The Tip of a Blade of Grass

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And he sent them out… (Luke 9:2).

The rocky, red dirt road changes as the two of us walk along. The way suddenly widens and smaller paths veer off. We stop for a moment to peer down these paths, shading our eyes against the rising sun.

Clusters of trees stand silhouetted against the horizon. Hidden among them we see the large round grass-roofed huts of a Fulbé village. There won’t be time to go there today since we have a long way to travel. We make a note, hoping to pass this way another time.

A little further down the road our path merges with that of two men in brightly colored robes. They slow down and turn to greet us warmly. We walk along together, asking about each other’s wives, children, and parents.

As soon as formalities are satisfied, our fellow travelers ask if we are “the men of the book.” “That’s us,” we reply, smiling inwardly at the appropriate but odd title.

For months we have been walking to villages, greeting elders, and presenting them with a copy of the first part of “The Book”: Genesis and Exodus written in the Pular Arabic script. Almost all elders and imams (Islamic religious leaders) can read Arabic script. The people we give these books to are honored to receive a copy of Scripture in their own language. Slowly we have come to be known as “The Men of the Book.”

The two men we have just met come from a village we had visited earlier. They ask if we have any more of the books. “I borrowed one of the copies that you brought to our village leader,” one explains. “But he wanted it back before I could finish it. Could I get a copy of my own?”

“Yes,” the other adds, “I’d like a copy too. How much do they cost?”

We are delighted by their interest. This is exactly what we were hoping for. They got their hands on “The Book,” liked what they read, and want the rest of the story—so much so that they are willing to pay for it.

The Priceless Treasure

As we walk we explain, as we have to many others, that God’s Word is worthy of great respect and honor. The Bible is a priceless treasure that should be available to everyone.

We tell them we would be very pleased to get them copies of the holy book. But we want them to understand that no price would be sufficient. “If you’d like a copy,” we tell them, “you’ll need to give a hoore kudhol (literally ‘the tip of a blade of grass’—a token gift) as a sign of respect for God’s holy Word.”

“A hoore kudhol?” they repeat questioningly, surprised that we are aware of this obscure Pular tradition.

“Yes,” we insist, “it is really between you and God.”

Pointing with our noses, in Fulbé fashion, to the fields around us, we explain: “There are many different kinds of grass. Some just barely poke out of the ground, the kind that only sheep can graze upon, while others grow to be taller than a man and can be used to roof your house.”

They nod and voice agreement, so we continue: “Think about the resources God has blessed you with. You know what they are. It’s up to you to consider the size of your blade of grass and pay accordingly.”

This is not what they had expected and they begin to ponder and discuss together: “What might we give? What would be appropriate?”

We come to a fork in the road, and stop for a moment. “Acquiring the Word of God is a weighty thing, so consider well,” we tell them. “We cannot sell you a copy today because all the copies we have with us are spoken for. They are gifts for the village leaders who we are going to visit. We will be back another day, if God allows. Otherwise, you know where we live. Just bring your hoore kudhol if you come.”

We say goodbye and pray a blessing upon them for a safe journey. They in turn bless us, and we go our separate ways.

Take nothing for the journey…

It is Friday, the Muslim holy day of prayer, and we are headed to a large village about five miles away to visit the leaders there. The way is hot and dry and the sun beats down.

A sigh of relief and anticipation escapes us as we round a curve and see the village sprawled on the hillside. We are tired and hungry. Like the early disciples we go from village to village, two by two. We carry the gospel, but very little else.

By doing this we put ourselves in a place of need. We are vulnerable. We come not in power but in weakness. The people we visit know this and are honored by it. They welcome us, feed us, and in turn we offer them the bread of life.

Arriving at the village, we climb over a Y-shaped notch in the stick fence that surrounds it. We greet an elderly man and ask for directions to the home of the first imam (the equivalent of a senior pastor).

“Ah,” he says with thoughtful hesitation. “He’s . . . not here. He’s . . . in a village several kilometers that way, on the main road—the way you just came from.”

We look at each other in disbelief. Our tired bodies sink as we exhale a sigh of regret at the thought of having walked right past that village. “What about Abubakar, the district president?” we ask.

