French Adventures!

I thought I’d lighten things up a little bit this week. As far as school is concerned, this past week has been more of the same: new, confusing grammar until I get it, and hours outside of classes studying so it all falls into place. Past tenses in French are complex to say the least, and we only covered two of the forms among everything else covered! Wrap an intense but fortunately short head cold around it and that was my school week. I’m feeling nearly 100% now, Mom! I’m really fortunate because many of my fellow students have been sick for weeks.

A number of people have asked me about my weekends so far, so I’ll see what I can tell you. First of all, Sunday has been the most consistent: 11:00 a.m. church in the morning, followed by blogging, studying a little bit, and watching a movie or 2 into the evening. The only way this “movie” thing is happening is through the generosity of my friend, Dan, who opened up his private movie library to met . It turns out that my Amazon Prime works over here only for a small number of their own TV shows; none of their other content will play in France due to copy write, etc., laws or agreements. Netflix won’t let me change  my plan to add streaming (I only have DVD’s from them). Thank you, Dan!!

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Except for this morning when I ran a 10k race (that’s a story for another time!), church has been at the International Chapel in Montpellier, about a 10 minute walk from my language school. It was referred to me by a fellow African missionary who was here before me. I could attend a French church, but would not understand anything at this point. So, I have been worshiping at an English-speaking church. The pastor has been there for 13 years and is a self-funded missionary!  This seemed a bit odd to me at first, seeing that France is so non-Christian. But, there are also a lot of ex-pats and students who speak English here, as well. Singing and worshiping with people from literally all over the world has been very fulfilling. The weekly service and other activities are held ina rented first floor commercial space just barely big enough for the 35 or so congregants and kids. The preaching is solid and the people have been welcoming. There are lots of transients like me, so it is difficult for the pastor to get a lot of ongoing traction. I feel badly for him. I offered to fix things or help with projects, but no takers, so far. Wish I could do more.

My Saturdays have been adventurous from a different perspective. ILA (my school) provides optional extra-curricular trips once-per-week to a nearby historical town or site of interest. The trips are for groups up to 30 students and cost between $30-45. Food, snacks and drinks are not provided. A comfy charter bus transports us. They provide a guide (one of the teachers) and a page or two of appropriate places and photos of interest, which they talk about both on the bus and while there. Then, they dismiss us to go off on our own after making sure we know what time to meet and where for the ride back to Montpellier. I didn’t go last weekend because I was sick, but I have been on three other trips. Let me quickly tell you about where I’ve been.

Outside ONE of the gates at Auges-Mortes

Outside ONE of the gates at Auges-Mortes

Pointing at Auges-Mortes in the distance.

Pointing at Auges-Mortes in the distance.

My first trip was a half-day to the historic village of Augues-Mortes and a nearby salt production facility. This region has an ancient legacy of salt production. The old village, surrounded by modernity, is about 20 minutes to the east and is famous for its 30 foot tall, hundreds of years old, intact, perimeter stone walls, turrets and ramparts. The quaint village inside is mostly supported by tourists. This is the off-season (fortunately for me!), so it was pretty quiet, relatively speaking. The second half of the afternoon was at a large salt production facility. I have to admit that I’ve never considered where salt comes from! There are large evaporation ponds that take up acre upon acre, which are then bulldozed and transported to be dumped onto huge mountains of pure salt. It is then processed down to various grades for commercial and home use. The really interesting part for me was getting to walk up to the top of one of the “mountains”. From there, I could see the pinkish hues of the ponds that are this industry’s hallmark. Additionally, there were also small flocks of flamingos (of all birds!) scattered throughout. Not sure what this is about, but they sure are pretty! I’ve not seen flamingoes anywhere else, so far.

The second trip was more far more rural and about a 45 minute drive north from Montpellier. Our destination this time was Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert (think “William” in French), a small Medieval village carved - literally - out of two parallel 1,000 foot high mountainous ridges. Not that high, but very dramatic! The hilly village may run a quarter of a mile in length, but it is only two (maybe three in some places) cobble-stone streets wide - and those narrow streets may barely be able to permit one small car to pass. The homes and shops are built into the existing stone. Doorways are arched and low, as are many of the shop ceilings. The homes appear to be more on the perimeters and are either much higher up or much lower than the shops in the middle. I’m not a shopper, so, other than the really cool Medieval church in the center square and it 1,000 year old tree, there wasn’t much for me in town. So, I high-tailed it into the surrounding hills and trails for a couple of hours of much needed nature therapy.

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The trip this past weekend was the best, in my opinion, both from experiential and cost perspectives. I say cost because it would have been about $40 US, but I went for free! Earlier in the week, it was announced in class that the school was looking for blog articles (with photos) for its web site. So, I seized the opportunity and re-wrote my Week 1 blog. They loved it. And, in my opinion, this was the best trip by far to this point. We spent all day at two amazing places about an hour or so northeast’ish: Pont du Gard and the city of Avignon. Pont du Gard is a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct (now a national historic tourist site) which they built across a river as part of a 40 mile long water supply project for the city of Nimes. Incredibly, this stone and concrete system only had a fall of 55 feet its entire length! The dramatic three story arched structure was used both for the water-transporting aquaduct as well as a bridge. Much to my surprise, the water portion was at the very top, at least 100 feet above the river!

Palace of the Popes: like something out of Lord of the Rings!

Palace of the Popes: like something out of Lord of the Rings!

Avignon, another 20 minutes farther, is the “county seat” for its region. It is a small city in its own right in addition to its historical heritage. Avignon is by far most famous for being the headquarter of the Roman Catholic Church for almost one hundred years, starting back in the early 1300’s AD. This ended up being “temporary” as the Pope returned to Rome to stay after this stint. However, the Church took its buildings seriously, and in a short 20 year span, built much of the amazing Palace of the Popes, which dominates the northeastern portion of the city. I paid the 13 euros for the tour with sound and am very grateful I did so. While the vast building(s) are empty of any furniture, the scale, architectural and construction achievements are breath taking. My favorite part was when I discovered that one grand cathedral-sized hall, with high, vaulted stone ceilings sit on top of a nearly identical hall below! How did they do this!!?? They served different purposes. One was for official ceremonies and worship services, the other for banquets. And these were just two portions of the incredible two hours I prowled around the Palace.

