The Christian community all over the world will celebrate World Communion Sunday in a few weeks. Many of the Africa Independent Churches with which I work across the continent celebrate Holy Communion in many different ways, or shall I say some of them take a “different route” from the “mainline” churches, but their destination is the same.
I invite you this World Communion Sunday to journey with me to one of the African Independent Churches, the Holy Spirit Church of East Africa. As I experienced their Holy Communion I felt as if I was on an unfamiliar road, but the destination was recognizable. The Holy Spirit Church of East Africa usually has a special meal together once a month. The night before this meal they gather for an all night prayer vigil, in Swahili they call it “Kesha.” This is considered a time of fasting, praying, repentance and confession to God and to each other. It is important to confess anything that brought disorder in the community such as greed, selfishness, addictions and violence, among other things. During this solemn gathering, they remember the blood shed by the martyrs who brutally lost their lives in their quest to become a church. It is also a time they remember the suffering and death of Christ. This time of prayer heals the brokenness and brings deliverance to the community.
This all night service of prayers, repentance and confession is essential in order for a new relationship with fellow brothers and sisters or a new life to emerge. They believe that this “kasha” is necessary and it is only after repentance that one can have unity in Christ. Prayer, repentance and confession cleanses the assembly of believers and puts them in one accord, or as one of the Church Bishops explained, ‘It makes the people become of one heart and they can now share in a meal together.” When they gather at the table over a meal they come as a new family that is accountable to God and each other. One of the most powerful symbols in many African cultures is having a meal together. A meal brings together everyone in the community, including those who are living on the margins of life, together with everyone else and binds them as one. A meal affirms and recognizes the humanity in everyone, true forgiveness, love and embracing all in the family of God.
One of the guiding scriptures they read at this time Psalm 124:
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side ... when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive.… Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us to be torn by their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper. The snare is broken and we have escaped…”
The way African Instituted Churches celebrate communion may seem different from the mainstream Churches, but it is just a different route to the same destination. It reminds me of a day when Mr. Koinange, the driver from my office, picked me up from my house to take me to a breakfast meeting that I was attending on behalf of the Organization of Africa Instituted Churches (OAIC). Traveling during peak hours in Nairobi can be daunting; a 15 minute drive can take 1-2 hours. We left my house at 7:30am and I was sure that I would never make it to this meeting on time. As we were driving, Mr. Koinange asked me what time I was expected in the meeting and in response, I told him at 8 am. As it was now 7:50 am, Mr. Koinange tuned off the main road that was jam packed with cars and, moving very slowly, went down a side street. I had traveled down this road before but I never went to the end of the road, so I had no idea where the road would lead. To my surprise the road lead me to a very familiar area, after a few more twist and turns we arrived at the destination in time. It was clearly a different route but to the same destination.
Phyllis Byrd, a member of Hollis Avenue Congregational, United Church of Christ, Queens Village, New York. She serves as the Director of the “Just Communities” Program at the Organization of African Instituted Churches and Associate Minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her appointment is made possible by gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, One Great Hour of Sharing and your special gifts.