IMPRESSIONS OF PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN – Revd Alan Price
I visited Peshawar Diocese 25th July – 6th August this year. as part of a small SOMA Team consisting of myself, Revd Stephen Dinsmore (UK Director of SOMA), his wife Janet (an OFSTED Inspector) and Mrs Lindy Cameron (Youth Worker). SOMA (Sharing Of Ministries Abroad) is a UK charity that works for the transformation of individuals and churches and the healing of communities and their lands through the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. They do it through intercession and sending and receiving short-term task teams across the Anglican Communion.
Most Christians in Pakistan are ethnically Punjabis, descendants of the camp-followers of British Army of the late 19th century. They are mainly employed in menial work and form about at 80% of the larger Christian community. They are not ‘persecuted’ as such, but suffer much from discrimination. When aid is distributed after a natural disaster, for instance (a frequent occurrence), the Christians are the last to be considered, and are often ignored.
The Diocese of Peshawar is one of the eight Dioceses that make up the Church of Pakistan, which was formed in 1970 as a result of a union between Lutherans, Scottish Presbyterians, Methodists and the Anglicans. It is led by Bishop Humphrey Peters, who, despite his English-sounding name, is 100% Pakistani.
The first impression of the country was of the heat and humidity as soon as we got off the plane at Peshawar airport. It was the height of summer, the hottest time of the year. The second impression was the realization this was just like a war-zone as we were whisked off in a minibus that took us through security gates, military road-blocks etc, just 10 minutes before entering the guarded gates of the St John’s Cathedral Compound. Here we stayed each weekend of our visit in the Guest flat.
The ladies on the team donned the traditional shalwar kameez. Western clothes (but not shorts) were acceptable for us men. Worship in the Cathedral on the Sunday morning was an interesting experience. It was so very hot that Stephen and I removed our shirts before putting on our white robes. Everyone removes their shoes before entering church, and white socks are the norm for clergy! Anglican in structure, the liturgy was in the Urdu language. Though the ladies had someone translating for them, Stephen and I had to guess what was happening by trying to follow an English language version of the Service book! The music was Asian, and consisted mainly of psalms (in Urdu, of course), accompanied by a choir and band – a few traditional drums, a harmonium-type traditional instrument, a normal keyboard and a guitar.
What also amazed us was that whilst at the beginning of the service there was a reasonable-sized congregation, people kept arriving (including choir and musicians) right up to the time of the communion, when there must have been 600+ people! This, apparently, is normal.
The main purpose of our visit, however, was to teach and lead at a Youth Camp for 45 young adults from 11 parishes, at the Dunga Gali Retreat Centre, a 5 hour trip up the mountains. It was an amazing journey. We saw painted buses & lorries, donkey carts, 3 or even 4 on a motorcycle (with no crash-helmets)! Alarmingly, the driver of our bus bought a large water melon from a truck whilst travelling at 40mph. It was passed through a window on the passenger side, then he drove along the other side of the van to pay for it, still at 40mph!
The newly-built retreat centre is in the grounds of the British-built St Michael’s Church. Being nearly 9000′ high, it was much cooler, and felt more like a British autumn, much to my relief. We were accommodated in bedrooms, each containing bunk beds to sleep 8 people, and an en-suite shower room. We quickly grew accustomed to the frequent power cuts, glad when the generator was able to cut in.
The food was freshly prepared and beautifully cooked by a team of Christian men from one of the churches, but it was all spice of one kind or another (except for deserts and wonderful mangos etc.). I rarely eat curries etc, so the onslaught of hot, spicy Pakistani food was more than I could cope with. By Wednesday evening, my stomach rebelled. After 36 hours however, I was well enough to eat a little, avoiding spice when possible (I got used to plain rice or chapatti bread). I was grateful for ‘chai’ (black tea with milk) and got to appreciate green tea, too. There was always bottled water for us as well.
Most of the delegates were leaders of the youth ministries in their churches. Many understood a little English, but we needed to be translated in our sessions. It was clear that the input at previous camps had been rather formal (lecture-style), requiring frequent “energizers” etc to relieve the boredom! Our style was quite different, with lots of interaction and visual stimulation! The young people responded warmly, and we quickly made a lot of friends. Shy and nervous at first, they tried their English on us – and they improved a lot during the week. They even attempted to teach me some Urdu and Punjabi phrases.
I taught them two songs in English – with actions (which they loved) and in my two sessions on the 1st day. I illustrated my talks with Gospel Magic which was great fun.
We also had workshop sessions when we explored ways in which we could experience the Holy Spirit’s work in us and through us. God came in power and these lovely young people began to receive God’s touch in concrete ways, being built up inn faith. The other team members shared in the teaching and ministry, of course and we were all involved answering questions or praying for specific needs as relationships developed. At the final Eucharist on the Saturday morning, several responded to the opportunity to make a first, or a renewed commitment to Christ.
The final Sunday back in Peshawar city, we were taken by car to All Saints church (below) in the heart of the old city, down close, narrow roads, lined with stalls & shops selling everything imaginable.
In its small secure compound with armed guards, this church was built in the style of a mosque in 19th century. As happened at the cathedral the previous Sunday, people kept on arriving in droves long after the service had started, until it was packed, women on one side, men on the other. The service was in Urdu, of course, and the music was even better than at the cathedral. I really enjoyed myself clapping & moving with the rhythms (much to the delight of the congregation, it seems).
What have I brought back from my trip? Being so near Afghanistan, and subject to Taliban activity, Peshawar is largely, in effect, a war zone, and we could not appreciate the beauty and history of the place as normal tourists might have done several years ago. I did not cope well with the heat and humidity, and I just do not like their diet of hot, spicy food for every meal! But I loved meeting Christian brothers and sisters, and realized that our simply being there was a great encouragement to them. I was honoured and thrilled to see the delegates released into a new experience of God and his kingdom and I enjoyed experiencing worship in a new culture. I have made many new friends – brothers and sisters (below) in Christ,
many of whom are now “Facebook friends”. Whether or not I will return in future I do not know, but I will continue to pray for Bishop Humphrey and other significant people we met, as well as the friends we made.