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TEEZing Out the Roots

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

“Reverend, look at that tree there. Tell me, what wisdom can be gained from that tree?”

Thus began one of several perspective altering conversations on the front porch with Samson Kimembe Kaleya, dear brother and student of art education. The tree from which we were to gain wisdom stood at the corner of my yard, up against the boundary wall, and it was mortally split vertically—half dormant and half verdant. 

Not the tree in question, but the Jacaranda, my favorite tree in Zambia

“Life will throw many things at you, some that seem good and some that seem bad. Even when someone throws shit at that tree, it uses it as fertilizer for growth. Even when life becomes difficult, still somehow we can grow from the experiences.”

“You see that dead side? When the leaves fall onto the ground, they also become a source of sustenance for the tree. Resurrections are real.”

“The tree gives shade to any and all creatures without discrimination. Shouldn’t all hospitality be that way?”

“The tree is surrounded by different trees of different types, and they all serve some distinct purpose. It even seems like they have some ancient form of communication with each other. Think of the distinct gifts and purposes we have and what would happen if we found that ancient communication.”

“The leaves! The leaves! They take nourishment straight from the sun and turn it into something for the whole tree. They grow strategically so as to maximize this process. They are all uniquely placed and uniquely shaped for that purpose.”

And so we went, back and forth and back again for at least a good hour. In the middle of the conversation Sarah Soko walked up and joined us on the porch, marveling at the oddity of our conversation but more than willing to join in.

And then it happened.

“That tree sways with the breeze and grows toward the sun, but it never shifts. And yet, its seeds may end up kilometers away, even half a world away! It stays rooted but it manages to send something of itself, which is somehow its whole self (cue Julian of Norwich and the acorn here), on the wind or carried in talons or trapped in fur, to an entirely different place. That something of itself which is its whole self gets replanted. New roots start to form. That’s possible for us, isn’t it? To have roots somewhere and gain new roots elsewhere?”

I was quivering with joy and excitement at this point. This whole theme, this whole thing—the thing of my whole year—was coming full circle. Samson and Sarah were speaking the wisdom of the trees, naming the truth of the overarching concept that inspired my journey and molded my time over the past year.

“And think about those roots! They have to be both deep and broad, vertical and horizontal. They must go deep enough to hold the whole tree steady no matter what environmental phenomena come its way. They must go broad enough to capture the best nutrients from the soil. But they can’t go too deep or too far. Because if they’re too focused on one direction they may forget the other.”

“Remember all those other trees around? Their root systems meet and form around each other. They allow themselves to shape the others, and they allow themselves to be shaped by the others. They become intertwined and inseparable. They share the abundance of the soil rather than compete from scarcity. I think their different gifts to the world somehow even provide each other with sustenance, enriching the soil in special and necessary ways.”

“And those roots, enriched by the soil which is enriched by the other trees, they send the nutrients of the soil through the entire trunk, into every branch, to the tip of every vein of every leaf. And in turn they receive the nutrients of the sun from the tip of every vein of every leaf from every branch, through the entire trunk.” 

Baobab, considered by many to be the Tree of Life. It has some of the strongest roots in the world.

Clearly we are not arborists. Perhaps if we were to examine the trivia of our conversation we would be found completely wanting. Even if the facts are wrong, though, the truth is still there—the truth of the wisdom of the trees as we perceived them in the grip of each other’s imaginations on the front porch of the TEEZ duplex in Kitwe, Zambia.

I am back in the space between, the liminality of life. I left Kitwe this morning, and this is my last night in Zambia. I will go and go and go and go from one place to another for the next two and a half months until I finally go home. “Home.” It rings true, but it does so with dissonance. For, I can feel it in the depths of my being that I am also leaving home. I feel joy. I feel grief. I feel rooted. In multiple places.

Normally that multiplicity would make me uneasy. It would make me feel that I was untethered, the exact opposite of rooted. Holy Spirit has been speaking to me and to my companions through flora, though. Somehow, either in the actual science of things or in the truth of the trees as experienced on the porch, our roots are all webbed together in an intricate, life-giving mess of co-molding symbiosis across the whole of Creation. So that multiplicity is also a unity, and the unity is stronger because of the multiplicity.

This all made sense to me last night in a moment of great clarity. It was my last night in Kitwe, and I had just returned from TEEZ’s farewell ceremony. After saying goodbye to Esther as I got out of the truck, I began sobbing. Prince was with me, so I tried to keep him busy outside while I ran inside, knowing that my emotions would spread (not that this would be unhealthy, but rather I didn’t think I could bear the sight of his tears). I slowly collected myself, and we went to bid adieu to the Mozumder family. When we stood up to leave their house, Laya began weeping. Of course the sobs spread. Prince broke down as we walked back to my home, and I broke down all over again. And again I slowly collected myself. 