I certainly am thrilled to have had these opportunities. It is difficult to imagine setting up trips like this on my own, considering my self-imposed limitations. Without a car, it would be challenging at the least, and likely more expensive, to do these trips on my own, even if served by a train or bus. That said, it sure has been nice to clear my mind and “get out of Dodge” for a few hours, that’s for sure! I’m not certain what the next couple of weeks will bring – hopefully there will be other interesting and different options. I think I may also plan an adventure or two on my own…

Hump Week

Hump week is the only way I can describe my experiences this last seven days. The first two weeks were mostly joy-filled and exciting, even if exhausting and somewhat alien. The adventure of being here was still “the point” and I was filled with “vim and vigor” as they used to say. School was an exhilarating mountain to climb; existing in a French-speaking world was welcomed and exciting; I was rising to the challenge and loving it!

But, something happened on Monday, at the beginning of Week 3. It started with the addition of three new students bringing our number up to 10, the maximum students per class. Ten doesn’t seem like much, but the classroom can only hold 6-8 comfortably (in my opinion). But, everything here is more compact and smaller than in States, so it’s no real surprise the classroom is, as well. Anyway, in my opinion, ten is too many. Additionally, two of the new students were 18 year old young German women who knew each other. They were a distraction right from the beginning; they would talk and whisper, seemingly endlessly. They, also, seemed to be better in French than most of us.

In addition, I was feeling what I at first thought was increased loneliness, but was actually “isolated”, rather than lonely. I have been filled and am so grateful for the support and communications from back home! My host parents are wonderful people and are taking very good care of me! However, they are also very private who keep to themselves and do not interact with me very much. The class is all girls 20 and under except two. So, I don’t really have much in common with them. And, the school is not set up to be a social networking solution. My teacher is very competent but is only there to do a job with a constantly rotating student body, as is the rest of the staff. But, that’s it. Additionally, everyone in my class was sick with some bug and I was irritated that I was likely next.

Finally, the routine I liked so much last week got on my nerves this week. The enjoyable two mile walk to and from school started to irritate me; my backpack felt unbelievably heavy even though I had not added any real extra weight; and I felt as though I was sweating more on the walk home when the day was the warmest. afternoon. The way the people here walk as though they are playing “chicken” all the time truly got on my nerves, and I was sick and tired of avoiding left-behind dog poop.

More than anything, I started to experience frustration at the slow pace of my French acquisition. I was so irritated that, no matter how hard I studied, after 2 WHOLE WEEKS of advanced beginner French, that I still wasn’t fluent! I was afraid I was “failing” in spite of the extra hours of study every day.

LOL!

Do you see the irony of all of this? How unreasonable was all of this?! I had become my own worst enemy and, in a minor day-to-day way, had taken on the role of God. I’m glad to say that after an “aha” conversation Tuesday evening, Wednesday was a much better day. I re-centered myself on why I am here and began, again, to sense God’s hand in all of this. I relaxed in His presence and submitted to the “alienness” of life here. An invitation to dinner Friday came. I decided to make friends with the new girls instead of cause conflict - this worked out really well, actually. And, it was a lot more fun for me! Also, I took a leadership role in the class to get all of us talking with each other, especially before class. It turns out that most of them don’t know a lot more French than I do; it’s just that they are shy about asking questions, so they stay silent! Hilariously, they have learned to rely on me to raise my hand! All of them are delightful, smart people and I have benefitted from reaching out to them. They also all speak English remarkably well, and that helps.

Cancer Awareness

Cancer Awareness

What’s the point?  The point is that hope is just a glance away, like the beauty of the street full of pink umbrellas I found because of construction closure on the street I usually walk on. It was there, I just needed to see it. The point is that I made my own situation a lot worse than it really was by placing unrealistic expectations on myself and the world around me. I remembered that bending in the wind is a lot more effective than fighting the wind head-on. More than anything, I went back to the basics of surrendering and trusting God for my days. My problems didn’t go away, but managing them got a whole lot easier.

Settling Into A Routine: Reflections on Week 2 of French Language School

Two of my nine weeks of French language school are over.  On one hand, this seems fast. One day blends into the next. I have gotten more used to the routine and to my teacher, Helena, and she to us - my classmates and me. "Us" is a fluid term for my classmates and me.  There were five of us the first week; this past week, there were seven students. Only one, Christine from Rowanda, was a carry-over from the first week. Two others were promoted into the next level up; the fifth finished her two weeks here and went home to Florida for college. This week, three wonderful German, one Astonian and one Swiss young ladies (ranging from 18-27 years old) arrived.  People come and go because that is how this style of school is set up. Students can start on any given Monday; they simply join in at whatever point the curriculum is, like I did, where the class left off the previous Friday. Each level of courses run in revolving six-week cycles. I jumped in on week #4; this upcoming week will be week 6, and then the next will be week #1. The learning does not build upon the week before, so the system works. I am in "A2" which is advanced beginner. I believe the highest level here is C2 (mostly fluent). All of this has taken some getting used to, and I'm not entirely certain what happens when I finish the cycle. I guess that will depend upon how much they (and I) think I have learned. I'm planning to ask for a meeting with one of their "progress counselors" this week. I hope he/she speaks English! My reading comprehension is noticeably improved, but, in addition to awakening my brain to memorize grammar rules, vocabulary and verb conjugations, I am struggling with oral comprehension and speaking. No real surprise, but I want to do what I can to improve as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, it has seemed slow. I am at the emotional point where I am noticing feeling lonely and detached because of my lack of French. That said, each day is pretty much the same, and I have settled into what I think is a healthy and productive routine. Monday through Friday, I am up at or before 6:00 am. I have my devotional time - my church (ACAC) is reading through the Bible with and audio commentary. This is followed by some warm up exercises - mostly push ups and squats - around making my lunch and packing up my back pack for the day. I wash up, get dressed, eat a light breakfast, do a little studying, and am out the door by 7:30. Each day, I walk to and from school which I love! The sun is just coming up and the weather has been dry and in the 50's. Many mornings are clear and cloudless; a few are overcast, but that generally burns off shortly after full daylight. The hilly urban hike took me about 35-40 minutes the first week, depending on which route (a more direct but busier route, as well as a quieter but five minute longer alternate). This past week, I've knocked five minutes off: I'm both in better shape and more confident of the way (that means no more stopping to look at my map!) I also use that time to lift and swing my hefty backpack like it is a kettle bell. It's really the only "gym" time I have.

