A chance airport encounter allowed Simon Okoth to bring the cultural mixing of Mennonite World Conference to Mennonite congregations in Uganda.
Departing Semarang, Indonesia, after last summer’s MWC assembly, Rashard Allen recognized Okoth, a bishop in Mennonite Church Uganda, by his event lanyard. And Okoth recognized Allan, director of music and worship at Neffsville Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, who was part of the gathering’s international ensemble.
“I was touched by the way he was singing and the way the international choir presented their songs,” Okoth said.
Their boarding-lounge conversation ended with an invitation to Uganda.
Over WhatsApp, the Ugandan church leader and the American worship director made plans. Allen, who has a doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, arrived in January to conduct two three-day seminars for congregations in rural Uganda.
“Worship is a holy conversation,” said Allen, whose goal was to help participants “worship plan so we can worship with greater understanding and so congregations can worship with greater intention.”
Okoth added: “The people were proud, as Mennonites, to see a Mennonite from a distant land coming to join them in worship, in fellowship and to guide them in understanding worship.”
Allen was struck not just by people’s faith but by their talent for ministry and music. With a few parameters, participants separated into groups to compose a song from a psalm.
“The songs they came back with were remarkable. They were songs they could start using immediately in their churches,” he said. “It was a wonderful blessing for me to see.”
He also gave concerts of African American sacred music.
“Being able to share that part of the African diaspora was a major blessing,” Allen said.
Singing can last more than an hour at the beginning of a worship service in Uganda, and another period at the end.
“It is the moment when we get to meet,” Okoth said. “What tunes our minds, what subjects us to the feeling of God is the singing.”
In one congregation, people match their singing to background instrumentals from a cellphone plugged into a speaker. In another, a talented preteen supplies a drum kit, melody and bass line from a keyboard “like he’s been there for 20 years,” said Allen. Another congregation sings a cappella with accompaniment from three large drums.
“The sense of joy they bring when they sing and dance is rather striking to me,” he said. “They sing in three or four different languages. They know the songs, they know the meaning, and they sing with gusto.”