For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. 2 Corinthians 2:15-16
One of my favorite coffee mugs was a gift from an Anglican priest friend. In a witty acrostic, the cup reads:
Not even my friend Father Mario could have foreseen one way in which God would demonstrate His extravagant love and compassion. But for East Africa’s Opo people, the great lengths to which God went to bring them to new life in Jesus included honoring their devotion to coffee.
An ethnic group of only some 5000 people, most of the Opo live on the Ethiopia side of the border with South Sudan in the Gambella region. The Opo’s home area is cut off from the rest of Gambella about half the year because of the shallow, but very wide, Baro (also called Upeno) River. This probably helps to explain how they remained a people group unreached by the Gospel for as long as they did.
The former Bishop of the Horn of Africa, the Rt. Reverend Grant LeMarquand, has shared the amazing story of how the Opo ended up becoming Anglican Christians as part of The Oxford History of Anglicanism: Volume 5, Global Anglicanism c. 1910-2000.Writing of “Anglicans in the Horn of Africa: From Missionaries and Chaplains to a Missionary Church,” LeMarquand tells how those that were reached by the Gospel in the Horn of Africa are now the missionaries themselves. “The most successful cross-cultural mission within Gambella was the Nuer outreach to the Opo people,” the bishop said.
In 2006 a Nuer Anglican deacon, Gordon Roc, ventured to the Opo area to share the Gospel. But when he found Opo that spoke Nuer, Roc discovered that they had already heard about Jesus just a few months earlier from some Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries.
The Opo were very open to the missionaries. Bishop LeMarquand writes:
While listening to the Adventists explain their message, coffee was prepared for the visitors. When the coffee was presented, the Adventists declined, saying that they could not take caffeine. The Opo rejected the Adventists’ message. So when the Anglican deacon came speaking about Jesus, the Opo had just one question: ‘Can we drink coffee?’ Being assured that they could, they decided that they would be Anglicans.
(Grant LeMarquand, “Anglicans in the Horn of Africa: From Missionaries and Chaplains to a Missionary Church,” The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume 5, p. 208.)
Many of us can sympathize! If you love coffee, you LOVE coffee. And if you live in Ethiopia where some of the world’s best coffee beans are, you are doubly in love with coffee. God in His wisdom and mercy knew what it would take to reach this “unreached” people.
It was not that the ability to continue drinking coffee was some kind of “cheap grace” to persuade the Opo to become Christians. It was that because of God’s kindness and understanding of who the Opo are, this important aspect of their culture and identity matter to Him. In the same way, the culture and identity of each of us matters to Him.
So God loved the Opo so much that He provided a second opportunity for them to respond to His invitation. It was not that they became “Anglicans,” as happy as we Anglicans are that they did. It was that Grace opened the door for them to then know the full extent of His love for them, and to experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection in their lives – which would prove to be more precious than coffee (even for the greatest coffee lover!).
In Luke 12, Jesus tells His disciples, “Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink. . . the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” With great tenderness He continues, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Even before the Opo could read the Gospel in their own language, they took these words of Jesus to heart. They did “seek his kingdom” and received “these things” (including coffee) as well. Just 12 years after they first heard the Gospel, there are five Opo Anglican churches in Gambella , including the “Jesus the Prince of Peace Mission Centre.” There had been no written form of the Opo language – but it now exists and the services of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion, as well as the Gospels of Mark and Luke have been translated into that new written language.
In 2014 the Anglican Communion News Service reported on the first time that the Opo heard the Gospel of Mark in their own language. The Rev. David Onuk, the only Opo Anglican priest, declared, “When we used to read the Bible in Amharic, we used to miss words and lack understanding. We are so excited to have the first book of the Bible in our own language.” Bishop LeMarquand also told how some Opo Christians commented approvingly, “Now God has learned Opo!”
St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth that he had planted the seed (of the Gospel), another missionary, Apollos, had watered the seed, but it was God that made it grow. The Seventh-Day Adventists planted the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of the Opo. Deacon Gordon Roc had watered the seed (with a good helping of coffee). But it was God that made that seed grow.
Now the Opo are part of that missionary church spoken of by the Rt. Rev. LeMarquand. They are reaching out to the Koma people, the name of the Opo who lived in South Sudan but fled to Ethiopia to escape forced conscription of their young men in rebel leader Riek Machar’s “White Army.”
The Opo and the other Anglicans in Gambella have been sharing everything they have with the Koma and other refugees from South Sudan. And you can be sure that if the Opo plant the seed while enjoying coffee with the Koma, God will make it grow.