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This gets me into the walking historic district of  "Centre Montpellier" between 7:45 and 8:00 for an hour of studying before school starts at 9:00. Even though it is cool (I put on my jacket at this point), I love to sit outside at a table in the main square, the Plaza de Comedie. During the day into the evening, there are numerous large cafes with outdoor seating. Three of them are closed when I arrive, and I alternate views most days. I change out of my sneakers into my school shoes, stretch, people watch and get to work. The school opens at 8:00 and I will likely end up inside once the temperature dips below 50 degrees.

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I'm always the first to the classroom. Teaching starts promptly at 9:00 and goes until 12:15 (sometimes 12:30), with a school-wide fifteen minute break at 10:30. During the break, I take my light snack outside to the bustling old world street-scape and enjoy people-watching, as well as the light and air. We are in a windowless, second floor classroom with a large white board, and a small wall-mounted TV/DVD/computer. The first week, I wore my contacts and reading glasses and I began to suspect I was over-straining my eyes as I repeatedly went back and forth between the board and my papers. They were so tired feeling and I had a low-grade headache. So, I started wearing my (hated) glasses this week and noticed a clear decrease in eye strain.

However, I did not observe a corresponding decrease in "brain strain"! What a battle it has been to re-adapt to being a student after all these years! To make matters more challenging, I have a physically active work life and am not used to sitting still for long. I've been told, especially recently, that I have "ants in my pants"; this is true. AND, I am relearning how to sit through the morning while I struggle to comprehend French grammar. This week's lessons were somehow easier to conceptually grasp, fortunately.

After class, I stay put and eat my packed lunch while I let my brain slow down some. I'll watch a short French video on my laptop or just sit quietly. A few minutes later, I begin the process of reviewing and summarizing the morning's information using a system of 3"x5" and 4"x6" cards I brought over with me. I learned some of this from Sandie Freeman at Bongolo. She is one of the nursing school teachers and she took in on herself to teach me a little bit of basic French grammar. More importantly, she showed me how she use flash cards to learn verb conjunctions and other vocabulary! Thank You, Sandie!! I now use the smaller cards to summarize grammar rules and the larger for list of vocabulary, verbs and phrases. I review these daily, have recorded them to listen to while walking, as well as look at my class papers. I remember back in college that my easiest 4.0 grades came from the classes where I deliberately re-read my notes every day. I'm now counting on this same system!

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This usually takes about two hours, or until I can't stand it any longer. Then, I change locations and either continue to study or read until about 5:00. Sometimes, I need to use some of this time to address something happening back in the States. To break up the routine, I either find a different classroom (with a window and sunlight) or a park bench. Every once in a while, I will buy something to drink later in the afternoon at one of the outdoor cafe's and work there. On Wednesday, I found the giant, beautifully modern, public library and, for 6 Euros (about $7.50), I got a library card and access to their WiFi. It's a little bit out of the way, but will be worth it.

Then, I walk home. Sometimes I'll stop in one of the grocery stores - there are four to pick from without deviating my course - for small lunch or snack items. I've been doing pretty well in my eating seeing that I bought a 2-meal per day plan, and eat whatever Catherine puts in front of me. That said, I am starting to feel the impact of fewer vegetables and more fresh bread and cheeses. Admittedly, I've eaten some chocolates, as well, as stress relief. That's a slippery slope that I need to get quickly get back under control! Overall, I've lost about 5 pounds since arriving and feel like I've gotten fitter and stronger.

Once home, my hosts are usually doing their own thing, so talking with them isn't an option. I head to my room and either take a 20 minute nap or continue to study, or both.  Dinner is at 7:00, usually with a before-dinner aperitif served by Catherine, either with Michel or by myself. I eat at their dining room table by myself. They don't seem to eat together due to her diabetes diet and his schedule, and they have their set private ways. I thought this odd at first, but have also settled into this aspect of my routine. I read while eating - at the moment, I am working my way through A.W. Tozer's, The Pursuit of God. In English, thank you very much...

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After dinner, I head back into my small but comfortable bedroom (I spend nearly all of my at-home time in there) for some final study and review before one or two video phone calls back home. I use my cell phone so I can move around, and have been working on developing a mobile hands-free phone harness to make this easier. If you're interested in getting in on the ground floor of this revolutionary zillion-dollar product, feel free to contact me directly! I'm not kidding... During the week, my goal is lights out before ten, which I've been overall successful at achieving. I've been so very tired from these first two weeks that I need all of the rest I can get.

The weekends are a topic for another time. I'm overall pleased that I've been as diligent as I have been and hope to continue this pattern next week. I certainly value and appreciate the opportunity I have to study and learn! Now, if you will excuse me, it's time to start to get ready for class tomorrow.

Settling Into A Routine: Reflections of Week 2 of French Language School

Two of my nine weeks of French language school are over.  On one hand, this seems fast. One day blends into the next. I have gotten more used to the routine and to my teacher, Helena, and she to us - my classmates and me. "Us" is a fluid term for my classmates and me.  There were five of us the first week; this past week, there were seven students. Only one, Christine from Rowanda, was a carry-over from the first week. Two others were promoted into the next level up; the fifth finished her two weeks here and went home to Florida for college. This week, three wonderful German, one Astonian and one Swiss young ladies (ranging from 18-27 years old) arrived.  People come and go because that is how this style of school is set up. Students can start on any given Monday; they simply join in at whatever point the curriculum is, like I did, where the class left off the previous Friday. Each level of courses run in revolving six-week cycles. I jumped in on week #4; this upcoming week will be week 6, and then the next will be week #1. The learning does not build upon the week before, so the system works. I am in "A2" which is advanced beginner. I believe the highest level here is C2 (mostly fluent). All of this has taken some getting used to, and I'm not entirely certain what happens when I finish the cycle. I guess that will depend upon how much they (and I) think I have learned. I'm planning to ask for a meeting with one of their "progress counselors" this week. I hope he/she speaks English! My reading comprehension is noticeably improved, but, in addition to awakening my brain to memorize grammar rules, vocabulary and verb conjugations, I am struggling with oral comprehension and speaking. No real surprise, but I want to do what I can to improve as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, it has seemed slow. I am at the emotional point where I am noticing feeling lonely and detached because of my lack of French. That said, each day is pretty much the same, and I have settled into what I think is a healthy and productive routine. Monday through Friday, I am up at or before 6:00 am. I have my devotional time - my church (ACAC) is reading through the Bible with and audio commentary. This is followed by some warm up exercises - mostly push ups and squats - around making my lunch and packing up my back pack for the day. I wash up, get dressed, eat a light breakfast, do a little studying, and am out the door by 7:30. Each day, I walk to and from school which I love! The sun is just coming up and the weather has been dry and in the 50's. Many mornings are clear and cloudless; a few are overcast, but that generally burns off shortly after full daylight. The hilly urban hike took me about 35-40 minutes the first week, depending on which route (a more direct but busier route, as well as a quieter but five minute longer alternate). This past week, I've knocked five minutes off: I'm both in better shape and more confident of the way (that means no more stopping to look at my map!) I also use that time to lift and swing my hefty backpack like it is a kettle bell. It's really the only "gym" time I have.

