‘You should keep your candles in the refrigerator,’ Florence Bogopa tells me. We have been waiting for the Archbishop of West Africa, Tilewa Johnson, along with Fr. James Amanze, the ordinands from St. Augustine’s Theological School, and a few assorted guests, to arrive for dinner. We hear them now, coming up the steps to my flat, when the electricity goes out.
The Archbishop has arrived early for the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Diocese of Botswana next Sunday, and Fr. James invites him to speak to our students at the School. He has now just finished giving his lecture on African ecumenism, a lecture that starts by telling us of the beginnings of Christianity in the Gambia, where he has been bishop for nearly two decades.
The first Christians there came up from Sierra Leone, where the British had been depositing freed slaves at Freetown in the 19th century. His own ancestors would have come from Nigeria; Tilewa is a Yoruba name. ‘Johnson,’ he adds, ‘is my slave name.’ Our students laugh. He does not. I do not think he means it as a joke.
Bishop Tilewa takes us back to the early Church, and describes how historic circumstance – notably the rise of Islam – swept away the Church in North Africa, ‘walling in’ Christianity as a white European religion, when in fact it was not our Christian heritage at all. And on he goes to… well, I have to leave to help with the final setup for our dinner.
The lecture does not break up until nearly eight, and folks are obviously ready to eat. I still take a moment to welcome them all, and especially Bishop Tilewa, for the Gambia has a special spot in my heart. It was my first African experience, fifty years ago next year, as part of a work camp program called Crossroads Africa, while I was an undergraduate at Wake Forest. And it was also my first experience, ever, in an Anglican church, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Bathurst, now Banjul. I remember it particularly because of how helpful people were in guiding me through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer – a courtesy and welcome I have seen repeated all over the world as persons from other traditions join us – and because before I could leave after the service they brought in a casket and I ended up attending a funeral, whose I do not know.
We chat after dinner. He tells me Stephen Bahoum, one of my closest friends from Crossroads, has died. The years are passing. May he rest in peace.
As people show signs that they are getting ready to leave, the power comes back on. The caterer, anxious to go home herself, quickly extinguishes the candles and takes them to the kitchen so she can wash the saucers they are mounted on. The electricity immediately goes out again. ‘She should have waited,’ one says as he descends the steps in the dark.