It is five days before Christmas 1994 (ministers in Southern Africa traditionally move into their new appointments on the 20th of December): I am an energetic, young, visionary minister of the gospel, having just finished my training and being appointed to my first pastoral assignment. I am running late, having had car trouble. So, I step into the phone booth, take out the little note book and nervously dial the number. A heavy German accent on the other side of the line says, “Hello, who is speaking?” My stomach turns as I respond: “Good afternoon, it is Reverend Romeo Pedro speaking. I am just phoning to say that I am running a bit late!” “Very typical of you people,” she says. To my greatest shock, she says: “Why are you coming? Have you not heard that we do not want a minister who is not white?”
I say: “Good Bye ma’am” and put the phone back on the receiver. I stand still for a moment – for what feels like a very long time. Then someone taps on the door of the phone booth. “What’s wrong? You look pale.” It is my dad. I open the door and relate the story to my parents. They both look at me as if they are not surprised. You see – they grew up and lived under the brutal Apartheid regime. They look like they have expected this type of reaction. Then this wise African woman that I call mom, says: “Son, if you keep your nose to the stone, soon it will be just you, your nose and that stone. You cannot allow this distraction to consume you. Keep your eyes on the greater goal.” As she hugs me, I feel her tears on my shoulder.
What is the greater goal? Then I remember why I am here: I want to share the love of Jesus with God’s people, irrespective of who they are. And yes, I want to share His love even with that heavy German accent on the other side of the telephone line. Dad puts his hand on my shoulder and says: “Come son, it’s getting late. We’ve got to get you there. We get into the car. And as we drive westward, I watch the sun set and say to myself. As sure as the sun sets it will rise again tomorrow. And I am reminded of the old African proverb: “No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.” It’ll be ok. Emmanuel is with me.
That – and many other experiences after that, made me realise that one of the great failures of ministers like myself is that we have urged people to love, and we have criticised the lack of love in the world, yet we have not become love. We have not known how to teach our own souls in the art of loving. It is so much easier to love those who are like us, who think like us and to love those who make us feel good. Will I dare to enjoy the presence of the sacred even in those who annoy me?
At the end of our Liturgical Year we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday. This is perfectly appropriate for it reminds us of the purpose of our year-in and year-out living — putting Jesus first in all things. As the author of Colossians puts it: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God (In our context today: Jesus is God’s selfie).” (Col 1:15-16 and 18). “The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love.” (1 John 4: 7-8). As our Liturgical Year ends and a New Liturgical year begins this month – May our default stance be for Jesus. What does it mean to be for Jesus? It means to be for what he was for. To be for: LOVE, truth, gentleness, forgiveness, generosity, compassion for the vulnerable, to live lives of prayer, peace, joy and justice etc. This stance for Jesus is the most faithful way we can prepare for his birth among us.
There is such intolerance everywhere around us today – and it is so easy to focus on that and to be drawn into it ourselves. More than ever before, we need to focus on Jesus and to live the values of the Reign of God – to be an alternative to that which we see around us. More than ever before, we need to be a welcoming community – a place for ALL God’s people.
I am convinced that people come back to churches when they experience relationship (love). We can have all the best programmes in the world, we can offer the best preachers and the best music, but if people do not feel loved (welcomed), they will not return. It is my prayer that the Methodist Churches in Northampton, will become known as places where people are welcome, irrespective of who they are. And as we dare to do that, we must remind each other: Emmanuel (God is with us)!
Rev Romeo Pedro