20170928_132308.jpg

This gets me into the walking historic district of  "Centre Montpellier" between 7:45 and 8:00 for an hour of studying before school starts at 9:00. Even though it is cool (I put on my jacket at this point), I love to sit outside at a table in the main square, the Plaza de Comedie. During the day into the evening, there are numerous large cafes with outdoor seating. Three of them are closed when I arrive, and I alternate views most days. I change out of my sneakers into my school shoes, stretch, people watch and get to work. The school opens at 8:00 and I will likely end up inside once the temperature dips below 50 degrees.

20170929_110146.jpg

I'm always the first to the classroom. Teaching starts promptly at 9:00 and goes until 12:15 (sometimes 12:30), with a school-wide fifteen minute break at 10:30. During the break, I take my light snack outside to the bustling old world street-scape and enjoy people-watching, as well as the light and air. We are in a windowless, second floor classroom with a large white board, and a small wall-mounted TV/DVD/computer. The first week, I wore my contacts and reading glasses and I began to suspect I was over-straining my eyes as I repeatedly went back and forth between the board and my papers. They were so tired feeling and I had a low-grade headache. So, I started wearing my (hated) glasses this week and noticed a clear decrease in eye strain.

However, I did not observe a corresponding decrease in "brain strain"! What a battle it has been to re-adapt to being a student after all these years! To make matters more challenging, I have a physically active work life and am not used to sitting still for long. I've been told, especially recently, that I have "ants in my pants"; this is true. AND, I am relearning how to sit through the morning while I struggle to comprehend French grammar. This week's lessons were somehow easier to conceptually grasp, fortunately.

After class, I stay put and eat my packed lunch while I let my brain slow down some. I'll watch a short French video on my laptop or just sit quietly. A few minutes later, I begin the process of reviewing and summarizing the morning's information using a system of 3"x5" and 4"x6" cards I brought over with me. I learned some of this from Sandie Freeman at Bongolo. She is one of the nursing school teachers and she took in on herself to teach me a little bit of basic French grammar. More importantly, she showed me how she use flash cards to learn verb conjunctions and other vocabulary! Thank You, Sandie!! I now use the smaller cards to summarize grammar rules and the larger for list of vocabulary, verbs and phrases. I review these daily, have recorded them to listen to while walking, as well as look at my class papers. I remember back in college that my easiest 4.0 grades came from the classes where I deliberately re-read my notes every day. I'm now counting on this same system!

20170928_135127.jpg

This usually takes about two hours, or until I can't stand it any longer. Then, I change locations and either continue to study or read until about 5:00. Sometimes, I need to use some of this time to address something happening back in the States. To break up the routine, I either find a different classroom (with a window and sunlight) or a park bench. Every once in a while, I will buy something to drink later in the afternoon at one of the outdoor cafe's and work there. On Wednesday, I found the giant, beautifully modern, public library and, for 6 Euros (about $7.50), I got a library card and access to their WiFi. It's a little bit out of the way, but will be worth it.

Then, I walk home. Sometimes I'll stop in one of the grocery stores - there are four to pick from without deviating my course - for small lunch or snack items. I've been doing pretty well in my eating seeing that I bought a 2-meal per day plan, and eat whatever Catherine puts in front of me. That said, I am starting to feel the impact of fewer vegetables and more fresh bread and cheeses. Admittedly, I've eaten some chocolates, as well, as stress relief. That's a slippery slope that I need to get quickly get back under control! Overall, I've lost about 5 pounds since arriving and feel like I've gotten fitter and stronger.

Once home, my hosts are usually doing their own thing, so talking with them isn't an option. I head to my room and either take a 20 minute nap or continue to study, or both.  Dinner is at 7:00, usually with a before-dinner aperitif served by Catherine, either with Michel or by myself. I eat at their dining room table by myself. They don't seem to eat together due to her diabetes diet and his schedule, and they have their set private ways. I thought this odd at first, but have also settled into this aspect of my routine. I read while eating - at the moment, I am working my way through A.W. Tozer's, The Pursuit of God. In English, thank you very much...

20170917_164817.jpg

After dinner, I head back into my small but comfortable bedroom (I spend nearly all of my at-home time in there) for some final study and review before one or two video phone calls back home. I use my cell phone so I can move around, and have been working on developing a mobile hands-free phone harness to make this easier. If you're interested in getting in on the ground floor of this revolutionary zillion-dollar product, feel free to contact me directly! I'm not kidding... During the week, my goal is lights out before ten, which I've been overall successful at achieving. I've been so very tired from these first two weeks that I need all of the rest I can get.

The weekends are a topic for another time. I'm overall pleased that I've been as diligent as I have been and hope to continue this pattern next week. I certainly value and appreciate the opportunity I have to study and learn! Now, if you will excuse me, it's time to start to get ready for class tomorrow.

Reflections: First Week at French Language School

Bonjour! I am writing this in Montpellier, France, pronounced "Mohn-pay-yay", and definitely not how we say the capital of Vermont, which only has only "L", by the way. I want to begin by thanking those of you who support Agape Africa Fund and my ministry, both financially and through your prayers. I am very grateful for our partnership and for this amazing opportunity to learn French. I could not be here without you!

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Here... That has actually been a fairly complex word this past week. I left Pittsburgh nine days ago for Montepellier and just over two months of fully immersed French language school. This is a natural next step of my work in French-speaking Gabon where Bongolo Hospital is located. While these few weeks will "only" give me a foundation in French (a missionary's full-time language school experience typically lasts from 9 months to two years), my intention is to come home capable of more accelerated learning in addition to being able to hang out with local French-speakers. You would be surprised how many there are in Pittsburgh! It's kind of like when you buy a new car and it is suddenly everywhere. French speakers have come out of the woodwork and I'm excited to build those relationships.

