Texas-based missionaries in Tanzania find spiritual energy among the poorest of the poor, amid drought, poverty and disease.
Sponsored by St. Christopher's, League City and friends from throughout Texas, the Rev. Jerry Kramer and his wife Stacy, along with their three children, are serving as missionaries in the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Rev. Suzi Robertson, a member of Trinity, Galveston, and her husband, Nolen Holcomb, a Methodist minister, are serving in the more rural bush of the Kongwa District.
While the Kramers are in the second largest city (300,000 plus), there are no paved roads for 20 miles around the seminary school where Robertson and Holcomb teach. The Diocese of Mt. Kilimanjaro is the size of Pennsylvania and takes in a vast rural area, mostly Maasai, as well as the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro inhabited by the Wachagga people.
The second poorest nation in the world, Tanzania is suffering from a two-year drought that has caused widespread famine in this sub-Saharan area where malaria is as much a problem as HIV/AIDS.
Cycle of poverty
In Robertson's area, mud-brick dwellings with dirt floors and thatched roofs house the rural populations. A cattle barn is usually attached to the family's hut, but because of the drought, the number of livestock is diminished, she said. People cook on charcoal stoves and ninety-eight percent of the people cannot afford public utilities even if they were available.
One of Robertson's neighbors, Paul, a yardman at the school, works for $25 a month. When his father died two months ago, the broader family came for the funeral and consumed all the food Paul had stored for the coming month. Robertson purchased food for his young family in the emergency, but less than a month later, his father-in-law's entire cattle herd was stolen, and so the family is now without beef or milk.
Even if there was work somewhere else, Paul couldn't afford the bus tickets to leave, Robertson explained, describing a rural population locked into a vicious cycle of poverty. "Paul's story is only one of hundreds of thousands," she said, adding, "Many people die from malaria, typhoid, parasitic dysentery and AIDS. Children are raising children, because one or both of their parents have died, and they are forced to live alone or with relatives."
Both missionary families agree that the local Anglican churches are "packed for the three-hour services" each Sunday. During a service on January 11, the Kramers were "instituted" as members of the Maasai peoples and adopted by a Maasai elder, Canon Jacob Laanyune. Laanyune has planted every Maasai parish in the Kramers' region of the diocese and asked the Kramers to work with him in planting more parishes on the mountain. "We could easily start another five to ten communities immediately," Kramer - now known as Olongishu (Fond of Cows) - said. Stacy - now Enongishu or Mrs. Fond of Cows - is rapidly learning Swahili and that their three children are flourishing in the midst of a "people who have so precious little," he added.
"These poor, marginalized people have taken us in as their brother and sister, saying that we can now be poor and marginalized with them. It was an overwhelming experience of hospitality and fellowship. All are one in Jesus Christ," Kramer said.
Kramer was also made a Maasai warrior and an elder within his age group-an important designation within the tribal culture. "When I carry the club presented to me at Mass, my age group peers are to listen and accept my counsel. If only it worked that way at home with the kids!" he said.
Many people worship in buildings nicer than their homes, the clergy wear tattered vestments and there is not enough money to purchase candles for the altar, Robertson said. No clergy have access to a car, so they travel by foot or bicycle, sometimes between as many as 30 churches for which they have oversight.
The Church in Tanzania has outgrown its ability to educate enough priests, Holcomb explains. "It costs about $2500, over a three-year period, to educate and ordain a priest. There is so little money that this is sometimes not possible. When students arrived at St. Phillip's to begin classes last August, they were sent home because there was no food," he says. Classes only began in late September when he and Robertson arrived to teach and more money became available for food.
Holcomb and Robertson's work is funded by their church, Trinity, Galveston, the Diocese of Texas and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the national Church Center) and private contributions. They teach core courses in the Diploma English Speaking Program. "When we arrived," Robertson says, "there was no paper, chalk or erasers."
Literally burning the midnight oil, Kramer wrote in an e-mail at 2:45 a.m. African time, " We all share in the incredible poverty and disease. Malaria is as horrific as HIV/AIDS. And there is wide scale starvation as a result of the two-year drought. Our pastors, their families and communities are literally starving to death, especially in the south."
In the face of great challenges, financially and logistically, the Church in Tanzania is trying to organize bags of rice and corn to send to the most affected areas, "but there's zero infrastructure," Kramer said. Every five years there is a serious drought and anyone who lives past 30 or so will see a massive famine with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of fatalities.
Kramer said in an earlier interview that he didn't know what he would miss once his family left the States. Now he says that they do not miss anything material, just the friends and family they left behind.
For more information on Robertson's and Holcomb's ministry, contact them at: St. Phillip's Theological College, P.O. Box 26, Kongwa, Tanzania, East Africa or e-mail Suzirobertson2003@yahoo.com, Nolenholcomb2003@yahoo.com.
The Kramers can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Home Sweet Church
The aged, wooden clapboard building in the slums of Mbauda, a suburb of Arusha, Tanzania welcomes more than 160 parishioners each Sunday morning. St. Helen's began with two families meeting for Bible Study in the tiny, dilapidated house, and is now the fastest growing parish in the Diocese of Mt. Kilimanjaro in just nine weeks of existence.
"With the support of St. Christopher's, League City and other friends in Texas, we break ground on a three hundred seat church next week and hope to be in by Easter, Mungu Akipenda (God willing)," says the Rev. Jerry Kramer.
Kramer is a member of St. Christopher's, League City who is currently serving as a missionary in Tanzania with his wife Stacy and three children. The Kramers are supported in their ministry by St. Christopher's, several other churches and private donations.
St. Helen's congregation began to grow exponentially when the two families asked Kramer to bring communion on Sunday mornings before the regular service at the Anglican Cathedral in Arusha.
"This little church has been planted by St. Christopher's and the Diocese of Texas. The rest is the work of the Holy Spirit," Kramer emphasized. There is no other church in the area, and St. Helen's has become a mixed community of Anglicans, Lutherans and Roman Catholics.
"We make it a point to anoint and pray for the sick every Sunday," Kramer said. "There are many in this locale with AIDS. What's most interesting is that of the 160 attendees, normally 120 are children. Often times children head up households here, some as young as five or six years old."
Unlike the Cathedral parish, which worships in English, Sunday worship at St. Helen's is entirely in Swahili, pushing Kramer to get up to speed with the language. An evangelist (every parish in the diocese has a full time evangelist) helps immensely, he explained, although the evangelist speaks absolutely no English. "Sunday mornings can be very interesting at times. God takes over and it works out just fine," Kramer said.
Most recently, more than 100 children appeared when St. Helen's announced their intention to start a school. The Kramers now believe that St. Helen's was the reason they were called to Africa.