It was called the community centre, but it would be hard for you to identify it as such, if you simply saw a photograph of the structure. It’s more akin to the open shelters at a public campground than to our local Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
It was built with the labour of lay volunteers through American Jewish World Service (AJWS), working alongside local workers and their contractor, hired by the NGO that operated the school known as Challenging Heights, in Winneba on the coast of Ghana.
We were with the second AJWS Young Rabbis’ Delegation, spending 11 days in Ghana in the summer of 2011, learning first-hand about global poverty and wealth, grassroots initiatives and related issues like foreign aid and advocacy. The “young” moniker had many of us laughing and wondering, some days, as we got to know each other, and as we learned the ages of the locals whose energy and skill level at the tasks at hand far outstripped ours.
It was in the community centre where we ate our meals, held our prayers services, studied from our curriculum, met with the school’s local teachers and with the founder of the NGO – and, at one memorable meal, learned something profound and unexpected from one of the construction workers.
Daniel had had a fall earlier in the day, so the morning labour ended a little early. We all sat together for the first time. Otherwise, we were in constant motion, trying to keep up on the worksite, with wheelbarrows and sand and water and trowels, heeding their calls for “mortah” and for the rocks we were instructed to carry in pans on our heads, or the heavy bricks we passed in a line that they placed carefully, evenly, along the line of mortar.
After lunch, Richard the contractor told us that Daniel would teach us a song. We learned it was a song of thanks, much like the text from Psalm 118 – “We give thanks to God, who is good to us.” Daniel, Richard, Freddie and most of the Ghanaians we met were devout Christians. And there we were, an earnest group of rabbis, haltingly singing their well-known hymn in their local language, Fante.
So when Daniel paused after our effort, and said, “OK, and now, eh…” we (mis-)interpreted the pause as an invitation to reciprocate, and began quickly to think of the simple Jewish counterparts we might teach them in return. But Daniel, in his halting English, was telling us, “Now, you … sing,” meaning, that now we were to sing their hymn back to them.
A few days before our departure, we had had another guest during our meal. The caretaker, Isaac, who must have heard about the singing, asked us to sing something for him. That time, no one leaned forward, ready to jump in. We were thinking – at least I was – about how to best respond in light of our lunch-time experience. Eventually, I began a song I thought might be familiar to him, drawing from a verse in Exodus 25, and others who knew it joined in: “O Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, and with thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.” Isaac’s smile deepened in recognition, and he enthusiastically joined in, rejoicing in the hymn’s holy message.
In an open-sided space with a cement floor in the coastal region of Ghana, I learned many lessons of deep and abiding importance. Isaac, Richard, Freddie and the children and adults, who use the community centre at Challenging Heights, are sustaining a rich and robust culture, imbued with deep faith. On our very brief visit, we were invited to bring only what was asked for, not more. Their mishkan, their sanctuary of meaning, required nothing from us but respect.