Here... Montpellier is in the far southern part of France about 45 minutes from the Mediterranean Sea. Its more famous neighbors to the east, Nice, Marceilles, Cannes, etc., get all of the attention and are more expensive to live in, as well. Montpellier is famous in its own right, but just less so than those other Mediterranean tourist destinations. Fortunately, summer holidays are over and the bulk of the tourists are back home at work. This is a city of nearly 500,000 people in the greater area, about 100,000 of whom are college students.

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Here... It could also mean in "chez Forquin", the Forquin's home ("Shay For-can"), owned by my host family. I chose this lifestyle instead of getting an apartment because it would provide for a more fully immersed time here (no English at home), AND I am provided with two meals per day - breakfast and dinner. Dinner has been out of this world every night so far. Their home is a cozy one-story 3-bedroom/1-bathroom stucco'd concrete house, maybe 1,500 square feet in total.  While everything is small in comparison, it is thoughtfully laid out and ingeniously utilized. It has a curved terracotta half-pipe roof similar to the others in its neighborhood. All of the homes are walled and have a one-car sliding metal gate. I'm not certain why the enhanced security because the entire Montpellier area feels very safe to me, so far. This can either be the car's entrance to the front garden and garage, or it can be parked outside on the street parallel to the gate, which is what Michel (the father) does. "Michel" ("Michelle" in English) is a man's name here and you wouldn't want to tease Michel about the American difference, as he is a semi-retired life-long French army NCO (I think - its 'hard to make out details at this point) who has been based and fought all over. His protective, very traditional Corsican wife of 37 years, Catherine ("Cat-er-een"), would also not think this amusing. They have three grown children and several grandchildren. I am staying in the oldest son's room (he is in the army, as well, making him the fourth generation service-man). Yes, my host parents older than me! 

Here... Or, I could be in  my comfortable bedroom. While it's wonderful to come home to a family environment, it is also great to have a private space to retreat to, in order to study and relax. While quite small (9' x 12'), it boasts a comfy full sized bed, a corner computer desk, really good closet storage space, an antique chair, and a small bed-sized table. Perhaps best of all, there is a stubby little dorm-style refrigerator (2' x 2') that holds my lunch supplies and drinks. I am responsible for all of my lunches, but Catherine takes care of the rest. An added bonus is that she did my laundry yesterday (Saturday)! All I needed to do was to take it off the line and fold it. (Mom: your son is well taken care of!). I brought her flowers.

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Here...That could also be ILA (Institut Linguistique Adenet), my language school (www.ILA-France.com, and select English option). I spend 3.5 hours, five days a week in classes learning French grammar and how to interact in real life situations. For example, we spent an hour on going to the drug store and asking the pharmacist for medicines and advice for all sorts of common ailments. This was timely because half my class of 5, including the teacher, are sick. I hope and pray to be spared a real life drug store visit! So far, so good.

Less than 20 hours of classroom training doesn't sound like a lot on the surface, but this 54 year old has not done serious homework in decades, let alone studied grammar in any language for 35 years! Parts of several afternoons are additional activities or excursions. In addition, I spend as much time as I can reviewing the morning's lessons, building vocabulary lists in order to read the materials in the first place, and grappling with grammar exercises. I managed to get the teacher to periodically explain things in English (yes, all classes are in French including all of the texts and exercises...) and this has made all the difference. The rest of my day is spent walking the two miles to and from school - a mildly hilly (by Pittsburgh standards) 35-45 minutes depending on whether I take the heavily trafficked route or the more scenic one. The temperatures have been in he low 50's early in the morning and mid-70's in the afternoon. The sky is usually (300+ days a year) a crystal clear blue and I have experienced about an hour of rain so far. This is plenty of exercise as I have my full backpack with me and I use it like a one-armed kettle bell to amuse myself. I also listen to either French, music or an ACAC sermon I've downloaded. Then, I eat dinner at 7:00 sharp (remember, this is a military family) while talking with Michel and Catherine (in French). Finally, I do more homework /studying, and having a much-anticipated Skype call or two before turning out the light by 10:00 pm in order to get up before 6:00 am and do it all again. (I stayed up later Friday and Saturday). Believe me when I say so far I'm getting my money's worth!

That was Monday through Friday. I spent all day Saturday studying, with a break for a walk to the supermarket for lunch and other supplies. Today was more study, church and writing this posting. Stay tuned for more about these experiences and other stories next time.

Profile: Alice

Profile: Alice

I met Alice (“Aleese”), a long-time friend of Christine’s, the morning we drove to Mbigou for church. We picked her up at her small home in Lebamba (see “11 Hours of Church” series). An attractive Gabonese woman, she in her 50’s, married, and has several children. Alice is one of the leaders of the Alliance’s Sunday school programs in and around Lebamba, and is also Secretary of the provincial district. Alice was, literally, totally silent the first several hours of that day together, to the point where I started to wonder if there was something wrong. But, on the way back to Bongolo, that concern was well put to rest; Alice really opened up when I asked her if she would share her growing up and faith story. This lady had a lot to say, and an amazing story.

Alice was the first person I met who had a direct, personal connection to the tribal ancestor worship I had heard and read so much about. Born in the tiny village of Moabi, north of Bongolo, she grew up in a confusing religious landscape. Her parents were Catholic so some degree, so they baptized her as an infant. But, as is typical of village life, there is a lot of peer pressure to continue in the old ways. This was certainly true in Moabi, which was ruled by a “Charlatan”, a traditional healer, a witch woman (to the best of my knowledge, this is a female witch doctor).

In spite of their exposure to Catholic Christianity, Alice’s parents bowed to the Charlatan and had fetishes, bracelets, amulets and other jewelry put on their daughter as an infant. In fear to remove them, she wore these long into her teen years. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. Alice grew up attending a Catholic school, and described how the other girls would tease her for wearing the bracelets and fetishes. At age twelve, she was encouraged to be re-baptised, but refused. However, as a young adult, she began to attend a small Alliance church with a friend. She became interested in Christianity and began to compare her traditional ways with the Bible.

