By George Porter
This particular mission trip was a long time coming but a short time arranging. For quite some time now I, along with my co-leader Elizabeth Harding, have talked about another diocesan mission trip or pilgrimage. We have thought about many possibilities, but came to see a trip to our Companion Diocese of Ho should take priority.
When I was last in the Diocese of Ho I was struck, both through conversation with Bishop Matthias and personal observation, by the difficulties caused by administrative issues and by the realization of how resolving those difficulties would go a long way toward furthering the mission of God through Bishop Matthias and the people of his diocese. In particular I was struck at the time with the limitations imposed by the lack of a diocesan office.
Since returning to the Diocese of Fredericton from that trip, I have thought of the possibility of our diocese ‘gifting’ our companions with such an office. We needed, however, to wait for the conclusion of the Corn Grinder Project. When that seemed to be concluded, we thought to begin putting together a team, but the health of Bishop Matthias became a serious concern, and the idea of a mission visit to his diocese seemed like putting another burden on a very busy man.
When it became apparent that his health would not be an impediment, we began planning the mission. The Companion Diocese Committee, along with Archbishop Claude, approved our moving forward. We recognized that about $10 000 was left over from the previous project and decided that it would be appropriate for these funds to be re-directed toward the building of an office for the Diocese of Ho.
I put out a call for young adults and, together with Liz, began to lay plans. My daughter, Erin Porter, and her friend Sharol Urquhart, both nurses, volunteered. As did Scott and Karen Murray, who have had previous short-term mission experience in Africa. Various young people came forward and, after a time of discernment Justine Keenan, Parish of Hampton (who had been to Ho before and was planning to do some on-the-spot work with an NGO there); Samantha Wolthers, Parish of Shediac Cape/Christ Church Parish Church; Jeremiah Miller, Parish of Rothesay; Wesley Murray (son of Karen and Scott) Parish of Shediac Cape; and Delaney Urquhart (daughter of Sharol) rounded out the 11 member team.
I met with Archbishop Claude and various other representatives of the diocese to discuss the particulars of the trip. We identified other significant costs that would have to be met through individual contributions, team fundraising and diocesan resources.
The short time left for organization and fundraising prior to departure was not ideal for these efforts but we managed. We also needed to become friends because several members of the team didn’t know one another. I think I’m the only one who knew everyone else and several did not meet one another until we were actually at the Bishop’s home in Ho. Although email and Facebook helped, it was difficult to make team preparations, facilitate team/community formation and co-ordinate team fund-raising efforts. Communication was complicated by the various ways team members receive and share information (Facebook, texting and email), and the fact that there was no one way for everyone.
Through the Facebook (closed) group, Liz encouraged pre-trip preparations and introduced the book she eventually used to facilitate our evening team meetings in Ghana. Grace at the Garbage Dump, was written by a young Episcopal priest, Jesse Zink, who had worked with Liz at a camp in Massachusetts as a teen and who had spent time doing mission work in South Africa. While we were in Ghana, Liz facilitated these very important and helpful evening times of reflection and sharing together about our experiences, addressing concerns and issues that arose, and cultivating relationships within the team.
We also had our share of travel problems both coming and going that Liz managed to fix for us. There was some re-routing on the way over that meant the three people in Heathrow would not know why we didn’t show up. Liz worked out a way to get in touch with them. They then proceeded to fly to Accra on their own to meet Bishop Matthias (who none of them knew) and travel back to Ho. The Bishop took excellent care of them, and they were able to join in the Young People’s Association events going on at St George’s Cathedral.
The re-routing also took the group leaving the next morning via a different route, including Frankfurt and Istanbul. We arrived the next evening, losing a day of the trip, and necessitating another trip for Bishop Matthias to Accra. And then there were the luggage issues, but as I said, we managed with Liz’s help.
We were accommodated at a pensioners’ compound located at the edge of the Anglican compound in Ho. It was pretty Spartan, but everyone seemed to do okay with it. There were fans in the rooms but one night was rough during an all-night power outage. Of course there was no air conditioning. Water for showers was sometimes iffy and the bathrooms, well, were bathrooms, but not the kind we are used to. Locating here, however, helped to cut down on local transportation costs.
We ate out once at a restaurant owned by a friend of the bishop. We ate our meals (usually breakfast and dinner, with fruit provided for lunch) at the bishop’s home. The women who did the cooking tried to approximate as well as they could the food they thought we would be used to. Only later in the week did we succeed in convincing them to let us try some local foods like kenkey and eyc.
We had relatively few health concerns on this trip, even temperatures in the mid-40s during the day and upper-30s at night. Some team members suffered from digestive disturbances, sunburns and minor injuries. Camp Medley provided some of our First Aid supplies, while the nurses provided some others.
