Note: I expanded this post for Oasis International’s blog. In that version, I also explain how the Africa Study Bible is part of Africa rising.
Last week I visited the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.
I had been invited to Ethiopia for a conference. The leaders of Christian student movements throughout English-speaking Africa had gathered for training and collaboration. They invited me to present about my work with the Africa Study Bible project and brainstorm possibilities for partnership.
I had never been to Ethiopia, but the conference felt familiar. As an undergraduate, I was a student leader in this Christian student movement, in the American branch called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Most of the pivotal points in my college career were sparked by an InterVarsity conference. Now, I was with the staff leaders of the movement across the globe, but the training was as high quality as ever.
So I fit in – mostly. I was the only white woman there. But that’s been a lot of my life. So I switched between Swahili and my East African accent, relished the njera (sourdough flatbread) and helped myself to chai (black tea with milk and sugar, not the US coffeeshop stuff that tastes like pumpkin pie).
But then we took a field trip to the African Union.
The main lobby had marble walls. The ceiling was twice as high as the palm trees, which rose like columns. In the center of the building stood the circular Nelson Mandela conference hall. Marble steps led up to its entry. Above them was a vast gold Africa:
We took a picture beneath it, hands raised. Instead of “cheese,” we said, “Africa rising.” My dad had preached about Africa rising to explain why Americans should invest in missionary work. But for this group, “Africa Rising” symbolized their hopeful destiny.
Inside, the conference hall was like Congress, with seats for hundreds of delegates. Everyone scrambled to find the placard for their country. They posed for photos in the cushioned seats, hands poised on the light wooden table, wearing a headset.
Kenya hosts me and my family now, but I didn’t look for Kenya’s sign. I’ve only spent two years there. If it had been the UN instead of the African Union, the USA would have been there, but I wouldn’t have gravitated toward my passport country anyway. I spotted Tanzania, land of my childhood. But it wouldn’t be right for me to sit in that chair. As an mzungu (white person) I don’t represent Tanzania. So I posed with someone else behind my seated Tanzanian friend, supporting her in a group pic.
We went outside to the statue of Kwame Nkrumah, who was Prime Minister and first President of Ghana as well as a pan-African activist.
After a photo frenzy, we linked hands and prayed for Africa – that Africa would unite, that Africa would rise. The prayer rose in volume. Individuals saying “amen” and “yes Jesus” acknowledged becoming one through the prayer.
I felt honored to participate in such a powerful moment with my brothers and sisters.
I also felt a little jealous.
When I returned to my room that night, I told God I wanted to belong to a country too. I want a flag, a national anthem, countrymen, national holidays, a history of heroes and battles.
Then I remembered some heroes. They too were “looking for a country of their own.”
Hebrews 11 describes the heroes of the Hebrew Bible as “foreigners and strangers on earth,” living in tents, moving when God said so, not knowing where they were going (that sounds familiar). They were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:14-16).
That city will have a flag. Jesus “will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him” (Isaiah 11:10). People of all cultures will be one people – the people of God. With my countrymen, I’ll put my hand over my heart as we hear our national anthem:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelations 5:9-10)
Then I realized – that’s what I had been doing all week.
In fact, that morning people from Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan worshipped together in their own languages. We’d even sung from Revelations: “Worthy is the Lamb to receive praise.”
We’d recited victorious battle stories of the Christian student movement – how groups were fighting Ebola, building peace in war zones, and promoting holistic health for students.
I even had national holidays in common with these people – Christmas as our Presidents’ Day, Good Friday as our Memorial Day, Easter as our Independence Day.
I spoke Swahili and giggled and prayed and danced in worship with these people.
No wonder I had felt so at home here. I was.