Her first child tragically died soon after birth. After the birth of her second child, Alice soon antagonized the Charlatan because, by then, she had begun to severely doubt that what the witch woman was doing was right. While not yet a Christian, Alice had been attending the Alliance church for years, and she refused to have the same kinds of bracelets put on her son. Not surprisingly, this caused much conflict with the Charlatan, as well as inside of her family, especially with her brother, an initiate in the demonic Bwitist beliefs. At about this time, her niece’s babies died one after another, and Alice was accused of being a witch herself, of using sorcery to kill them. Sadly, finding and blaming a scapegoat is still a typical aspect of traditional tribal worship. Her husband defended her and her 4 year old son prayed for her.

Sick and angry all the time, Alice tried to go on living her life. Right about this time, there was a meeting in the church where the Pastor challenged people who were involved in traditional practices to come forward and to stop. She met individually with him afterwards and burned all the fetishes. Alice then became a Christian. At that point, she took off her spiritual jewelry and burned them, symbolizing her break with the past. This was a very critical part of sustaining her faith. Without this step, the typical African convert eventually gets pulled back into the old ways. Alice firmly broke the bonds that had held her her entire life.

Alice’s life changed. She was no longer angry and sick feeling, and this transformation was obvious to everyone in her life. Over time, her whole family, except one sister at this point, has become Christians! Even her Bwitist brother decided to follow Jesus; today, he is an Elder in the Alliance Church. Her sister is an Alliance Women’s Coordinator, and the niece whose babies were dying, now has several children.

Who would have guessed that such a dramatic story lay behind those silent lips? I am so grateful I asked.

Author’s Note: traditional African religion is, sadly, alive and well all over Gabon and other parts of Africa. In many villages, the witch doctor or charlatan rule with an iron fist. Many people still go to them for traditional “medicine” and cures rather than going to a medical doctor. All too often, Bongolo’s doctors have to reverse the infections and other problems of these “cures” before actual treatment of the original problem can occur.

 

Mega Church

Bongolo’s Mega Church

 

Mega Church. In America, this title brings to mind gigantic suburban churches set on dozens or hundreds of acres of parking lots and additional specialized buildings. Often measured as having a congregation in the thousands, many truly “mega” churches boast numbers in the tens of thousands. Large churches are measured quite differently here in Gabon. The largest Gabonese church I know of outside of Libreville – a full day’s drive north - is right here at Bongolo Hospital, with approximately 1,000 adults and several hundred children. On a typical Sunday, there will be 300-500 adults at its single service and 150 or so children of all ages. The church and its outlying buildings sit on hospital property, yet it is administered by the national Gabonese Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, or the National church as it is known by.

Built in the 1930’s by Pastor Donald Fairley and several hundred workers, it is visually similar to a plain western church structure. It is basically a very large, rectangular one-room building (except for a small room near the pulpit for the pastor to enter from. It has a picturesque, very steeped V-shaped roof, and rows upon rows of narrow, simple benches with backs. About one third of them appear to have been recently padded to cover up the termite-eaten wood. An elevated stage area is at the far end from the entrance spans the front wall of the sanctuary. There is a large, plain wooden cross on the wall, and, for some reason, the designers chose to install a vertical, four foot florescent light directly on the bottom portion of the cross. The platform is complete with a draped pulpit and multiple plastic yard chairs lined against the far wall. This is similar to many urban US churches, and the pastor, speakers and worship leaders sit there during the service. The band – electric guitar, keyboard and drums - as well as the four-person worship team and 15 member choir is set up to the right of the platform at ground level. The modern speaker system works perfectly, yet the music is deafening – far louder than anything I have heard back in the States. This is fairly standard in Central Africa for some reason, and I have confirmed this with much younger friends here, much to my relief. They have saved me from the awful thought that I have become an old man complaining about the volume!

In the rear of the building, there is a second story bell tower with a single, actual bell, as opposed to the digitized “bells” now in most American churches. As it normally does on a Sunday morning, the bell rang this morning at 8:30, announcing that church was starting. An interesting difference here in Gabon is that that announcement means that the worship team is officially ready to begin singing, and that people should start arriving. The singing, punctuated by prayer breaks, and the “arriving” continued for the next ninety minutes.

Everyone enters through a single entrance, a double door in the center of the back of the church, walks down the center aisle and is directed by an usher to where they are to sit. This would drive many of my American friends crazy! They would not be able to sit in their self-appointed “seat” every week under this system. The result of this is a sanctuary filled full from front to back. In addition, there is no chatting with your neighbors after being seated – it is clear that congregants are there to worship, rather than socialize.

By 10:00 am, the sanctuary was full all the way to the back. I find it fascinating that people are seated by quite firm women ushers. Starting in the very front, the seats are filled row by row, adults in the front, and all but the very youngest children in the back of the church. They are dismissed at about 10:30 for Sunday School (more on that in a moment). After a half hour or so of announcements, the pastor begins his sermon at about 11:00 am, and preaches for at least an hour. His message is simultaneously translated into Nzebi, the local tribal language. After some final singing and praying, the congregation is dismissed. Again, this is quite different from the American church. In a very orderly manner, the ushers begin at the very front and dismiss each row to the center aisle and, single file, row-by-row, the congregation exits the church until the last row is vacated.

When I first attended an African church service, I was nervous that I would not be able to last the three-plus hour service, especially seated on a wooden bench in equatorial heat and humidity. I have been pleasantly pleased to find that, once I settle in, I am generally contented to allow the service to wash over me. By the way, the entire service – singing, announcements and sermon – are all in French.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

How do you start your work days? If you are like many, you go through the same routines Monday through Friday. Mine include Bible reading and listening to a commentary about the passages I just read. Then, from the comfort of my home, I fire off a text (and sometimes prayer requests) of my thoughts to two groups of men I do this study with. Usually, I’m the first one to post, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, there is some back and forth texting conversation, but not always.  Over the last several years, this habit of a morning quiet time has become pretty deeply ingrained to the point where if I do my study at lunch time or, God help me, I miss a day, I feel like something important is lost from my day.

Take that established habit and morph it, and that is what happens at Bongolo Hospital Monday through Friday. In addition to individual quiet times, I am aware of three separate daily gatherings. One is the staff devotions from 7:30am to 8:00am. As this is Africa, those times are more fluid than in America. Approximately, 25-40 employees and missionaries gather each work day to sing worship songs and to listen to a teaching message from one of the hospital pastors, all in French, of course. This wraps up around 8:00 with announcements, final prayer and dismissal. Each time the pastor finishes, it reminds me of an episode of the start of most episodes of the old TV police show, Hillstreet Blues. Every morning, the officers would have a team meeting that included their assignments and any special alerts or warnings. The sergeant always dismissed everyone with, “Let’s be careful out there.” Regardless of what the pastor proclaims in French, it sounds to me like the Sarge speaking.

The other two are just as structured, yet the audiences are different every day. These are the two evangelical talks given by two other pastors. One preaches to the 50-70 patients who have arrived that morning before dawn for evaluation and care (this is a first come, first served system unless it is an emergency), who are waiting for their turn in the main square. The pastor has a captured audience, as these folk need to be nearby to hear their number called. He proclaims an impassioned gospel message that lasts up to 45 minutes, often to responses of periodic applause and cheering.

The other group is somewhat smaller, perhaps twenty patients. This group meets on the elongated porch at “Opthamologie”, the eye center. The pastor, who also works in the eye clinic, preaches for about 45 minutes about Jesus and the difference a life lived in Him makes, to the waiting patients. One common preaching device I have heard repeatedly in the churches is the pastor will loudly call out, “Alleluh!” (Alleluia) and the congregation will respond back with a lusty, “Amen!”, pronounced “Ahhmehn”.

The hospital has grown over the last few years and now treat an average of 40,000 patients per year, across all of the departments. Of those who hear the gospel message, how many actually are actually paying attention? That’s hard to say. Of course, we could say the same thing about weekend church in America. Regardless, official hospital records tell us that nearly 2,400 came to Christ last year – but those are just the ones who reported their faith decision to someone at the hospital. How many others were there? We may never be truly sure.

On the other side of the argument, one could also say that’s a 95% failure rate. That may mathematically true, but another perspective tells a different story: this “failure” averages out to a minimum of 9-10 new believers a day, five days every week! What church pastor wouldn’t want fifty new converts filling his or her ranks every week of the year?! After welcoming them into the faith, these new believers are then plugged into an Alliance church in their village or town, and the local Gabonese pastor takes charge of their spiritual growth moving forward. This amazingly successful dual mission of spiritual, as well as physical, healing is what makes Bongolo such a special place.

 

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Profile: Christine Mfouka

Profile: Christine

Author’s Note: please refer to Part 1 of the “11 Hour Church” series for more background on the events that led to hearing this personal story of victory and faith in action.

It was about the start of the second hour of what would end up being a three plus hour drive from Bongolo to M’bigou to attend church and review the Sunday School program, and I started getting antsy. I don’t know how well you travel – maybe you’re perfectly content sitting still and looking out the window at the beauty of God’s creation, hoping to see something interesting, like maybe a water buffalo or an elephant. But I have a pretty short attention span in general, which just seems to be magnified in the car. Unless I’m distracted, that is.

So, I took a deep – this would be my first interview through a translator and I was nervous - and asked Dr. Renee Valach, typically Bongolo’s Medical Director, but today our jungle driver for the day (I was riding shot gun), if she would mind asking Christine some questions. Christine, my friend from last year’s trip, was wedged in the middle seat of our Toyota Land Cruiser between my newest friends, Emmanuel and Alice. Few things bind people together like road trips! My goal was to get to know all three, so I had decided to start with talkative Christine in hopes the others would get into the spirit of sharing. Married with three children, she is nearing retirement after working at the hospital for over twenty years. She is the Gabonese accountant for the hospital, and has a place on the Committee de Gestion, which makes decisions related to operations. In a larger system, she would be the Controller. Christine works for Eric Hofman, the CFO, and fills an indispensable role; in fact, there is concern about how to replace her when she retires. 

Christine and I already knew and liked each other, and I figured she would quickly warm to the conversation. While on our way to picking up the three of them, Renee and I had discussed Renee helping with translation, but the driving conditions were a lot harder than I had expected. So, I didn’t want to assume to intrude on Renee’s concentration as she continually downshifted to bump and slide our way along the narrow, pot-holed, muddy dirt roads. I asked, and “Sure!” was Renee’s immediate reply. Maybe she needed a distraction, as well I supposed. And we were off and running.

For the next two hours, Christine regaled us with stories of growing up in and around Bongolo. Renee did her best to keep up, but it was like stopping a running river. The third of twelve children, Christine very early on had more responsibilities than many children. While six brothers and five sisters is amazing enough, it pales next to the fact that her mother was married to her dad at just eight years of age! He father, a young man at that point, had been working with Pastor Donald Fairly, Bongolo’s originating missionary starting in the 1930’s. He was under pressure to marry, and he told Pastor Fairly that he was promised to someone from his home village to the north. True to his word, he went off to bring her back to Bongolo. Little did anybody know it would be a third grader! This was scandalous even for Gabon, but fortunately, he was an honorable man and he raised his betrothed as if she were his own child. When she was fifteen, still young but not uncommon there, they had their first child.

Christine’s father started off as an Nzebi teacher (the local tribal language), even though he was Massangou. After trying several careers, he eventually became the local printer for the Alliance’s Bible study and Christian educations materials, which he did for the rest of his working life. By this time, they had moved away from Bongolo. Christine’s mother had had two sets of twins, and this caused problems with the people of their village. In traditional Gabonese ancestor worship, it is still believed that twins are bad luck and, commonly, one twin is put to death in order to ward off evil spirits from causing bad things to happen to the rest of the family or other villagers. Her parents refused to go along with this, which caused many problems for years.

I was really taken aback. This was the first time I had heard an ancestor worship story from someone I know. For the last year, I had anecdotally been exposed to this satanic practice, but it wasn’t personal. I had heard and read tales of demonic initiation rites, drinking poisonous concoctions and sick people going to witch doctors instead of to the hospital. It is one thing to hear of something so alien; it’s quite another to be face-to-face with the reality.

Christine struggled early in school because her parents didn’t know much French (only Nzebi) to be able to help her. But, she became a good student in spite of this. Part of her education was Bible knowledge. As Christine put it, she grew up with lots of Christian head knowledge, but very little heart faith. Like many of us, she did not yet understand the power of combined head and heart as it relates to a relationship with Jesus. This changed forever, when, in her late 20’s, Dr. David Thompson, the founder of the hospital at Bongolo, invited Christine to join more formal Bible school classes that he taught. Under his tutelage, she became a Christian at age 30. She told us, “It all made sense” at that point.

