The Church That Met
Under a Tree
Faith provided a building, and more.
By Ephraim Nkonya
There is no reliable weather forecasting in Tanzania. So every Sabbath morning Magulyati Pandageila used to search the skies for signs of rain.
He was not alone. Other church members would not come to services if it looked like it was going to rain. Pandageila’s 200-member church in Ikunguilipu, northern Tanzania, used to meet under a spindly leafed Acacia tree that didn’t offer much protection from rain. The church started as a branch of a district church, meeting at the local elementary school that was established by Seventh-day Adventists.
A few years after it gained independence in 1961, the government of Tanzania took over all primary schools and banned worship in their classrooms. This forced the congregation to conduct worship services under an Acacia tree that belonged to a non-Adventist farmer.
The farmer, perhaps objecting to the “noise” of their singing, cut down the tree, forcing the members to seek an alternate place of worship.
As this was going on, the church members worked to build a small chapel, which they completed in 1998. The church was built with mud bricks and corrugated iron sheets. Unfortunately, the wall of the building collapsed after strong winds blew off its roof in 2000, forcing the members again to worship under another tree.
Despite these difficulties the congregation grew from fewer than 100 members in the 1980s to more than 200 members in 2004.
Moved by Disaster
In 2002 Pandageila’s aunt, Yohana Nkonya, died in a train wreck while returning from a women’s retreat in Morogoro, eastern Tanzania. Her funeral service under the tree was attended by many people from outside the village. This painful service led to an aggressive fund-raising effort to build a much stronger and larger church. Construction began in October 2002.
The building of the church stalled for two years because of limited resources, but it started again in December 2004, when the church conducted another funeral for Perpetua Maduhu, one of the first Adventists in the village. Again, family and friends came from outside the village to bid her farewell. This time they joined the congregation in fulfilling one of Perpetua Maduhu’s dreams: building a church in the village.
In a matter of weeks a roof covered the 33 x 74-meter church construction. Because there is no running water or electricity in the village and no machines or other equipment, most of the construction was done by hand.
Church members reached out to nonmembers to ask for help. The entire community joined hands to build the church. The construction turned from being an Adventist project to a community activity. Nonmembers responded by collecting water, crushing stone, and lifting heavy structures.
School children on break offered their help. They used small containers to collect water while singing Christian songs.
Church members met under a roof, safe from the elements, on December 25, 2004. The new building and reengergized spirit led to ambitious plans for evangelism. The overwhelming community support during construction seemed to verify God’s power and support for their efforts.
In May 2005 the church conducted an evangelistic effort, inviting Pastor Daudi Ndekeja from the Tanzania South Nyanza Conference to lead out. The three-week effort was well attended.
The last day of the series saw more than 33,000 people in attendance, about five times the population of the village. More than 330 new believers were baptized, and 604 joined the baptismal class! This effort alone increased church membership almost sixfold: from about 200 to 1,136!
The rapid church growth was yet another demonstration of God’s power- ful hand.
A Gift Almost Unclaimed
After completing construction of the church building, members decided to cover the dirt floor with tile as a way of thanking God for increasing their church membership and for faithfully answering their prayers.
They asked family and friends living outside the village to support their plan to install floor tiles. A believer from Europe responded by providing tiles on the condition that the church members pay to transport the tiles from Europe to Ikunguilipu.
After a frantic period of fund raising, the church paid to transport the tiles, worth 14,824 euros, from Europe to Dar es Salaam. Churches in Tanzania are exempted from paying import taxes on church materials, but the clearing process involves cumbersome and expensive procedures.
The tax-exemption process started at the district where the church is located. An official letter was required to verify that the church of Ikunguilipu existed and that it had purchased tiles for the church. It took two months for the letter to be written, despite constant reminders from the church.
Every day storage fees increased by US$20. The letter was sent to the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) in Dar es Salaam, but it got lost in the TRA offices. The church had to request another letter, since TRA accepts only original documents. This took another month. But these documents got lost as well, further delaying the clearance of the tiles. Worse still, the church didn’t have money to pay the storage charges and other costs.
Failure to pay these costs led to the auctioning of the tiles. This gave church members the sinking feeling that they would have to inform the donor of the tiles that his donation had been auctioned off.
Church members continued praying, asking God to save them from this embarrassment. The church asked for clemency for paying the storage charges, citing the delay as due to loss of documents in the hands of TRA as being the cause of the delay and that the church was not responsible. But their application was rejected. Human efforts availed nothing, and the church members and their friends were forced to surrender their burdens to the One who never fails.
An advertisement for the auction was put in local newspapers and announced on local radio stations. The church’s clearing agent advised them to participate in the auction in order to buy back some of the tiles. But even though the advertisements ran for several days, no one seemed interested in purchasing the tiles. This gave the church members hope that God would answer their prayers in His own time.
On May 26, 2009, the TRA informed the church that it would waive all storage charges of “God’s tiles.” By this time the storage fees were 17,747,600 Tanzanian shillings (US$10,650). But the church was asked to pay only 25 percent of the charges, the exact amount it had already collected for clearing the tiles from the port!
This miracle provided yet another milestone in the growth of this church. Their dream of building a modern church in this remote village had come true.
If we believe in God and lay all our burdens on Him, our faithful Father will not allow the devil to embarrass His people and stop their spiritual growth and vibrancy. May His name be blessed!
Ephraim Nkonya, a native of Tanzania, works for the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., United States.