Our first day in Ho began with a Mass at St George’s Cathedral, which was also the closing service for the diocesan young people’s rally in Ho. I was the preacher for this service and helped with administration of the communion. We were warmly welcomed and exposed to worship (and offerings) as done in the church there.
Our two nurses and Delaney, who is going into her nurse’s training in the fall, were able to spend much of a day in the main hospital in Ho. They had an excellent time and made some initial contacts for a potential future partnership with health practitioners here in Canada.
On the building site I went out on my own and carried a symbolic first brick up to the building site. Later we joined the local crew in moving some of the bricks to the top. The local crew was welcoming and seemed excited about working with us. The building of walls for the new offices went well. We mixed mortar by hand on the rooftop site (to which sand, water and bags of cement had to be lifted). The foreman showed the blueprints to me and explained why they were building in the order that they were. On the last day there, Jeremiah spent some time on site with the local men. The bricks were quickly disappearing and walls were going up.
I had considerable time to spend with Bishop Matthias while running errands. He was quite open about the joys and frustrations of his work – the primary one being that he had to be involved at every level in the work of the diocese. He had to leave from Thursday through Saturday to be part of the provincial synod meetings several hours away.
We took some t-shirts from the diocese and from Camp Medley (and one from Camp Brookwood!), as well as a few medical supplies and toiletries. I took a Curious George toy for the Bishop’s granddaughter who, on the last trip, started calling me Uncle George, not realizing that there was a second granddaughter also there.
One day we travelled to Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary to encounter some friendly monkeys who ate from our hands, even though there were quite afraid of Curious George. From there we went to visit Wli Agumatsa falls and swim in at the base of this 240 foot drop.
Other times brought the unforgettable experience of going to the market, visiting the ‘mall’ and learning to drink water from plastic bags. Some of us learned how to carry babies on the back. We tried learning, and using, some bits of the language. Each of us had a shirt, dress or skirt/top made by some of the local artists.
On our final Sunday we travelled to St. Paul’s Church, Agbozume, the bishop’s home parish. There again I preached and helped administer communion. There was a lot of drumming and traditional dancing during the worship, in which we were invited to participate. We met the bishop’s mother and other women from the Mother’s Union — appropriate, since it was Mothering Sunday. After lunch at the rectory, we visited the salt works and travelled on to spend a short time swimming — mostly jumping around in waves and searching for shells — at a beautiful beach before heading back to Ho for our last night in the diocese.
We travelled back into Accra for the flight out on the following evening. Along the way we were able to see more of the beautiful countryside, traditional villages and the Volta River. Some of us were able to see a couple of grasscutters —native rodents dwelling in the fields and bush, hunted for food as a delicacy, and most recently, the subject of profitable farming developments. I had my first experience of driving in Accra – on a previous trip, I drove a motorbike in one of the rural villages – and we had a last snack at a local restaurant before the bishop escorted us through the airport leaving process.
The trip back to Canada started smoothly enough, then there was the snowstorm in Frankfurt, flights delayed/cancelled/rescheduled/cancelled again/rescheduled and on it went. When we finally arrived in Toronto we had missed our connections to Montreal and an overnight there. We cleared customs and waited for a few hours to fly on to Fredericton. One person’s luggage didn’t make it to Fredericton until the next day.
Was it worth it?
I don’t think there is a single member of the team who would say no. Liz pointed out that, despite some hardships, delays and frustrations it was an incredibly valuable experience for us all. The team was excellent, rolling with the challenges and making the best of the time. We learned so much – and experienced so much of the hospitality, sincere joy and faith of our companions in our Companion Diocese that we cannot adequately put these things into words. The people of Ho felt encouraged by our interest, our participation and the beginning of the building, but we felt we received far more than we were able to give. We laughed hard and a lot. Liz also pointed out that spending the majority of our time fixed in Ho, we were able to get to know more of the Bishop’s family and the people there. It truly was about more than building a building, as important as that was. It was about building new relationships and strengthening those that were there. It was about the idea of Companion Diocese arrangements becoming more the relationships of companions.
I already knew that Bishop Matthias is very funny and personable. He has a stubborn streak and is very tenacious. All this is important for his leadership role. I knew that he works hard and keeps long hours. His love of God and of God’s people entrusted to his care for the past 10 years is evident. During my time there, however, I was privileged to have him share the hard things he deals with and the struggles he has as a bishop.
For me, as well, spending the long, hot days working with the local construction men was rewarding. They had expected me to collapse but were pleased when I stuck with it. The way that they worked — hard and persistent — not only put the lie to many stereotypes but was a joy to share. The whole process was a very natural mentoring relationship, even among themselves, as the more experienced men shared their knowledge and skill with the less experienced, while at the same time willing to learn from those who were less experienced.