Christine was living then about twenty miles south of Bongolo the large town of Ndende, working at a pharmacy and attending a Pentecostal church. She had left the Alliance church there after being falsely accused of having an affair with an older man who was a teacher in the church. This was a heartbreaking experience as no one would believe her and for some reason the man did not come to her defense. In spite of being part of a Christian community, she eventually moved back to Bongolo because she had felt safe there when she was growing up, with no fear of witch doctors and spirit worship.

Christine has lived and worked at Bongolo ever since. She has since become an influential leader at the hospital, as well as in the Alliance district of churches. While not certain what will happen after she retires, she is confident that God knows. And, that is good enough for today.

 

 

(In the photo, Christine is on the left )

11 Hours of Church, Part 3: The Kids

Author’s Note: Please be patient with the spacing of this post? The internet here is very challenging, to say the least! Also, please refer to Part 1 of this series for our team’s
make up in more detail. Five of us from Bongolo made this journey: Dr. Renee Valach, Christine, Emmanuel, Alice, and me. See Part 4 for more about their amazing stories!
Three long hours after leaving at dawn Sunday morning, we finally arrived at M’bigou Alliance Church. Of the 150 or so congregants, we were the only car to drive to church that morning, and we parked about 200 yards away across the road and walked up to the 4-building church complex. The main church dominates the grounds. It is a large concrete block building with a steeply pitched corrugated metalroof. Next to it to the right is the pastor’s home, to the right
of that is a third block building used for meetings. If the vegetation in the back were cut down, the view overlooking the nearby hills would be spectacular! Finally, the kids “shack” of a building is between the road and the other buildings. It seems as if that building was already
there and, as the church grew, it was drafted into service.

Worship had started some time ago, and so the pastor and a couple of other leaders stepped out and warmly greeted us. We were led to the office building, about 100 yards from the main church building. There, we quickly used the fairly modern facilities (translated: an indoor
toilet with a bucket of water next to it to pour in when finished), stretched cramped bodies, and headed across the yard to the church. Thankfully, because M’bigou is at a somewhat higher elevation, it was just enough cooler as well as a bit breezy, relative to Bongolo.

As with other churches I’ve attended here, we were escorted to the front row and seated there (one time last year, much to my surprise, I was seated on the “platform” near the podium, looking out at the congregation!). Worship winded down about ten minutes later, and, after an extended time of “out loud” praying, we were introduced as special guests. Each of us had to stand up, walk up to the platform and stand there until all of us had been introduced. Fortunately, I
was last. Renee leaned over and whispered that I had been introduced as “Dr. Douglas” (“Dooglah” in French). “Cool!” was my quiet response, “As long as nobody actually needs anything medical or calls me "Doogie”, that is!”, which got Renee snickering. After this, there was
a time of greeting each other, and many came up to us, almost in the style of a conga line dance. This part was set to lively music and was more of a dancing hugging greeting than anything in the States. I liked it!

At this point, I followed the others out of the church and we headed to the kid’s building, the main reason for the trip in the first place. We were greeted by about 50 well-behaved children ranging in age from what seemed like 7 to 8 years old up to about 12 years old (after that, they go to big church). Their one-room building’s dimensions are about 25 feet long by 15 feet wide with the double doorway (sans door) located about one third of the way down the side
of the building. The kids were really jammed in there, squished onto wood benches or sitting on rough planks along the wall held by concrete blocks of all heights. The concrete floor was very dusty.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids are kids. There weren’t any true angels in the room. Yes, there were the star students who always put their hand in the air first to answer a question (by the way, every single child who answered a question stood up before speaking, which I thought was
great). Others carried on quietly with each other, and a few looked a little dazed or disinterested. One of my favorites was a much younger girl who kept instigating some little thing – not enough to get her or anybody else into real trouble, but she was moved around a few times
as the teachers tried to settle her down. She had that “look” in her eye that hinted at the leader she will become, and the stress she will cause her parents in the meantime.

Like the adults, they had been worshiping and meeting for well over an hour, but there wasn’t the expected rush of us being a distraction. Their focus and discipline was amazing, actually. Five more adults – two of them white - entering that already crowded room didn’t cause
much of a stir at all. The three teachers somehow greeted us while not losing control of the class. They were singing a simple worship song, but somehow they made it sound grand! I loved their energy and excitement. The only instruments, if you want to call it that, were
three empty rectangular gallon-sized palm oil plastic jugs in the hands of three boys. They held their drums between their knees and were rhythmically pounding away using short tree branches. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

After their song ended, Christine took over and began to teach them a new song. I nearly burst out laughing when Renee leaned over and whispered, “…and Bingo was his Name-O”. The church version spelled out B-I-B-L-E, but the idea is the same: each time through, one of the
letters is dropped until all five are silent. The kids struggled a little bit at first, but soon got the hang of it and were laughing with each other when somebody messed up. The third time through,
nobody made a mistake!

Christine then shared the gospel using five colored squares of felt stapled together. Each color symbolized a major event in the Bible, and clearly told the story of Jesus’s sacrifice, death and
resurrection to save us from our sins. As I am learning is typical here, the story was repeated several times, then Christine got the kids involved to tell it piece by piece. It seemed to be very
effective. Renee had brought a bag of hand-made 5-bead bracelets with them and, at the end of class, each child was given one as a reminder of the lesson. Very cool! I think this will stick with them for some time to come.

Then, we were entertained by a 5 minute skit (“sketch” in French) they had made up demonstrating that without Jesus, everything else – wealth, beauty, education, physical strength – is as nothing. They performed this three times, more and more professionally each time.
After this, they began to work on their next sketch: a hysterical reenactment of the first part of the Prodigal Son story. I’ve never seen any kids act out the partying portion, let alone so effectively! I wish they had gotten to the part with the pigs, but that must be for
another week.

Finally, there was some more singing. At this point, even the Bongolo folks were looking haggard. Renee whispered to me that she dismisses her kids at the Bongolo church at noon as a hint to big church to wrap things up. The opposite was the case here. It was after 1:30 by the
time big church finished. Amazingly, the kids didn’t seem to be in a hurry of any kind, nor were they hungry or thirsty seeming, something I’ve just now thought of.

At the very end, the teachers met with the Christine, Emmanuel and Alice, who gave them feedback and some ideas for what else to do. Overall, while exhausting, the time with the kids was a wonderful experience for me.

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