Arriving at the height of Zimbabwe’s rainy season, even the most fastidious assembly participants could not avoid contact with the moist red earth of Africa. For 12 days in December 1998 I joined more than 5000 people from all over the world on the sprawling campus of the University of Zimbabwe. We tramped across stretches of sodden grass between the roads and sidewalks, leaving paths of mud in our wake. We walked together from meals to worship to plenary sessions, speaking in multiple languages out of widely varying life experiences, looking to a shared faith to find some common ground.
Work crews had begun digging trenches all over the university campus to lay pipe for the valuable computer cables that eventually would connect every building. So we walkers made the best of it. We balanced gingerly on boards laid across the ditches, while that memorable African mud stained the hems of our long skirts and trousers. Many of us brought traces of it home embedded in the soles of sandals and sneakers.
Plenary speakers Kosuke Koyama and Barney Pityana added their own vivid layers to the ground metaphor. Pityana sensed in Africa an innate spirituality that he described as "the footprint of God". The saving grace of God, said Koyama, transforms the whole world into holy ground. "Grace is barefoot... The cross is the most holy ground before which the very sandals of God are removed."
In Harare trenches split the earth on all sides. Protestant church members argued with Orthodox Christians across gaping cultural and theological chasms. Female and third-world believers struggled to climb up to higher, more stable ground. Miraculously, we saw hands reaching out to help, makeshift bridges being contructed.
And when the soggy soil threatened to give way, we stood firm. We sensed a strength greater than our own and glimpsed a higher calling. In the middle of our messy stumbling towards unity, we encountered the One who makes us whole. Suddenly it all made sense: it must have been Jesus Christ whose hands we clasped -- right down there with us in the muddy ditches, demonstrating to us once more the cost of Christian love.
In Harare we stood together, however fleetingly, on holy ground.
© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor