Boomers: Mission trip gives Rhinelander pastor unexpected gifts
He and his wife have traveled to many places, but until last summer, Pastor Norman Peterson had never visited Africa before and he wasn’t really sure what to expect.
That didn’t deter him in the least. The pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rhinelander has learned, he says, to let go of preconceived ideas about what a place will be like when traveling. “When I go,” he explains,” I usually go with the attitude that whatever I experience is a gift.” And he was right-the people he met in the African nation of Tanzania didn’t have material wealth, but without knowing it, they gave him and his companions valuable gifts that will stay with them.
The groundwork for the journey to Tanzania was actually laid some time ago, when the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (of which Pastor Norm’s congregation is a member) and the Eastern Coastal Dioceses of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania became companion synods. Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church then partnered with the Mbagala Lutheran Church in Dar es Salaam as companion congregations.
In May of 2010, Pastor Norm and his wife, Mary, welcomed Bishop Alex Malasusa of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania and his wife, Ericah, into their home in Rhinelander when they came to visit the Northern Great Lakes Synod and Immanuel. The Malasusas urged the Petersons to come visit them in Tanzania. When Pastor Norm and Mary were invited to go along on a mission trip to this exotic country in eastern Africa and see the Mbagala church for themselves, they took the opportunity, quickly obtaining visas and getting the necessary vaccinations. At the end of July, they embarked on a 32-hour journey to Tanzania.
This exotic country boasts a thriving tourism industry, and photo safaris are popular among visitors who are drawn to Serengeti National Park and other destinations abundant in wildlife. While in Africa, Pastor Norm and the group visited a spice plantation on the island of Zanzibar and went on a two-day photo safari, during which they saw elephants, lions, rhinos and a host of other exotic creatures.
Those adventures, however, weren’t what induced Pastor Norm to travel halfway around the globe. “That was not my intent for going over,” Pastor Norm explains. “My whole purpose was to go visit our companion congregation.” He and Mary not only visited the congregation at the Mbagala church, they also toured sub parishes throughout the week and helped set up a makeshift dental clinic so that the two dentists who traveled with the group could provide care to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have it. “We brought or had shipped over about $15,000 worth of dental supplies,” Pastor Norm explains. There was no shortage of patients. “These people did free dental care for about 12 hours a day.”
People in rural Tanzania are moving to the cities to try to make better lives for themselves, Pastor Norm says. As a result, Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, is growing faster than the government can keep up. Churches do their best to care for those who need it most and congregations in this country often extend a helping hand to those in other nations.
Although members of the congregation in Dar es Salaam don’t have much in the way of material goods, they’re grateful for what they do have. People walk long distances to attend church and for Sunday services, Pastor Norm says, they made sure to wear their best clothes.
Many pastors at the churches that Pastor Norm visited don’t wear crosses around their necks because they can’t afford them. Upon learning this, Pastor Norm gave his cross to Pastor Frank Kimambo, the pastor of the Mbagala Parish. Pastor Kimambo bowed and asked Pastor Norm to place the cross upon him. It was a gesture that Pastor Norm never expected. “I was so humbled,” he recalls.
One of the most memorable events during the trip occurred when a member of the Mbagala congregation passed away, and Pastor Norm and Mary were invited to attend his funeral. The Petersons didn’t know the deceased man, but his family welcomed their presence and the funeral service, conducted in Swahili, left an indelible impression on them. “It was a magnificent experience,” Pastor Norm recalls. “It was such an honor and they were so welcoming.”
The congregation that the Petersons and their group visited was very generous to their guests. Yet, more than one-third of Tanzanians live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, even though Tanzania as a whole is experiencing economic growth. Because of poverty and rapid growth in population, there are significant health issues. “The infant mortality rate from malaria is phenomenal,” Pastor Norm says. The scarcity of potable water is also a problem in the area, and visitors are advised to only drink bottled water.
The Petersons’ 16-day visit to Africa ended last August. However, their commitment to helping the Mbagala church didn’t end when their plane took off from Dar es Salaam. Last fall, Pastor Norm learned the sad news that the Mbagala congregation lost their church when it was looted and burned by a rioting mob.
Tanzania is considered one of the most politically stable countries in Africa. But in October of 2012, religious tensions boiled over in Dar es Salaam after a 14-year-old boy was said to have desecrated a copy of the Quran. Enraged radical Muslims rioted and several churches in Mbagala were burned and looted, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as the president of Tanzania, urged restraint from both sides after the riots. Pastor Norm himself is quick to point out that those who attacked the churches were considered radical, not mainstream, Muslims.
He, his congregation and other members of the Northern Great Lakes Synod have no intention of letting their companion congregation on the other side of the world go unaided. “We’re gathering funds to help them rebuild,” he says. The Northern Great Lakes Synod authorized a synodwide day of prayer and a special offering for the Mbagala parish. Immanuel has been receiving funds for this appeal from their members, and proceeds from Immanuel’s Easter breakfast will be included in this appeal for helping the Mbagala church rebuild.
Although their church was destroyed, the congregation that Pastor Norm and Mary so enjoyed visiting has faced this tragic turn of events with dignity and optimism. When asked how churches in the Great Lakes Synod could help, the Mbagala church elders replied by asking for prayers and letters. But, Pastor Norm says, “Not once did they ask for money.” Their example is yet another gift from these humble people.
“We will never forget the people of Tanzania and especially the people of the Mbagala parish. The time together was a blessing that continues to shape our lives and we hope theirs as we continue our lives together in faith,” says Pastor Norm.
Note: Anyone wishing to make a donation to help the Mbagala church rebuilt may make out a check to the Northern Great Lakes Synod and send it to Immanuel Ev. Lutheran Church, 21 West Timber Dr., Rhinelander, WI 54501; or Northern Great Lakes Synod of ELCA, 1029 N. 3rd St., #A, Marquette, MI 49855. Please specify on the check that the donation is for the Mbagala Church.