He asked me, "Son of man,can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, `Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’”(Ezekiel 37:3-5)
Joe Church was a medical missionary to Rwanda from the late 1920s through the 1960s and one of the most prominent leaders in the East African Revival that swept through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya,and Tanzania. The revival’s effects have been more lasting than those of almost any other revival in history, so that today there is hardly a single Christian leader in East Africa who has not been touched by it in some way.
Joe had been struggling with a “low” time in his life and met with a Ugandan, Simeoni Nsibambi, to pray and study the Bible after morning worship at the Anglican Cathedral in Namirembe. They spent two full days in prayer and study. In a subsequent letter home, Joe wrote, “There can be nothing to stop a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Rwanda now except our own lack of sanctification.” He went back to Rwanda, and immediately conversions began to take place. Christians started to confess faults and resentments to one another. Forgiveness was experienced and broken relationships restored.
Since then,untold millions have seen their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit in a movement that continues to this day. There is no formal structure, no official leader nor handbook, but rather a determination to take seriously the patterns of the early church, when Christians prayed earnestly, confessed their sins to one another, sought forgiveness, and shared testimonies of transformed lives. They rested in the assurance that God would bring new life.
Angela and I have been privileged to visit East Africa many times, and we have witnessed the ongoing work of the Spirit among people who have so very little in terms of the world’s riches, but who have taught us so much.
It all began when we met Bishop Alpha Mohammed – when he came as a student to Virginia Seminary in the 1970s. At the time he was the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion, but he had a profound impact on all who met him. Alpha was born in 1941 and grew up in a small village in rural Tanzania, in a traditional Muslim family. As a teenager, he was sent to a boarding school established by the CMS (Church Missionary Society), and there he had his first personal encounter with believing Christians. He told me that he was challenged by their quiet faith and the peace that he witnessed in their lives.
As an observant Muslim, he prayed five times a day but struggled to find peace with God. One day, one of his fellow students gave him a New Testament. He read it from cover to cover but found himself “stuck” on a passage in Revelation 3:“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold– I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Alpha told me that he was convinced that God was speaking directly to him, and he wept on his bed until he fell asleep. The next morning he awoke to realize that he had now discovered the peace of God that he had so earnestly sought. He had been “born anew.”
As soon as he was able, he returned home to share his new faith in Christ with his family–they were horrified. He was banished from the family home and told that they considered him dead to them. An old man in the village gave him shelter until he returned to school. (Years later, Angela and I were able to visit that old man and thank him for his hospitality.) Alpha continued his studies and eventually became a catechist, deacon, priest, and bishop in the Anglican Church of Tanzania, but he was always an evangelist.
His faith-filled presence at Virginia Seminary was an inspiration to all of us...and he became a close family friend. After our seminary studies were concluded, Alpha invited Angela and me to visit him and his family in Tanzania, and we made the journey in 1980. We spent a month with Alpha and his wife Marian, initially in Dodoma, the capital city of Tanzania, and then accompanying him on his various confirmation safaris. It proved to be a life-changing experience.
One challenge was that the roads were appalling. Most of them were dirt roads and deeply rutted after the rainy season – driving consisted of bouncing from one ridge to another. As we approached each community, however, we were welcomed by large crowds of excited men, women, and children all delighted to greet us as honored guests. At each stop they insisted on giving us gifts – including a goat and a duck. We had been briefed that we must accept these costly gifts to show respect for our hosts – our driver Stanley assured us that they would be welcome additions to his own family’s future menus! During the confirmation services there was much prayer, many testimonies, and a wonderful mixture of people young and old, men and women, proudly declaring their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was quite a revival in each place, and then we went on to the next village.
After two weeks of intense ministry, Alpha announced that we were to be given a weekend respite at a place where we would have fresh food, milk, and eggs – You can even have milk shake!” – he told us. We quickly discovered that there was a small “catch.” Our weekend away would be in a leprosarium – a residential hospital for lepers. As we drove through the gates, we saw a tidy compound with dozens of lepers going about their daily routines...many of them bearing the obvious scars and missing appendages of the disease... but they were all filled with the Spirit of God. The next morning we joined them for morning worship and were eagerly welcomed by this amazing community of men and women whom the world considered as good as dead. But we could see that they were filled with life and the joy of the Lord. I must confess that I did have a moment of anxiety when it came to sharing the peace and communion with a common cup, but we stepped forward and were blessed. Afterwards, I spoke to one of the staff doctors and asked him about the likelihood of infection. Smiling, he told me that daily prayer and good hygiene protocols had kept him healthy for the past 25 years!
The rest of our journey passed quickly, but the people we met and the lessons we learned continue to shape our hearts and minds. As I look back on this amazing adventure, I am reminded that whenever we confront situations that seem hopeless, when all we can see are the dead bones of despairing people and communities and forgotten dreams, we serve a living God who delights in bringing life and hope where there seems to be none.
My prayer for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh is that we will witness a new revival – one that will bring new life and new hope into situations that the world considers hopeless, but where the Spirit of God can and will transform and renew.
Revive us again, Fill each heart with Thy love,
May each soul be rekindled, With fire from above,
Hallelujah! Thine the glory, Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah!Thine the glory, Revive us again