Saturday, July 15, 2017

Life in Algiers: The pastor in a church without a pastor

Worship at Algiers UMC
When we were bidding on Algeria nearly 4 years ago, I knew nothing of the history of Methodism in the country. I didn’t know about the historical link between Methodist mission stations in Algeria and DR Congo; I didn’t know about Hugh and Fritzi Johnson, and I definitely didn’t know there was a United Methodist congregation in Algiers. I was about to experience a steep learning curve.

By the time we arrived in Algiers, I’d done enough research to know that somewhere in the vast city there was a Methodist community, but I didn’t know where they worshipped, if they were in a neighborhood I was allowed to go to, or even what language they worshipped in. They didn’t have a website (preferring to fly below the radar), so I started asking around. What I discovered seemed too amazing to be true: not only did they worship primarily in a language I spoke (French), our embassy-assigned apartment was barely two blocks away from them!

We showed up at church the next Friday (in this part of the word, churches meet on Fridays), and I introduced myself to the lay leader. “Alleluia!” she proclaimed. It turned out that the congregation had been without an ordained pastor for quite some time and praying intensely for one. Their previous missionary pastor had left the country due to health problems, and they had been lay-led since then. Long story shortened, after a flurry of emails, the bishop of the UMC’s France-Swiss-North Africa episcopal area, Patrick Streiff, invited me to serve as the congregation’s new pastor. 

Nothing is simple when you are married to a diplomat, though. Legally, I was under Chief of Mission authority, and so had to get the ambassador’s blessing before doing any public speaking or taking a leadership role in any local organization—even as a volunteer (it is forbidden for spouses of diplomats to work on the local economy in Algiers). She gave her nod provided that the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave their nod. Then came the deafening silence. Finally, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs gave their nod of approval, and we announced publicly my appointment just in time for a wonderful Easter celebration.

A few months later, though, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came back with a bureaucratic “No.” I couldn’t be a religious leader in Algeria because I was here on a diplomatic visa—not a religious worker’s visa.  Ugh. Now what?  I sought guidance from the embassy and was told that although I wasn’t allowed to be the pastor of my congregation, there were no prohibitions against being an active member. So, that’s how I became a highly active member of a congregation without a pastor which is led by its active members. Let those with ears hear what I’m saying.     

I'm assuming you now can guess why, despite the Algiers UMC being a major part of my life the past few years, I haven’t shared much about it online.  There is so much I have wanted to tell you, though. It is a truly beautiful congregation—multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational.  We’ve been through much during our journey together, and I’m so lucky to have had this opportunity.  One of these days I’ll tell you more about it.  

Photo with some of my beloved congregants
(I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for the Uganda Student Association this year)
Hanging out with Hugh Johnson at the Swiss-France Annual Conference UMC
Worship at Algiers UMC

Potluck meals at Algiers UMC

Congregants pulling an all-nighter at our place to cook up a feast for Easter

Worship at Algiers UMC 
(We have a number of Algerian members, 
but most do not wish their faith to be publicly known)  

Receiving on behalf of Algiers UMC the grand prize in 2016 from Connexio
for the outreach ministry of the year in the France-Swiss-North Africa conference.