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Experience on mission in Tanzania inspires priest to live simply

By Deidre Jacobson

Tanzania A love for missionary work inspired Father Gregory Horton of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Christian Church in Post Falls to travel with his wife, Cynthia, Alan Sanger from St. Anthony’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Canada, and six others to Rubale, Tanzania, in August 2004. They spent 21 days teaching fundamentals of Orthodox faith and Christian life skills.

In return, they were immersed in the simple living of the village people they taught. “There is so much meaning on the simplest level,” said Father Gregory. “It was a miracle for me, the divine spark of simple apostolic Christianity at its best.”

Challenged by the mission spirit to enter ministry, to come to North Idaho and then to go to Tanzania, he is now looking for new mission challenges.

Growing up Roman Catholic in Newark, N.J., Gregory had the goal of serving in the priesthood.  He attended St. Vincent College, majoring in music with the intention of going to seminary upon graduation.  A personal and theological crisis led him first to join the Air Force and play tuba in the Air Force band, rather than entering the priesthood.

After he left the Air Force, he and Cynthia married and journeyed for several years, working in resorts.  In Miami Beach, they decided they could not be happy without their faith, so they went to the library to search for a church.

“We researched in the Encyclopedia of Religions, found the Orthodox Church and searched one out.  A Russian priest took us under his wing, and I decided to attend seminary,” Gregory said.  He spent three years at St. Tikhon Seminary in Northeast Pennsylvania, graduating with master’s degrees in music and divinity.  He served briefly as a deacon, then petitioned the bishop to be ordained and was assigned to a parish in Catatsauqua, Pa. 

His yearning for mission service sent him back to the diocese after seven years with a request for work in “virgin territory.”  He was sent to Couer d’Alene, Idaho, in 1996 and began serving a few families, starting the first Orthodox Church in that area.  The fledging church met in a realtor’s office.  It has grown to a congregation of 200 with a building and home on a 13-acre compound.   Recently the church has started an offshoot in Spokane Valley.

Father Gregory’s love of mission eventually led him to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in St. Augustine, FL with the request to serve outside the United States. He and Cynthia were accepted for the mission-team trip to teach the elements of Orthodox Christianity to youth at Camp Rubale. 

Later, Bishop Jeronymos of the Diocese of Bukoba changed the assignment to teaching adults.  The group taught 120 young adults, including 13 women.

While many flights were cancelled because of hurricanes, the team arrived safely in the village, which has no running water, paved roads or electricity.  Seven of their 16 bags arrived with them. 

The rural village people they served were poor, earning an average income of $2.50 per week, in contrast with city people who may earn $2.50 per day.  The young adults greeted the team with enthusiasm, Father Gregory said.

The missionaries instructed in two small buildings with a translator at each session.  Students shared a few desks and chairs, many sitting on straw mats. They had traveled to the camp from throughout the vast Bukoba Diocese of Western Tanzania.  Each person had been personally invited and would be a teacher in his or her own village.

 “There are few priests and deacons serving a large area,” Father Gregory said.  “Some priests lead six to eight churches. Worship in the area is often held outside.  At some point, a congregation may build a mud hut to serve as a church.”

After the sessions, students served food, performed skits, danced and sang for the team to thank them for coming.  At the end of the visit, the mission team donated Bibles—those they had used for the training—to the villagers, who broke into spontaneous dancing and cheering.

“It was incredible serving at the altar with priests from other countries, speaking different languages, yet sharing the divine occurrence,” Father Gregory said.  “At one point, they gave us a goat, the equivalent of an expensive car in our culture.  They led us on a procession, singing and dancing as we traveled down the dirt road to be presented this gift,” he said.

Tanzanian youth As a mother of four children, Cynthia was hesitant about the trip at first, but quickly found her niche on arrival in Tanzania.  Raised Roman Catholic in Southwest Pennsylvania, she met Gregory in college, where she was a music major and flutist.  While her third child was ill with bacterial meningitis, she was inspired by the skill of technicians who discovered and treated her son’s illness. 
She retuned to school to earn a degree in medical technology, and began working in hospitals and private labs. 

Now she teaches music at Holy Family Catholic School, conducts church choirs and plays flute with the Couer d’Alene symphony, North Idaho College Orchestra and chamber groups.

In Tanzania, Cynthia’s teaching focused on three subjects: HIV and AIDS education, the role of a priest’s wife, and marriage, chastity and prayer.  The students’ kindness, love and the simplicity of their lives inspired her.

“We gave them hope.  For people who have nothing, the belief in a glorious afterlife is a wonderful gift.  They were glowing with love and hope.  I came home with the desire to live more simply,” said Cynthia.

“In Tanzania, they waste nothing.  We make trash.  They make no trash.  I especially came to appreciate the value of water.  They have no clean water, and much of their illness and death relates to the quality of the water.  Since we are so blessed, we should be a blessing to others.  I came home wondering how I can help others.”

Alan applied to Orthodox Christian Mission Center to join a mission trip after many years of thinking he should go, but feeling no strong pull.  Growing up in a Protestant church in the United Kingdom, he moved to Canada in 1969, met his wife and converted to the Orthodox Church.  He is a youth leader and president of his parish. 

He had three choices for mission, and Tanzania was his third choice, “but when they called, I accepted in 30 seconds and thought, yes, this feels right.  The grace of God entered in and told me it was right.  While getting ready, many things came up to discourage me, but I remained on course.  I thought, ‘Your will, Lord, let it be,’” Alan said.

When he arrived in Rubale, he was impressed by the welcome. 

“The people are gentle and peaceful. They greeted us as brothers and sisters. They, who have nothing, were generously giving us gifts, a few eggs, a papaya or a banana. 

“They taught us that when you shut your mind to external stimuli and your cravings, God will speak to you,” said Alan.

 “Every night the children came around playing games.  We had crayons and pictures for them to color.  They were delighted, having never seen crayons before.”

Father Gregory said he has become convinced that “I am not suited for our culture.  I loved living simply.”

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