The Rev. John Naumann

Friends and supporters will celebrate the Rev. John Naumann's 50 years of ministry at the Billings Petroleum Club Thursday.

The longer he remains visiting friends and supporters in the U.S. and his native Australia, the more the Rev. John Naumann longs to be where he feels called to ministry — rural Tanzania.

“I look at the Western world and I wonder where on Earth we are going,” he said Friday from an office in The Grand Building in downtown Billings. “Young Tanzanians say to me, ‘Father John, we want to be just like you,’ meaning they want to be like young people in Australia or America. I say, ‘No, you want to be the best Tanzanian you can be. Don’t be led astray.’”

Twelve years ago, after “retiring” from ministry that included 16 years as rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Billings, Naumann, now 77, founded the Amani Development Organization, which works with communities in rural central Tanzania to establish and sustain water resources, agriculture and forestry development, education, health and nutrition.

“I can’t imagine ever giving it up. My hope is to finish the course (of the work) right there in Tanzania. I have no other plan,” he said. “I really miss the people when I am away.”

People like Shabami, a street child that the Amani team discovered in 2005, supporting his education that concluded with university graduation. Now in his early 20s, Shabami was selected this year as the Tanzanian youth representative to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference in Warsaw, Poland.

In Warsaw, “he met and impressed some Americans who said he should look into coming here and working,” Naumann said. “I told him, 'I’m sure you can do it, but Tanzania needs you.' He is spiritually aware, honest and focused, a lovely man.”

When Naumann returns to Billings, he enjoys updating people on the development and educational work he and his partners have been doing in central Tanzania. On Thursday beginning at 6 p.m., a group will gather at the Petroleum Club on the 22nd floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton to honor his 50 years of ministry, which started with his October 1967 ordination at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane, Australia.

Tickets are $25 and are available through Monday by calling Deanna Enrich at 406-245-9424 or emailing dlenrich@gmail.com. All proceeds go to the Amani for Africa USA Foundation.

Naumann tells the story of Amani and other ministry highlights in his self-published book, “Say Yes!” On Friday he recalled how he first became interested in the lives of rural Tanzanians. It was while he was on sabbatical in 2000, “when I spent four weeks in the area where I am now living” in the midst of a trip that took him from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo.

“I like to spend time with people, so I spent time walking with (Tanzanian) women to see how far they had to go to get water.” As it turns out, it was a daily journey of up to seven miles.

“It was on one of those trips I was invited by a woman for a cup of tea. I’d learned that hospitality is extremely important in the region,” he said. “They have a strong belief that a visitor brings a blessing to your home. I learned to understand that you can never be too busy to refuse an invitation.”

“I had experienced great kindness from people in their homes,” he said. “‘Why?’ I asked this woman. ‘It is because you walk in the village.’

"I had always seen that as a key principle of ministry, so I prayed about what it all meant, because this didn’t seem like a normal sabbatical," he said. "The direction was very clear — like you and I are speaking now — that God was saying, ‘I am planting a tree which will bear fruit.’ I instantly knew where my life was heading. There was no doubt about it, but it’s nothing I could have ever planned.”

Top school marks

Amani educators pride themselves on the quality of education they can offer students on just $115 annual tuition. “That educational connection is very strong. They are the children of poor families, and most of our teachers are young adults we have helped put through school,” he said.” Following national exams, the school was recently ranked seventh of 750 primary schools in the region.

“That is above some high-powered private schools,” he said. “Tanzanian children love education, and they are remarkable children. It’s an extraordinary achievement, but it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

For all the development — wells, schools, health centers, agricultural projects and more — Amani “has never bought one acre of land. It’s all been donated,” he said. “We tell people, ‘You are not giving your land away — you are dedicating it to a special purpose in the life of your community,’ and we encourage them to be involved.”

Asked to preview what he might tell his friends and supporters Thursday, Naumann smiled.

“I could have never imagined all of the things that have occurred in the life I have led, and all the responsibilities that come with it,” he said. “It is not all joy, but it is all good.”

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