n 2018, my husband and I baptized our 17-year-old son in the Red Sea at a dusty beach off the coast of Djibouti. One hundred meters behind us was the International Airport of Djibouti and the security fences of Camp Lemonnier, the American military base.
On that humid morning, we gathered together as a church community made up of people from Madagascar, Korea, the United States, Kenya, and the Congo. As the sun rose over the ocean, we shared communion, baptized my son in warm, salty water, and then ate breakfast together.
I don’t know what stories the Djiboutian airport guards told their families that evening–maybe something about a teenager getting shoved into the water, followed by a lot of singing from a strange, international gathering of people. But I do know the Malagasy couple and the Congolese family in our church have been a part of my son’s life since he was four years old. And I do know the Korean family, new to Djibouti, had tears in their eyes when they thanked me for inviting them. “God is with this church,” they said.
The story of our community is one of faithfulness and hope. But it’s also one of compromise. My family has lived in Djibouti since 2004, and for most of these years, we have attended l’Eglise Protestante Evangelique de Djibouti, or EPED. Main services are on Sunday evening and predominantly in French.
Even though French language and culture permeate our church, the transient community includes almost no French members. At potlucks, we feast on Indian, Djiboutian, Ethiopian, and Burundian cuisine and tangle up the Malagasy names of our fellow parishioners, which often include up to 25 letters.
Our current pastor is from Senegal, the choir director from Madagascar, the administrator from Congo, the drummer from Korea, and the guitarist from Kenya. The parish council includes eight members who hail from five different nations and eight different denominational traditions. We gather in our only common language, native to few. We come out of our weekly work contexts–where our neighbors, teachers, coworkers, and friends are Muslim–and enter the church compound eager to share what unites our small, complicated community: a commitment to Jesus.
It might be tempting to call our church a little slice of heaven and quote from Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
We are in fact Christians from many tribes, peoples, and languages gathered to worship God, so that picture is true to some extent. But it is also simplistic. Every time we come together, each of us brings with us not only linguistic and cultural differences, but also theological and stylistic preferences. Those clashing perspectives can make it challenging for our church to worship together.
They can also affect me personally. At the end of a demanding week of cross-cultural life, I might feel exhausted by services in which I strain to understand the sermon, where I may not feel moved by the music, and where fellowship requires effort. But only if I attend church expecting wholly to receive.
“It can take practice to find God in the midst of our differences and not just bemoan the more wearing parts of the adjustment,” writes Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, in Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. “We may say we want to be part of a vigorously multiethnic congregation and that we want it to be economically mixed, but this can make church more complicated. It means adjusting our expectations.”
This insight is situated in a chapter about the church in exile, where Labberton addresses Christian community as a counter-cultural group set against the secular world of American consumerism or, in my case, a surrounding Muslim culture. Christians are welcome in Djibouti, but we are an extreme minority, so the imagery of exile hits close to home. The idea of adjusted expectations also resonates deeply with me.
The compromises we make at our church have enabled us to experience vibrant Christian life. As a congregation, we consciously choose to set aside personal preferences, honor one another above ourselves, and hold fast to primary theological issues while we “agree to disagree” on secondary ones. To a watching world, we offer a radical testimony of humility, love, and the power of God.
The world around us is watching. On high holidays like Easter and Christmas, French and Djiboutian soldiers armed with rifles guard the gates of the church compound. The pastor keeps a list of members so he can share openly with the government, should they inquire. My husband has been asked by former university coworkers why he goes to church—meaning they’re well aware that he does. When we enter the church building, local children approach us, beg for food or money, and ask us what we do inside and why.
We are a city on a hill, not a lamp hidden beneath a bowl. Our good deeds—by grace, may they be good!—shine before others.
“There is a grande richesse,” says Tshimanga Mukendi Pierre, our church’s administrator, music leader, and the longest-term member of the community. “A spirit of openness and not of judgment.”
That ecumenism starts inside our church and extends beyond our walls. On special occasions, Catholics and Protestants in the area worship together. For a season, our church didn’t have a pastor, and when a member died, a local Catholic priest performed the funeral. The few Christians here partner for social service activities, like caring for street children, or helping out with education programs for low-income families. There’s also a women’s prayer group that includes Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and others.
“You would never see this in Congo,” Mukendi Pierre said, who arrived in 2002 and brought his family from Congo in 2008. “But here, we live with others, and we are enriched by our differences as we put aside our prejudices and judgment.”
Social collaboration is one thing. Dealing with difficult theological differences is quite another. But by God’s grace, we’ve been able to do that too.
The pastor before our current one was a German man unfamiliar with more Pentecostal expressions of faith. One afternoon in 2005, an Ethiopian church gathered on EPED property and performed an exorcism on a young woman. While she screamed and writhed in the yard of our church compound, the pastor, who didn’t know what to do, told Mukendi Pierre to call the police. But by the time that pastor left in 2017, he had hosted monthly prayer gatherings to deal with spiritual possession and attack.
“I came to Djibouti to teach the Word of God,” he said in his final sermon at our church. “But I am leaving Djibouti having been taught the Word of God by Christians here.”
Mukendi Pierre’s wife, Eliane, emphasizes a similar message. “We must set aside fear of something different so that we can learn and change,” she told me. “It takes courage to ask, ‘What is good for or about this other person?’”
God has done miraculous things in and through EPED. Members have been healed of cancer. One pastor, paralyzed in half his body from a beach accident, was able to walk again after receiving prayer. A young boy at a church picnic was pulled unconscious from the ocean and saved. Broken marriages have been reconciled, victims of serious car accidents healed without medical intervention, and explosive house fires narrowly averted.
We have also seen pain in the form of death, disease, financial devastation, divorce, and disagreements. With so many of our members living away from blood relatives and support networks, we’re learning to be the family of God for each other in times of both celebration and sorrow.
“We are a small community,” Mukendi Pierre said, “but we have a big vision of God. This is what gives me hope.”
It is hard to gather in a foreign language and reach across theological and cultural differences. Sometimes I step outside during a church service, just to take a few deep breaths and get some distance from others. I’m sure they do the same thing in response to me. But I don’t go to this church for personal fulfillment. I attend because from Christ “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).
That truth holds for all of us around the globe. As we practice dying to self, church becomes a place where we encounter God in the imago Dei of someone we might disagree with. We remain together, because corporately, we can cling to a bigger vision of God than one we could hold to alone. Right there in that space, we’re transformed more and more into God’s likeness, and church becomes a sacred gift.
Cover Photograph by Samuel Martins
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