a street. How simple life is if we can simply let go of our uncomfortable thoughts and hang on tight to the one thing that bonds us: humanity.

Respect for Different Religions

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While this may be slightly unfair to say about our current American climate, nowhere else have I seen people with drastically different religious beliefs living in such unified harmony than in Mozambique. On any given day, one can see the congregation of the Catholic church gathering in the main lawn while the daily prayers from the mosque’s loud speaker fill the air above.

In the United States, a person is often not only judged by what they do but also what they believe. In our current climate, an individual’s beliefs are firmly tied to the actions and beliefs of others who identify themselves under the same religious umbrella, and we are quick to label the individual as a bigot, an extremist, a terrorist.

However, what an individual believes in Mozambique is the sole property of the individual. Their beliefs are not questioned, denounced, analyzed. One face is equal to another, and in a country that thrives on development and moving forward, it’s refreshing to see that the people of Mozambique have already learned something that American’s haven’t: tolerance.

Fun FYI: While writing this portion of the post, I was introduced to a Pastor who works at the local Catholic church. He is from Mexico and wants to learn English. Serendipity or divine acknowledgement?

Watching (As In Watching) the News

In a packed bar in my town, people crash glasses together, laugh loudly at inside jokes, and join together in singing and dancing. The television is showing a movie with the audio projected from speakers. Nobody is paying any attention until the movie ends and the program switches to Jornal da Noite (Nightly News). Silence blankets the bar, and all eyes turn to watch the television or screen and listen in as the anchor delivers the news.

The country is large, but when it comes to the news, everyone in Mozambique wants to be informed of the happenings across their homeland. Whether they’re getting updates about the floods in Zambezia or watching as two burglary suspects are placed in front of the camera in a display of public shaming, Mozambicans love their news. While one could argue that it’s simply an issue of variety (Mozambicans usually watch either the news or telenovellas), the amount of interest in the news is hard to ignore.

Election Season Enthusiasm

Coupled with Mozambicans’ love for the news is their commitment to national elections and choosing the best leaders for their communities. During the 2014 Presidential Elections (which usually only occur after two, 5-year terms of the sitting president), the energy in the air around the election was thick and loud. From the rallies that filled the streets in a color-coordinated act of support or the political posters that blanketed the town, Mozambicans made it clear that they are pushing for progress.

One of the better sights of the election season last year was seeing a truck full of older women (mid-50’s) with large signs, megaphones, and matching shirts yelling as they drove through the community to promote their political party. Regardless of sex or age, Mozambicans will put work on hold for the possibility of improving their daily lives. Crazy, right?

Rainwater as a Resource

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When I first got to the country, other volunteers as well as Mozambicans described the impending rainy season. “It’s horrible,” my German neighbor told me. “The roads become rivers, and the rivers become seas.” It was hard to believe him at the time, but upon returning to my site following a trip south for the holidays, the rain was heavy, the power quickly went out, but one thing surprised me most: the use of rainwater.

Children were using falling water from the roofs to wash their bodies (photo above). Teenagers with large buckets were collecting the water and carrying it out into the neighborhoods. Women were using small, plastic bottles to refill their beverage with fresh rainwater from the hospital roof (photo above). At first, it was hard to join on the rain-wagon. “I’ll just carry my water from the mosque,” I said. “I don’t need to use the rainwater.”

When the power finally went out for the month, it was clear that rainwater was the best option. I bathed in the water with the kids from my neighborhood, it became routine to set out my buckets during a heavy rainstorm and even wash my dishes and clothes with the falling resource. While we don’t necessarily need to establish a similar routine in the states with our abundance of water (in most states), the notion of this reusable resource is intriguing.

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With the increase of products being imported into the country (looking at you Coke), the amount of litter that is filling beaches and roadsides is staggering. However, people of Mozambique have learned to reuse these some of the resources found throughout the community in the house, in the market, and in their gardens.

Acting as water bottles, small Coke bottles are used to refill water (photo above). Vendors in the market use the same bottles to fill with oil to sell on the side of the road. Plastic coverings from mattresses and plastic bags are used to cover bananas as they hang on the tree, preventing insects from destroying the plant. While the country is still in dire need of a recycling plan, the community is attempting to reduce the abundance of trash by recycling it themselves.

Gardens & Fresh Produce

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The rainy season not only brings the floods and abundance of drinkable, usable water, but it is prime time for Mozambicans to build their gardens (photo above). The community is transformed from dry and dirty to fertile and lush lands, producing not only fresh produce for consumption and sale, but also providing local community members more work in the building and maintaining of the large gardens.

Children, teenagers, adults, and older adults will all be in the garden throughout the rainy season, tending to the crops, harvesting, and selling them in the local market. For this reason, there is a constant supply of fresh produce for the community. However, the issue still remains the cost for those who can’t afford the produce and the need for education of the community to learn how to build and maintain their own gardens.

Bicycles, and Motorcycles, and Walking, Oh My!

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While this just may be a circumstance of both income and increasing development, there are far more bicycles and motorcycles on the roads of Mozambique than large cars. The main highway that runs north and south through the country is packed with larger vehicles used by those who can afford them, but as you travel inward and away from the main highway, the local villages and towns are thriving on smaller, more cost-effective and environmentally friendly (whether they know this or not) means of transportation.

If walking through a small town in Mozambique, you’ll notice people yelling “taxi mota” in your direction. You’ll recognize the word taxi right away and realize that they are providing a service for those who don’t want to walk and need a ride. Usually this is cheap, helps the driver pay for gas, and builds a sense of a growing and thriving community.

Fun FYI: Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to own or use a motorcycle due to the dangers. If a volunteer is caught owning or using a motorcycle, it’s terms for immediate removal from the country. Bicycles, however, are warmly welcomed and recommended.

Hitchhiking (Boleias)

In the United States, hitchhiking brings to mind plenty of movies and stories about the dangerous men and women who walk the interstates and highways in search of trusting drivers. For this reason, hitchhiking is both illegal in the states and generally looked down upon as a collective culture. We’d rather drive to our destination with the doors locked and eyes forward.

In Mozambique, it’s not uncommon to see people receiving boleias (Portuguese for lifts) from friends and strangers both inside the community (on the back of motorcycles) and along the national highway. This is an ongoing topic being discussed by both Peace Corps staff and volunteers, because it could potentially be dangerous; however, the consensus is that it’s a safer option to the country’s national transportation, which is dangerous and often leads to more accidents than hitchhiking.

Business Owners, Community Members, Thriving

With the discovery of gas in the northern province of Cabo Delgado and other natural resources that are underneath the country, more and more international companies and organizations are moving in to harvest and export the resources. While this is creating additional jobs and increased money into the country (although many doubt that the money will be put back into the communities because of unchecked corruption), it’s also creating a dependency on international companies instead of looking inward.

Walk around a smaller community, and you’ll see small businesses and shops owned by members (even families) of the community. With enough motivation and resources, a person in Mozambique can build and maintain a rather successful small operation in a small town. The country has yet to build large factories or companies, so in the meantime, the age of the local business owner is still strong and vibrant, including agriculture.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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