Several centuries ago, long before power tools, an Ethiopian king by the name of Lalibela had the big idea to build a church out of the side of a mountain. He didn’t see the challenges, or if he did he didn’t let them get in his way. King Lalibela saw the monumental rock as a source of building material and perhaps he even drew inspiration from Christ’s promise to the disciple Peter, “Upon this rock, I shall build my church.” And so King Lalibela did build a church.
Well, let me modify that. Many, many workers did the chiseling and in time, there were 11 churches carved from the mountain.
In Zimbabwe, a different kind of chiseling goes on at the community of Tengenenge about 100 kilometers outside of the capital of Harare.
Back in the 1960s, the owner of a tobacco farm was concerned about what would happen to his workers during a time of economic sanctions on the country. So he started mining some of the massive amounts of granite on the property and he taught his employees to carve the stone into sculptures.
Today there are 11,000 works of art, large and small, cheerful and poignant and hundreds of residents live on the proceeds of the sale of those sculptures.
One cannot help but be moved by how people have turned stone into sculpture, mountains into sanctuaries. These works symbolize the power of the small to harness the great. Mountains can be moved. The challenge is not the rock, but the paralysis that comes from of doubting it can be carved.
When I visited the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela last week, I had in my pocket, a letter written by the children who attend an after school program at First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Connecticut and illustrated by one particularly talented artist there, William Ng. Each child had signed the simple Christmas greeting which they gave to me to deliver to people in a faraway land who share with us at this time of year, joy in the birth of the savior of the world.
Okay, after watching the priests and deacons performing a 20 minute musical prayer on the grounds of Lalibela I realized we worship in very different ways! I like the umbrellas, really I do. But don’t think the Presbyterians will ever use them.
Still, what we share is a reliance on the power of God and a desire to change the world.
At my church, little-by-little and day-by-day, volunteers spend time with children like William giving them the extra help they need but for many reasons cannot get elsewhere. The Creative Learning at FPC program gives these elementary school students language and academic support so they can do better in school.
“We have children from ten different countries attending the program,” said the director, Joanie Merrell, a long-time member of the church. Guiding these young people over the obstacles is a small-steps-at-a-time campaign to give them a boost – to their benefit and to the benefit of the larger community as well.
Whether it is providing assistance for new immigrants, helping kids who need extra support or creating new ways for people to make a living when economic circumstances change, these chink away at the problems facing communities everywhere.
There is no shortage of mountains. We can either turn from them or pick up a chisel and start sculpting a better world.
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