Frederick Buechner Narrative Writing Contest – Theme: Storm

I sent this memory from January 2008, to the narrative writing contest at The Christian Century in the middle of April, just after Pastor Herb passed away:


I could not get over it. I still haven’t gotten over it. I was traveling with Pastor Herb, who had been serving as a missionary for so long that multiple people told me “he speaks better Swahili than most Tanzanians.” Every day of that week we left the junior seminary where he was based, and headed to a remote preaching point among the Maasai people, where word would spread that we had arrived and people would walk in from all around for worship. Since Pastor Herb could only make it to each of his 113 preaching points (some with buildings, and others without) a few times a year, at each site there were baptisms, confirmations, and even once a wedding as part of the service. Local, trained evangelists tended the people’s faith in between. By this point in the week I had already witnessed Pastor Herb perform an exorcism on a woman possessed by an evil spirit, yet in my mind I held that event as really true, but really “culturally specific.” I was very glad that Alana, an American college student, was traveling with Pastor Herb for the first time this week too, so she and I could check our incredulous observations with each other. Such things didn’t happen in worship back home. But here people believed that spirits and demons were active, so they lived it out. That’s how my mind wrapped around what I had witnessed, until the storm.

Late in the week we bumped out on a rutted dirt trail while dark clouds gathered overhead. Pastor Herb was talking to his evangelist about the weather. It’s going to be really hard driving out of here if it rains hard, they were saying. Alana and I exchanged glances. When we arrived and stepped out of the jeep, it started sprinkling. People were already gathering, and although there were several small earthen homes around, this was clearly one of those times we would worship without a roof over us. The evangelists got busy registering those who were going to be baptized. In the Maasai culture, once the (male) head of a family decides they will become Christian, the whole extended family gets baptized. This was one of those times: 54 baptisms at once. I snapped a photo of the sky before we started, which was the definition of the “eye of a storm,” a bright center surrounded by dark gray cumulus clouds as far as we could see. Yet Pastor Herb was determined. He would not return here for some time, so he was going to preach everything there was to preach and baptize everyone who desired baptism. Part of the way through the baptisms, it got really windy and was raining hard, with thunder and lightning not far off. The full force of the storm was upon us.

One of the evangelists spoke into Pastor Herb’s ear. “You can go to the jeep if you like,” Pastor Herb said to us and the evangelist, without judgment. And he turned to baptize the next person; he just spoke the words louder, over the noise of the storm. We were a combination of too sheepish and too awed to go to the car, because shortly after he said that, the weather gave up. The rain started tapering off, then stopped completely. The sky was still as dark and threatening as ever, but it was as if the storm was holding its breath. I turned to Alana and whispered, “Ummm… did he just calm the storm?” “Yup,” she whispered back, as both of us kept our eyes on him. It was nearly impossible to explain it any other way. It still is. Worship ended and the meal that always awaited us began. The second treasured photo I have from that day is a picture of Alana and I grinning while eating rice and goat meat under a tree, a rainbow slicing across the dark gray sky just above us.

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