[Editor’s Note:  This story happened to a couple who are members of Pioneer Bible Translators and have been working in Nothern Africe.]

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The witchdoctor got to my husband first.  He was surprisingly young, and his white tennis shoes contrasted starkly with the leather loin cloth around his waist and baboon hide satchel slung across his chest.  A spray of feathers was tied to his head and most appendages were adorned with leather thongs tied around small pieces of wood.

Cupping the back of my husband’s head firmly with one hand, the Kujur pulled his face towards him and with amazing precision, showered a thick spray of saliva and chewed ginger root across both cheeks and forehead. After he finished, it was my turn.

When it was once again appropriate for us to continue on our way, our cultural guide and host informed us that we had just received a blessing.  “He is welcoming you,” he happily assured us as we nodded and smiled while discreetly wiping ginger paste off of our eyelids.

The reason for our warm welcome last week was Garin, a traditional ceremony we had been invited to attend in a remote village. We spent four days in the area watching and learning as hundreds of people took part in very old rituals and celebrations of their culture. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that felt very far away from the ones we grew up in.

From what we could tell, the occasion was a mix of celebration and grief as people danced and sang through the night and wailed and mourned for people who had died in the past year. It was beautiful and haunting, and above all very, very spiritual. 

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Late into the evening, drums resounded to the rhythms of people reciting Arabic prayers from their holy book. Most songs the witchdoctors sang involved hands or massive animal horns raised heavenward.  Several goats were brought to the gathering and slaughtered, most likely as sacrifices. Every greeting included the words “Praise be to God” many times over.

And there were blessings—many blessings (some of which involved ginger root and spit). Consciousness of God and the spiritual world were all around us. And even though the spirituality we witnessed was very animistic, with strong flavors of another major world religion blended in, we were deeply impacted by people’s awareness of God and their desire to draw close to him.

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It was a bitter-sweet occasion for us. While we were amazed at the genuine spirituality of these people, we were burdened by the great fear that the absence of Jesus left in their lives. However, in the midst of all of these frenzied traditions and rituals, one thing was particularly meaningful to us. Everywhere we looked we could not help but to notice crosses.

These crosses were engraved in brass bracelets. They were chalked onto the shaved heads of grieving women. They were carved into wooden dancing sticks.  And perhaps most notably, they were scarred deep into the cheeks and forearms of people everywhere. The cross is meaningful to this community in ways we don’t fully understand yet, denoting things like clan membership and status. It is a part of who they are and has been for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.

Last week, watching the singing, dancing and crying from the shade of a baobab tree, we grew ever more excited about the future. A people hungry for God who already find identity in the cross stirs our hearts. But it’s Jesus and His cross that we long for these people to know. Our prayer is that the day will come soon when these symbols that they have born for so long will mean more to them than they ever have before.

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This is quite a haunting story, as mentioned above.  I would have to agree that this story burdens my heart too, to read about a people group that recognizes the spiritual realm that exists all around us and yet they do not have a personal relationship with the Creator God who is the Author of all that exists, both physically and spiritually.

The details shared here, about the engravings of the crosses, does give us hope that these people will want to discover the full story and meaning of the Cross of Christ.  The images are there, but the message has been obscured so that they don’t know its true meaning.  Yet I believe they are searching and yearning to know the truth.

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This reminds me of a story shared by Marilyn Lazlo, a well known missionary who worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators.  She traveled one time deeper and deeper into the interior jungle of Papua New Guinea, to a region where no Christian missionary had every traveled before.  She was fascinated by all the sights and sounds and meeting all the people for the very first time.

Then she looked up on to a hill ridge, and she noticed a Papuan style thatched roof and bamboo siding house.  And on top of the house, there was a cross that had been nailed together and placed there.  When Marilyn asked what missionary had come to build that house, they told her that she was the first missionary to ever come there.

She asked the next obvious question then.  “Then why is there a cross on top and whose house is that?”  The people replied, “It is God’s house.  We have built it for Him.  And someday, God will send us someone to explain what the cross is and what God wants to tell us.”  These people too once had a cross, but no meaning in that cross.  Praise God, now some 40 years later, they do know God.  Now we must pray that the people of North Africa will discover the Christ of all the crosses they bear.

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