Then the knocks and shouts of “Odi!” (Can I come in?) started coming from the doorway. In walked Maurice, Sarah, and Miriam from the UCZ University school of education. They wanted to worship at my table. We lit candles and started praying. Then another knock. Gift from the UCZ seminary joined us as we sang songs that we all knew and taught each other the ones we didn’t. Then a car pulled up. Abdul, David, Mary, and one of their friends—my drinking buddies from Mama Kasamai’s Takeaway behind the back gate of MEF—meandered in hoping to share one last imbibing with me. Instead they settled in, got over their confusion, and lifted their voices along with the rest of us. Then came a familiar “Odi!” Shepah entered with a prospective seminarian. The singing crescendoed, and we closed in prayer and ate leftover cake. 

The Mama Kasamai Crew

All I could do was marvel in amazement. Here in this moment was an incredibly unlikely group of people. We represented a wide age range. We came from vastly different backgrounds. There wasn’t a single person in the room who knew every single other person in the room, including me. There were obviously different levels of sobriety. There was discomfort. There were expectations of judgment. There was an utter lack of judgment. There were disparate voices from disparate walks of life intertwining with each other in worship. 

There was multiplicitous unity.

I could feel my roots breathing more freely, stretching, growing, being teased out.

As I had to say my various farewells over the past week, I kept turning to Isaiah 55:12 and saying these words through tears that were equal parts joy and sorrow.


“For you shall go out with joy,

and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field shall clap

their hands.”

I indeed go out from this place with joy. How could I not have deep joy within me from a year of life with my family here?

I pray that I will be led back in peace. How could I not come back one day, even if the when is unknown, to see my family here?

Just as we have worshiped together in so many settings over the year, we will join our voices together and burst into song, even with the mountains and the hills before us.

And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Tyler, Shepah, Samson, and Sarah

Posted September 7, 2016


Posted by Tyler W. Orem with
in Unity

Presbyterians Unite

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

Sunday was a day of glorious celebration at Chimwemwe Presbyterian Church.  The women’s fellowship from a church in Lusaka was up for a visit, a marching band and majorettes were present, and the former head pastor was preaching.  The church was packed, noisy, and Spirit-filled!  With four different choirs, the band and majorettes, and a long-winded preacher, it seemed as though the celebration would never end.  When the Spirit is moving, though, who wants the celebration to end?!

One of the most beautiful aspects of this service was the coming together of several different expressions of Presbyterianism.  The reasons for different Presbyterian denominations in Zambia are very different from those in the U.S., but they are still distinctive, and one could say ‘divided’, churches.

The congregation itself is of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (UPCSA).  This denomination got its start in South Africa and is the continued result of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (White British settler Presbyterians) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (Black African Presbyterians) coming together.  It has since spread northward to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

There were also representatives from the Kwacha Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP).  The CCAP got its start in Malawi and then spread westward into Zambia.  Within Zambia is therefore strongest in the Eastern Province, along the border with Malawi.  The CCAP is generally thought of as being a bit more conservative than the UPCSA, but they see themselves as part of the same family.

The marching band was visiting from Mindolo United Church of Zambia (UCZ) right here on the MEF campus.  The UCZ is a union of various missionary organizations and churches that were in Zambia before independence.  These include the Church of Barotseland (French Presbyterians), the United Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the London Missionary Society (Anglican and Presbyterian), and the Free Churches on the Copperbelt.  It is now a distinctively Zambian church that has beautifully integrated these different traditions.  Presbyterianism, though, is definitely there at its roots.

And finally there was I, representing the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).

In this day and age a lot of the ecumenical work we have to do is within our own families.  Given modern divisions and fragmentations, some of our bitterest relationships are with fellow Presbyterians.  This is because it hurts more when there is fighting and separation between people who have worshiped together, grown together, and loved together.  The wounds are deeper and rawer.  I certainly have opinions about issues surrounding the cost of unity versus the cost of division and which is worth more, but that is not the point of this post.  And the situation is of course different between Zambian Presbyterian churches and U.S. American Presbyterian churches, including the reasons for the existence of separate churches within each context.  The point IS, though, that Presbyterians can come together and celebrate together to the booming of a marching brass band and the dancing of majorettes.


Posted May 9, 2016


Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8