“No, I’m afraid he’s gone too. He went down to the capital city and won’t be back for at least several days.”

“Now what?” we ask ourselves. “How can this be?” During our team’s prayer time the day before we had felt specifically led to greet the leaders of this village on this particular day. Now we find that we’ve missed the two most important leaders. Had we heard wrong, or is this part of God’s plan?

As we stand wondering, the villagers send a boy to get the second imam (equivalent to an associate pastor). As the boy disappears over the hill we settle in for a long wait and silently begin to pray.

When the second imam finally comes, still wearing his dirty work clothes, he suggests that we wait for the first imam. “He will be coming this way in a couple of hours to lead the Friday prayers at the mosque,” he says. “You could go with me and meet him there.”

We agree, but our hearts sink again at the thought of presenting this respected leader with the Scriptures in front of a crowd, at the mosque, on the Muslim holy day of prayer. We prefer to talk with leaders and present the Scripture in the privacy of their homes. We do not want to put them in the awkward position of wanting to accept, yet being fearful of what their peers will think.

The Gifts

The second imam is glad for the break. As we wait, we sit and drink from some oranges that his wife has peeled for us with her razor-sharp knife.

We begin to explain who we are and why we have come. We tell him we have brought some Scriptures—books of Moses that tell the stories of Adam and…

Impatient, he interrupts: “Did you happen to bring one for me?”

“Yes,” we reply, “but we can’t give you yours until we have honored the first imam and given him the chance to accept a copy.” Then we smile and add, “But we could let you look at a copy now if you’d like.”

He jumps at the offer, and we gently take his book out of the protective bag that we wrapped it in and respectfully present it to him. He spends nearly an hour carefully perusing the contents and asking questions about the characters and stories that he recognizes.

When it is time for him to go to the mosque to pray, he returns his copy, and we rewrap it to present to him later.

While we wait in the shade of a thorn-covered tree, a young man approaches. His black beard and shortened robe identify him as a member of an extremist Muslim sect, but he introduces himself only as Ibrahima. We answer his inquiries respectfully but cautiously, as his manner seems antagonistic.

When the second imam returns and they greet each other, we begin to suspect that Ibrahima might be a missionary from the militant sect. Our suspicions are confirmed when he informs the second imam that he has been sent to follow up on the gifts and books that were sent to this village a couple of weeks ago.

We had heard rumors that members of this extremist sect were visiting villages to present their teachings, often accompanied by tempting gifts. We wonder what he will do since we happen to be here on the same day.

The Prayers

Like us, the young man wants to talk to the first imam. So after he and the second imam finish their ceremonial washing, we all leave to meet the imam at the mosque.

We find him, an older man in a neatly embroidered white robe, sitting on the floor in an outer hallway. Leaning over some Arabic books, he appears to be making final preparations for the upcoming service.

At first he doesn’t notice us standing there. After a few awkward moments, we politely interrupt to greet him and ask if we can meet with him after prayers.

He consents, then peers past us at the young man standing behind us. “Are you with them?” he asks him, with a puzzled look. Ibrahima is taken aback by the question. “Certainly not!” he replies.

We begin to take our leave as Ibrahima steps forward to explain that he was sent here to speak to the faithful. He asks if he could preach. We hear the older man politely but firmly refuse. “The service is already planned,” he replies. “Maybe another time.”

The final call to prayer sounds. Those who have gathered bow in unison, prostrating themselves toward Mecca. A few latecomers straggle in and quietly join the ranks in performing this important religious obligation.

We watch them go through a series of rigidly prescribed prayer postures. We bend our hearts heavenward, earnestly praying, “Lord, we don’t know what in the world this is all about, but you do. We’re trusting you. Please give us wisdom and the right words to say at the right time.”

The Crucible

Their sacred ritual over, people pour out of the mosque. As the imam walks by he invites us to meet together with 50 or 60 men in a large room outside the mosque. We accept, but enter with some apprehension. We don’t really know what to expect.

Leaving our shoes at the door as a sign of respect, we sit on mats at the front of the room, facing the crowd with our backs against the wall. People look us over as they wonder what we are doing here.

