The above message arrived in my phone inbox last Wednesday night. During the moment or two that it took my Swahili to kick in and decipher this message, my stomach was dropping. "Pastor Masatu of Mwamalili has died this evening." Tears sprang to my eyes.
I've had several acquaintances, clients and children in our program die over the past several years, but this was a death that really hit me hard. A little context: Mwamalili is a village near Shinyanga, and is a chapter of the newest Lahash sponsorship project, Path of Hope. When the Lahash East Africa staff members spoke at a seminar for Path of Hope last July, we met Pastor Masatu and he brought us out to his tiny church to meet the children in his program. Many of you heard me mention this church during our recent visit to the States, because they had really inspired me.
|The Path of Hope and Lahash East Africa teams in July 2012|
Photo by Will Campbell
I don't know a lot of his history before the past two years, except that he married a lovely nurse and they have several beautiful daughters. His eldest daughter is the secretary for the diocese and has her own beautiful daughter. So I do know that Pastor Masatu was a husband, father and grandfather, and I know that he was an evangelist when he first went out to the small village of Mwamalili. The village had no church, and they appreciated his ministry so much that they invited him to come and start a church. A couple donated land, and Pastor Masatu rallied the other members to build a small, mud-brick church with very simple seats. Every week the members bring large rocks, which sit in a large pile near the church building. These stones will one day be the foundation for a permanent church building. That is the faith he was teaching and modeling for his congregants.
In Tanzania, as in many other places, the smaller and more remote the church, the less the pastor gets paid. It's not uncommon for a pastor to receive 10,000 TSH as his monthly salary, which is approximately $7. At the same time, these pastors are exposed to the intense challenges and needs of very poor communities. Pastor Masatu was no exception. He was so moved by the needs of the orphans, widows and very poor church members that he contributed the idea for fundraising for a grain mill that would be income-generating for the church and a much-needed service for the village. He also assisted in identifying 25 vulnerable children in the community who are pending acceptance into the Lahash sponsorship program. Although those children have no sponsorship yet, he was bringing them together each week to learn Bible lessons and be prayed with.
About one month ago, Pastor Masatu became sick. The illness was hard to identify, but involved difficulty breathing and then fluid in his lungs. When Wesley and I were in Shinyanga a few weeks ago, we went to visit him at his home. (It's very common to visit sick people at home.) We were with the Bishop and his wife, and we found another pastor there. Soon after we arrived, four more well-wishers from the church arrived, and we crowded into his living room, telling stories, encouraging him and enjoying sodas together. He seemed a bit tired, but still strong. We prayed for him before leaving...the impassioned, confident prayer of servants of the living God, asking for healing for another servant of God. Before we left, he said he was feeling better. Yet, less than three weeks later, he has died.
Sometimes I feel like I understand a bit of why people die, especially when that person has been chronically ill for a long time. Often, though, there is a corner of my mind that yells at God "WHY?! We prayed for this man! He was serving you so faithfully, being Your witness in a needy place, caring for his family. He was strong and brave and he put it all on the line for You, and yet You let him die." I despair a bit, and I wonder if healing prayer really has any power at all.
In the midst of my own grief, I remember one of my first friends who died, back in 2004. Karissa drowned in the Pacific Ocean while on a college retreat, and I was devastated. She was another person who was so dedicated to living out a remarkable submission to God, and two weeks before her death, I heard her prophesied over that the impact she would have on the world was different than anyone would expect. Her memorial service packed out George Fox University's auditorium, and after the open mic testimonies, several people came to know Jesus for the first time and many, many others rededicated their lives to continuing a lifestyle of on-the-edge faith.
In the midst of my grief for Karissa, I began to understand a bit of what happens when a child of God dies. I remember the very spot I was sitting (on a sofa on the ground floor of Underground Coffeehouse) when I realized that at the same time that God was with me in my grief, sad with me, He was rejoicing to have Karissa at home with Him. That picture of God rejoicing with His "lion" has comforted me in the past few days. I hope that his death, as tragic and confusing and difficult as it is for all of us left behind, is also inspiring. I pray that for me, for you, for his friends and family and the members of his church, this is a moment of vision and hope, and maybe, just maybe, Masatu's legacy of faith and love for the people of Mwamalili will materialize in the projects he cared so much about.
|Pastor Msiba Masatu - September 2012|
Photo by Will Campbell