The church in Tanzania is well-established. Christianity has been present here for centuries. Houses of worship dot the landscape, and you’ll see everything from traditional structures with nave, apse, and cross-topped steeple to thatched roof gathering places with sides open to the weather. Worship and acknowledgment of God are a common part of life in this society. But Fred Otieno sees a problem. The church, he says, is in decline.
Fred, a traveling facilitator of Bible-based seminars, sees a lot of wounded and broken people in his native country. High death rates from HIV/AIDS have left many with unresolved grief over lost family members. Cultural norms that lead to violence in the home have created a population of women with hidden pain from domestic abuse. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from surrounding countries who have fled unspeakable brutality in order to take up residence in Tanzania carry devastating emotional wounds. Add to that the stigma attached to shedding tears, especially for men, and you have the potential for widespread internal suffering, lingering pain, and a profound need for healing.
That’s where the church should step in, Fred maintains. The healing power of the gospel and a living relationship with Jesus Christ can heal our deepest hurts in a way that nothing else on earth can. But Fred, whose work takes him to many communities in northern Tanzania, believes that churches are losing members because of their failure to address these hurts. “The wounded are disappointed,” he says. “They see that their need is not being tended to [in the church] and they stop going.” As a result, the church shrinks.
Fred’s ministry is a perfect example of how effective teaching from God’s Word and perceptive, Christ-centered counseling can bring comfort to the broken and renew churches. A passionate teacher himself, Fred has teamed up with the American Bible Society to lead healing seminars across Tanzania. He uses their specially prepared trauma healing material, a Bible-based counseling program that helps participants bring their wounds to the Cross and find wholeness in the Lord.
The trauma healing lessons are loaded as audio material onto an SD-card that slides into the In Touch Messenger. Listeners can then hear the lessons on the handheld audio device, which also contains the New Testament and dozens of Dr. Stanley’s foundational messages, translated into Swahili. Fred has distributed hundreds of In Touch Messengers at church seminars around the country. Recipients take part in several days of group lessons, learning to use the power of God’s Word to excavate their own pain and find comfort in the God of all Comfort. They are also introduced to sensitive counseling techniques with which they can help others when they return to their home churches.
Fred believes this process helps to unlock the power of the gospel. It introduces people to a God who hears their cries, a Lord who cares for them, and a healing Savior. Each participant receives several Messengers to take home and share with others, so the healing can continue. These pastors, ministry workers, and laypeople go back to their home churches and start healing groups of their own. Once they’ve found healing for themselves, they are able to begin the tender work of assisting their brothers and sisters on the same journey. As one believer helps another, the sparks of life begin to grow and the church gets stronger. “They’re just vibrant,” Fred says of those who complete the training and start their own healing groups; “they are serving the Lord.”
As one believer helps another, the sparks of life begin to grow and the church gets stronger.
The seminars themselves are challenging and intense. Participants are led through periods of questioning and discussion in which they tackle thorny issues of faith, such as: If God loves me, why does He let bad things happen to me? Why did He take my husband or wife away? If He is good, why did He let my child be murdered before my eyes? Did I do something wrong, that I deserve such an atrocity? How do I forgive my enemy? They are led gently through the process of crying out to God with laments that echo the Psalms, cries that are angry, desperate, and perplexed, cries that seek justice or revenge. Fred carefully guides the participants to the recognition that it’s okay to express these painful feelings to God.
The attendees are also introduced to the stages of grief, and encouraged to examine cultural norms in contrast to actual need. They ask probing questions that result in impassioned discussion: Do men and women grieve differently? Do current cultural practices allow sufficient time for grieving after a death? Does the church do enough for people who are facing tragedy? Does it sufficiently acknowledge their loss and their need for God’s comfort? What does God’s Word say about my pain? As they ask these questions, the participants examine their own experience and share their stories, expressing perhaps for the very first time the anguish that lies hidden in their hearts.
Like ripples in a pond, Fred sees the results of the multiplication technique in the months that follow. He keeps in touch with the participants, monitoring progress and receiving feedback. As he does, a picture is forming of a church that is itself being healed. Across denominations, the healing groups are directly addressing, for the first time, the needs of their members for relief from trauma-based damage. Finally set free from the shackles that held them bound, congregants who’ve been helped in this way can reinvigorate the church with their very presence. Their experience becomes a beacon, testifying that healing is possible and is, in fact, a normal part of being made whole in Christ.
When participants complete their work in the church-led healing groups, a ceremony is held to mark their achievement. The graduates testify before the group about the freedom they’ve received and the work the Holy Spirit has done in their hearts. Fred has seen remarkable transformations take place in those who complete the trauma healing program. He experiences deep satisfaction “seeing someone who was lost before, someone who was hiding a machete because they wanted to kill someone, someone who had stopped going to church and [now] saying that they got healing, and testifying to that.” This final ceremony is a celebration of God’s love and power to touch His people in their innermost being, bringing peace and even joy. “It’s not just a program,” Fred says, “it’s somebody’s heart.”
Where the church was once disappointing to those who came looking for peace, now it is offering a balm for the broken, a refuge for the hurting. No one is more aware of the urgency of this process than Fred. “If you continue this in the church,” he says, “the churches will grow. If not, they will continue to decline.” Thankfully, the program is working. As the healed open their hearts to help others in their own communities and churches, a revival is blossoming.
To date, Fred’s work has birthed an astounding 520 healing groups in churches across five districts of Tanzania. And his goal is to reach out to fellowships all around the country, sharing the difficult work of facing pain and the rewards of peace and hope that are found in Christ Jesus. As the initiative continues, Fred plans to deliver many more Messengers to those longing for comfort in Tanzania. In the process, he looks forward to the revitalization of the church, as from place to place, members begin to find their deepest needs for peace met with God’s boundless love. The healing journey may be painful, for individuals as well as institutions, as tears begin to flow and cultural barriers are confronted. But our God is faithful. He cares about His people and the health of His church, and His mercies are new every morning. For the men and women of Tanzania, this means what begins in the first, faltering whispers of honest lament can end in healed hearts, restored fellowship, and a powerful church.