After discussing some local business, the first imam announces that there are several visitors who want to speak to the group. He turns to us and we find ourselves “on stage” in front of the whole group, trembling and sweating beneath our robes.

With as much confidence as we can muster, we explain that we are Bible teachers and that God has sent us to this village today to show respect and honor to their leaders. We say that we are starting to sell Scriptures in the area and that before we sell any to people from this village we want to give the leaders an opportunity to have a copy. We take out the first imam’s copy and respectfully present it to him, in front of everyone.

The room is perfectly still. All eyes are on the first imam. For one terrible moment he seems not to know what to do. Will he take the Scripture or not? His choice could affect the eternal future of this whole area. We hold our breath, hoping and praying that he will have the courage to take it.

Just then the second imam, who is sitting at the first imam’s side, reaches over and takes the Scripture we are holding out and says boldly, “Take it; it’s OK. They were at my place earlier and showed it to me. It’s all about Abraham and Moses and the other prophets, and it’s all in Pular, our language.”

He proceeds to unwrap the book and then opens it to show the first imam. With his younger colleague’s recommendation, the first imam accepts our gift. We breathe a silent sigh of relief and a prayer of thanksgiving.

The first imam thanks us graciously, then turns to Ibrahima. A few men in the back get up and, suspecting what is about to happen, suggest that perhaps the Men of the Book are in a hurry (they know that North Americans generally are) and maybe they should let us finish so that we can get going.

The first imam turns to us and asks if we have anything else to say or if we want to preach to the people who are gathered. For a moment we are tempted. After all, it’s not every day that you have the opportunity to present the gospel to so many people. But we know the timing isn’t right.

“We came here today to show respect to your leaders,” we reply. “That’s all. Someday, if God permits, we would like to come back to talk to you about the stories in this book, but today we came just to greet your leaders and bring them a portion of God’s holy Word.”

Then, turning back to the first imam, we add with a smile, “And really, we aren’t in a hurry.”

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit”

The first imam gives the floor to Ibrahima, who thanks them. Then, without hesitation, he spends about 20 minutes insulting us, the book that we have brought, and the form of Islam that these people practice. He criticizes them for shallow faith and lack of commitment and he tells them not to be deceived by people like us.

We are shocked. Never before have we heard such brashness among the Fulbé, who are generally very dignified and reserved. Our hearts are stirred to pray for this man, that God would lift his burden of hate and anger. As we listen we watch, wondering how these men will react to his exhortation.

As events unfold, we are amazed. Several people, including the first imam, walk out—an extreme insult to Ibrahima. The second imam stays, but is reading the first imam’s copy of Genesis and Exodus, totally ignoring the ranting radical.

As Ibrahima comes to the end of his sermon the first imam returns, curtly thanks the young man for coming, and adjourns the meeting. Then, turning to us, he invites us to share a meal. We follow him to a nearby home where the women have prepared a great feast. We are instructed to sit between the oldest man in the village and the first imam.

We are honored and filled with wonder. As they come around to serve us, the imam instructs the attendant, “Make sure that the other guy (Ibrahima) eats with the children.” In Fulbé culture this is an ultimate insult.

Turning to the oldest man in the village, he says, “Did you hear what they said? They said that they came here to respect us today. But he …” the imam pauses to point to where Ibrahima is eating with the children, “he came to hurry us.”

The One Way Home

As we head home in the cool of the evening we have time to think, reflect, and pray. What a day! It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t what we expected or planned, but we are filled with gratitude to God for his guiding hand.

We have learned many important things. Giving respect to people and value to the Word of God are two important keys to reaching the Fulbé with the good news. Another is being sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s still, small voice.

As we walk these rocky paths bringing good news of God’s love and grace to a dry and often weary land, we are reminded that the journey toward the freedom of Christ is traveled one small step at a time. We pray that one day many Fulbé will find that narrow way to walk forever in God’s abundant truth and life.

The authors are missionaries serving with Christian Reformed World Missions in West Africa. Although their names have been withheld for reasons of security, they ask that you lift them and other missionaries in Muslim West Africa before the throne of grace in prayer.

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