TITLE: Death of a Pastor: an Outsider's View
By Gregory Kane
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The pastor’s death is sudden. A messenger delivers the news: mobile phones don’t work in his home area, so someone must make the long journey on foot. The funeral is the next day: as newly arrived missionaries we are expected to attend.
Travel is never easy in this part of Mozambique. There is one good road that carries freight up to Malawi. We keep on this for an hour until we reach the village of Samoa, followed by a bumpy ride for another 20 minutes along dirt roads. At this point we must leave the main road and follow a meandering trail of footpaths that pass around cotton fields, through homesteads and at one point across a shallow river. It was with such journeys in mind that we were careful to buy a car with four-wheel drive. Two hours after leaving home, we can go no further. We must finish the journey on foot, as there is no other way to get over the dry riverbeds that lie between us and our destination. Thirty minutes later, we reach the pastor’s home where several hundred mourners have already gathered.
By now the sun is high in the sky and there is an absence of shade. Any trees have long since been chopped down for firewood. The homestead consists of a number of wooden huts scattered over a wide area. Emaciated chickens scratch in the sand while a dog lies basking in the heat. The main hut is unusual in that it has been built with clay bricks: a sign of some prosperity.
We enter and pay our respects to the family. The coffin lies on the floor, surrounded by the immediate family. The widow is in hysterics. She has two small children, so the loss of her husband is compounded by fears for their future. One of the pastors shares a verse of Scripture. I am asked to pray: I do so in Portuguese and my words are translated into Nyungwe. I have already discussed this with the church leaders and we have agreed that I will not preach today. The family needs to hear comforting words in their tribal language, rather than endure the staccato of faltering Portuguese translated line by line into their mother tongue.
We wait outside. No one is in a hurry today. Another group of mourners enters to pay their respects. This cycle is repeated endlessly as people continue to arrive. Matteus has been given charge of the book of remembrance and this is explained to me. Visitors are expected to bring gifts of money or food for the family and each donation is carefully recorded. No one is permitted to give anonymously. At the end of the day the book will be read out publicly and the contributions handed over to the family.
Several hours pass. We are invited once more into the main hut. Pastor Jolinho orders that the coffin be opened. The day is heating up and a bottle of perfume is discreetly sprayed so as to conceal any offensive odour. As the deceased’s face is uncovered, howls of distress fill the room. One by one the family members walk slowly round the coffin and then leave. The casket is resealed and carried outside where a crowd has gathered.
“Pastor Kane, it is time for you to preach.” What? Be prepared, in season and out of season – always good advice for any missionary. I open my Bible and turn to First Corinthians. My voice booms as I speak of our resurrection hope – thank God for a healthy pair of lungs! I am followed by João who reads out a letter of condolence from the national church. Essentially this is a short biography for the deceased: when he was born, the date of his marriage, how he was converted, the work he has done for the Lord. Halfway through the recitation, João breaks downs. He sobs his heart out for several minutes before composing himself. No one seems to mind.
Finally we are ready to move out to the cemetery. A wooden stretcher has been prepared and the coffin is lashed to it with ropes. The walk takes another half-hour. As we clamber over rocks and slide down sandy inclines, I can see why the coffin had to be tied on. We stop in the middle of the bush and I have to ask what’s going on. It transpires that we have reached the cemetery. There are no ornate headstones here or gravelled paths. Instead the community has simply cleared an area where they can bury their dead. I count four adult-sized mounds. Children are buried in a separate area. It is functional, even sterile, devoid of any religious symbolism.
Once more we have to wait. The gravediggers have not yet finished. They need another hour. I find a place to sit and resolve to read my Portuguese Bible. The air is still. Nothing moves. It is far too hot and I struggle to stay awake. I haven’t eaten since breakfast early this morning. Thank God, I brought some water. I share some with my neighbour and he thanks me profusely. I don’t have enough to share with everyone. The nearest well is probably miles from here.
The coffin is brought to the grave and Jolinho reads from the book of Job. I expect a lengthy service but this isn’t what happens. The women begin to sing as the coffin is hastily lowered into the ground. There is a flurry of activity as the men start filling in the grave. Matteus takes a shovel from one of the men and helps move the dirt. A short time later another man takes over from him. This is their way of showing respect for the deceased.
Some of the women have made wreathes from the bougainvillea plant. Although this is the dry season, this plant manages always to be in flower. Family members lay the wreathes on the finished mound, a prayer is said, and everyone leaves.
A bowl of water has been left in the middle of the path and two women stop and wet their hands. Yet others walk past without performing this ritual. If you don’t know, ask. So I ask João. The family is Christian but some of their neighbours hold to the old ways. They wash to purify themselves from contact with the dead. No Christian will stoop to use the water. We have a better hope.
Community obligations are important. For the next week the widow will be sequestered in her own home. Different people will come every day to prepare food, clean, and offer comfort. On the seventh day they will gather again for a ceremony to mark the end of this initial period of mourning.
I need to get home. It will take us a good hour and a half to reach the tar road and I must get there before night falls. Otherwise we risk losing our way and moreover damaging the car. It has been a most unusual day. I have spent a lot of time talking with church leaders, encouraging them and simply building relationships. João blesses me with a final comment as we head back to the car. “What I really like about you,” he says, “is that you are willing to walk with us through the bush.” This speaks volumes to him. Platform ministry is important, but to speak effectively into the lives of our brothers and sisters, we must walk where they walk. Jesus understood this.
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