I am sitting in the early morning sun, keeping warm, next to the church in the desert village of Kolonkwaneng. The old church building, of clay and thatch, sits empty now, some 50 feet away across reddish sand. There are signs that goats take up residence in the old building from time to time, probably trying, like me, to stay warm.
Fr. Andrew is hearing confessions in the vestry in the new building. It’s Saturday morning. Soon we will celebrate the Eucharist.
The drive here from Tsabong is about 60 miles, along a newly paved road that clings to the South African border. Only a few months ago it was gravel. Fr. Andrew entertains me as we travel along, pointing out places where he has been stuck in the sand.
The lay minister, Simon Moseki, comes over as I write. ‘It is awkward here,’ he says, looking around the village. ‘No work.’
That’s difficult to respond to, as his English is poor, and my Setswana extends only from greetings, thank you, and that’s fine to being able to say ‘the body of Christ’ at the altar.
A herd of goats comes wandering over, interrupting our congenial silence.
We wait. More people gradually arrive. The goats move on.
At the offertory a ceramic bowl is placed in a plastic chair and positioned in front of the altar. The congregation comes forward, dropping coins into the bowl. I can hear them clang. I add a bill.
The reading is from Mark, the widow’s mite. I wonder if I will miss the bill, as the widow may surely miss her thebe – the Botswana equivalent to a mite – which I think is Jesus’ point.
After the Eucharist we drive away, leaving behind another spot that Fr. Andrew can point to, where he became stuck in the sand.
Middelputs is maybe 20 miles further along. We promise to be there by 2:00, and we are remarkably close, given that our Kolonkwaneng saga starts before nine, we do not leave the church before one, and even then there is communion to the sick, and a meal in Mr. Moseki’s home.
The village of Middelputs is on the Molopo River, which marks the boundary with South Africa. A border post is actually in the town.
The church is tiny, maybe 25 by 25 feet. A cement foundation for a new building is nearby, but it looks as if it were laid some time ago, and no sooner have we arrived than the lay minister, Jackson Ditlhatibi, takes me aside and says they need money to build.
As we follow the same pattern again – confessions, Eucharist, teaching, inviting anyone in the congregation to raise concerns or questions, taking communion to homes – I gather a better impression of what it means in this Diocese to have outstations at considerable distance and to have so few priests to serve them. This is the first opportunity to visit that Fr. Andrew has had since Ash Wednesday.
Lay ministers may be well-trained, or frankly, may not, but it’s clear that priests are missed, and sorely needed. There has been no priest in the parish of Tsabong since 2005.
I think about this as I drive back to Tsabong. Well, about this, and about whether there are any cows in the road. Dusk changes to darkness, and it’s hard to see. Fr. Andrew is resting.