By: Rev. Jim Mathews
Hello everyone. I am Rev. Jim Mathews and I serve at Messiah United Methodist Church in the small town of Vale, NC, about 40 miles NW of Charlotte.
Messiah is a small church with an average worship attendance of 25 on Sunday mornings during our 10 a.m. worship. We also have a parking lot worship service at 9 a.m. that began in 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic. Average attendance there is only six, but they are faithful. We also provide a phone in recording of our service for our shut-ins and worship online via Facebook for anyone who misses the service or would rather participate from home.
As part of this online presence, we were invited to join a program called Both/And through the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. The idea behind both and is to encourage churches to provide both in person worship AND continue their online presence because after Covid we all understand church will never be the same as it was pre-pandemic. As part of this training, we received vital feedback on our online services and were given the chance through a grant to purchase three new cameras, a new computer and software to enhance that service and make it more user friendly for worshippers at home. We are currently in the midst of learning how to use the software, so that’s a discussion for another time.
Now, on to the reason I am writing. Back in early September 2022, I noticed a woman had participated in our Facebook worship and commented on how she loved the service. I reached out to her to thank her for visiting us. I soon discovered she lived in Bungoma, Kenya. How she found my church Facebook page, I don’t know, but she did.
We shared a few messages back and forth when she asked me if it would be ok for her husband to make contact with me as well. I told her “Sure.” Then she asked if we could schedule a time to use the Facebook Messenger app to connect face-to-face the next day. In this time of internet security concerns and scams of all sorts out there, a red flag quickly flew up. I told her “Yes,” but after those concerns deepened, I decided to block them.
Luckily, God had other plans. The woman, Perez Rhoney, somehow ended up not being blocked and she contacted me the next day. “Why did you block us,” she asked. I told her of my concerns and that I was afraid they were attempting to scam me. “You thought we were scammers,” she asked. “No. My husband is a pastor here and he was trying to make contact with you.”
I felt ashamed over my fears, so I apologized and after finding her husband’s, Facebook page. He indeed is the pastor of two small churches each about 25 miles from their home in Bungoma. He felt that his “Saints” as he refers to them, needed some training in the Bible, which he wasn’t sure he was equipped to provide. He wondered if I would be willing to teach them a Bible study through Messenger one day a week. I prayed about it overnight and told him that I would do it. The reason I asked for the time to pray is that, anyone who knows me will attest to this, early mornings are not my thing. There is a seven-hour time difference between Bungoma and Vale. He wanted to do the study at 2 p.m., 7 a.m. our time, every Wednesday morning. By accepting this offer I would have to have a lesson prepared and ready by 7 a.m.
I don’t complain about having to get up early because Roney must travel by bicycle or on foot the 25 miles to each of his churches just to be present there for his people. Shortly after we met, Roney’s bicycle broke down. He had to walk to church for the worship and Bible studies, again 25 miles each way to each place. After finishing one study one day, he wrote me to tell me he was leaving the church and heading home, and he coveted my prayers for safety from thieves and the torrential rains of the rainy season. He then ran nearly a marathon home. I sent him money to repair his bicycle the next day.
Roney makes no salary. He told me his churches are so poor they can’t afford to pay him and what offering they take up is used to pay the rent on the church building, which often times they can’t afford to pay. Roney told me that when he got his seminary degree other friends chose to pastor in areas where there was money. Roney wanted to reach the hurting, needing people of the poorer areas, so he chose to go there. It was the least he could do for all Jesus had done for him.
So, since the second week of September, I now teach a study on the Gospel of John to 25 Saints (men, women and children) in a small, one room church in Kenya. My wife Cindy and I have gotten to know Roney and Perez very well including their two children Ideal Nicole (2) and Camilla (3 months). We talk on Messenger just about every day. We share our lives, our prayer concerns, our joys, our sorrows. We have seen their worship and they attend ours on Facebook live. We have witnessed videos of baptisms and the joy of their music.
And my original concerns of being scammed have evaporated into a unique ministry opportunity for me. Our church members have given me money to send them occasionally when they need extra support. They have asked me to help them in times of sickness, but sometimes I am not financially able.
This experience has made me realize just how blessed we are to live in the United States. We take so much for granted: food, warm dry housing, transportation, safety and health. Perez recently was hospitalized for malaria. While the hospital covered her first treatment, the family could not afford the $12 worth of medications to make her well. I spend more than that on a cheeseburger, fries and a drink at a hamburger joint.
I am thankful to God for providing me this humbling experience. Though my friend is not United Methodist, our church continues to embrace and pray for them. They are also thankful to God for bringing us together. Roney and Perez say they long for the day that I can come to their country and lead their people in worship for a week of revival. I too pray that God provides a way to make this happen.
As for the near future, I am going to learn this Both/And software and hope to provide Roney with an opportunity to preach to my church during the Advent season one Sunday.
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