We were involved in such ministry in and beyond the remote little town of Mpanda in the west of Tanzania. It taught us much about Tanzanian culture and values, about the Africa Inland Church of Tanzania and about who we needed to become as missionaries with AIM International in order to play our part well.
Being very isolated as expatriate missionaries for those years meant enormous challenges, but also meant countless important lessons learned which enabled us to serve there and prepared us for ongoing ministry elsewhere. How God then led us to the Digo, a Muslim people near the Tanzanian coast, is a story in itself and this article can only relate a small but significant part of a work which continues today and includes a team of people other than ourselves. But at least some of what God has been doing among the Tanzanian Digo should be told or we dishonour God by staying quiet about how he has answered the prayers of many, his work for which he deserves praise.
In 2002 when we set out to seek permission of the Digo to live among them, the Tanzanian Christians we shared our plans with were incredulous. The Digo were known for their resistance and even Christians of other tribes in the vicinity of the Digo villages were doing nothing to reach out to them.
From a Digo perspective, to be Digo means to be a Muslim. Their culture, while retaining some practices of traditional animistic belief from their pre-Islam days, is Islamic, imposed on them generations before as an alternative to slavery. Evangelism in the early 20th century had made some inroads, but most of the converted Digo were pulled back and, among the hundreds of village mosques, we only found one tiny Christian community in a different part of Digo territory from our own. Even there, when Andrew preached in the church and referred to Jesus as the Son of God, an elderly leader who had wept with joy when we first arrived, objected angrily.
‘Let them come’
December 2002 saw just the two of us (my wife Rachel and me) standing in a Digo village before a crowd of local people, being introduced by a village chairman as people who wanted to come and live among them. The scene was almost overwhelming and is deeply embedded in our memories. We were open about being Christians and some were hostile, raising their voices in objection, saying we would be like poison working its way through the people. The door seemed to be closing against us and we knew that if it did other villages would say no. It was the local imam who then stood and announced that he was secure in his faith and that if others were sure of theirs then they should allow us to stay. A chant went up: ‘Let them come, let them come!’ and the following day two more villages also said yes. God had opened a door for us and our TIMO team* which joined us a year later.
God’s Word breaks through
Isaiah 55 speaks of God’s Word accomplishing that for which it was sent and it was God’s Word which began to draw a few men to us in that first year, secretly expressing interest in the teaching of the Bible. Later, it was God’s Word which caused the handful of brave seekers in those villages to attend our team’s house church and listen week by week as we used our still halting Chidigo to teach, using Chronological Bible Story Telling. It was God’s Word which brought the first believers to their knees in submission before God and to baptism, which grew the local opposition into something more, bringing Islamic leaders out of the city to name and shame those who had ‘changed their religion’.
It was John’s Gospel — produced in Chidigo by those who were working with Bible Translation and Literacy (EA) across the border in Kenya among the Kenyan Digo — that the men building the large and elaborate mosque a few villages down the road read in their chai breaks. Later, when the Chidigo New Testament was finalised and given to every household who would accept it, God’s Word was the only published book they had in their own language.
We have seen over and over again how the best evangelism flows from relationship. As God enabled our team to live very closely with the Digo and to become like them in every way possible, opportunities opened up and Bible storying groups met secretly in homes and fields across the villages. It was very hard for those first few believers as they bore the first wave of anger and opposition and, even today, most of them struggle significantly. Yet they blazed the trail for others to believe and, in spite of opposition of many and various kinds, a church was born.
The believers wanted a place to meet for worship, so, when a local man offered to sell us a large plot of land at one end of our village and braved the criticism aimed at him, the reality of a church now being present in the area could no longer be hidden. We were determined that the church should bless the community from the outset, so, although the clearing of the dense bush could have been more easily done by machines, we employed local people in need of work and they felled the trees, dismantled the vast termite mounds and carried sand for the foundations of the Pande Gospel Centre, two buildings which were familiar in design to local people because we saw no reason to build unfamiliar structures.
In one of those buildings we met as a gospel community learning to worship in culturally appropriate ways, watched at a distance by a wider community which was both appalled and intrigued that there was now a Christian presence in their midst.
A Tanzanian pastor, Matinya, himself a believer from a Muslim background, and his wife Milka have led the church since 2007. Matinya has now identified a Digo man who has shown characteristics of a leader and is now attending a Bible school course, a few months there, a few months back home. The church has grown slowly, drawing a few Digo, and some non-Digo people as well, as God’s Word is preached faithfully. Our team mates who carried on after we left partnered with the few Digo believers and established story-telling groups in other remote Digo villages. These are now slowly emerging as worshipping communities. There are only three expatriate workers left now, in villages an hour or more from the main church, and they will soon leave. We must pray that the Digo will carry on the work of reaching out to their own people.
Vision for a school
Pastor Matinya and Milka had a clear vision for a church school and it has now been running for five years, over-subscribed by mostly Muslim families. Registration took a long time, but at the official opening in June 2012 the men and women who did that early work of clearing the land were celebrated and their pride was evident, even though they are still Muslims. Some people who were outraged a few years ago now send their children to the school which we pray will give the next generation a choice like never before. The Standard 4 children, most of whom live extremely poor and basic lives, have recently sat national exams in English and have excelled almost beyond belief. With entrance to secondary school being dependent on use of English, this opens wide their chance for ongoing education. How we thank God that those children and many more are so much more likely now to be able to extend their thinking and lives in many directions, including, we trust, into a greater freedom to choose Christ.
Praise the Lord indeed!
So a community of people, known for their resistance, has begun to witness the impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 2008, when told about the church with its school, a Christian official in our nearby city slapped his hand down on his desk in delight and exclaimed: ‘A church among the Digo — well praise the Lord!’ Indeed.
Andrew and Rachel Chard
Andrew is now European Director of AIM International and Rachel is a Staff Worker for Friends International
TIMO* — Training In Ministry Outreach, the church-planting training wing of AIM International. See http://www.timo-aim.com
This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057