I gave a presentation last week, speaking on my first encounter with Africa. Here is the transcript.
How can I tell you what happened in Africa? I, myself, barely understand. I’ll have to tell you what happened to me there by telling you other stories.
First, the story of the last supper. Where the Master is there washing his disciples feet. He…the creator of the universe stoops to wash the feet of his own followers. He was their guest from heaven for a short time. But he cleans them up. He cleans up their dirty lives. He does so as the dirt and the grime of the Galilean roads dirty his own feet.
He eats the Passover meal they have prepared for him. It was their own ritual. It was their own food. And yes, they served it to the Son of God, the Creator of the universe. And he ate it and he did not die. He did die. Later. Later, they killed him, with their very own hands.
But he didn’t stay dead. And that is the point.
The terribleness of their messy lives couldn’t kill him and keep him dead.
The second story is the story of the celebration of the last supper from my childhood.
Now, I’m not going to sensationalize the Amish practice of shunning that was very much present in the way my community practiced the Lord’s Supper. We all have our shunning and excommunication rituals. Every culture has them. Minnesota, America tends to excommunicate by means of indifference through the practice of silence and unresponsiveness. There are no rules written anywhere but the practice is fully enforced whenever one wishes to exclude another from the group of the included. Every social group has their insiders and their outsiders.
It is clear, unless one is simply blind or in denial, there are insiders and there are outsiders. There are those who are included and those who are excluded. In my community of origin, the included sit down and eat the Lord’s Supper together and wash one another’s feet. The excluded don’t. The excluded take their plate and eat over there at a different table. Please understand I am not passing judgment on the practice itself or on excommunication practices everywhere other than to simply say that sin separates. There are those that eat at the table and there are those that don’t.
These two stories go together. One is the story of grace the other is the story of the fall. One is the story of Christ embracing us in our sin. The other is the story of how sin separates us from the community of God.
Now, against this backdrop I go to Africa. I am a stranger among them there. I am their guest. I am their very honored and distinguished guest. And I come from the land of the chosen, where the streets are gold and the angels sing. Well, maybe not quite but Africans had some idea that where I come from, life was unimaginably better, by comparison. In America food is cooked in ovens. There are toilets that flush. The pure water comes in bottles and is too expensive for them to buy. Everything else is really sanitary.
So in the most amazing expression of hospitality I have ever seen, the Nigerians opened their hearts and arms and received me. They would have even put me up in the most costly place they could find so that I would be comfortable, like I was back home. So that my toilet would flush and so my food would be cooked “properly” in a kitchen. This was the heart of the people toward me in the most amazing expression of love, other centeredness and hospitality.
But I quickly became almost angry as I recognized the other voices whispering through the people despite the people’s good hearts and arms loaded with hospitality. There were social structures and evil overlords and the all important colonists who were speaking also. There were people from the past, people from the present, sitting in high places in Abuja, Lagos, Washington DC or wherever.
Wordless things were being conveyed.
In the village I was preparing to eat the food that came out of the pot sitting on three rocks with the firewood underneath. They said, “No our food will make you sick! It might even kill you.” You must go to the restaurant where your food can be cooked properly.
What were they saying? Were they excommunicating themselves to their own humble table? Or were they excommunicating me also, as I sat alone in the restaurant situated inside high walls with barbed wire and a guard at the gate. This is more than excommunication! It was as though I heard, “Here, sit in this prison and eat, while we sit down at our own table to eat the terrible food that we have prepared for ourselves that even kills us, according to the official sanitation codes.” Who’s codes were these? My people’s sanitation codes? I read them half-heartedly on the plane trip over: a thick stack of documents that the Travel Clinic gave me in preparation to travel.
Excommunication works both ways it seems.
As I prepared to live and sleep in the village where the dirt floors were swept clean and the animals and the bugs ran freely. They said, “No, you must stay in the hotel in the city where there is electricity and your toilet flushes and everything is sanitary. You can’t stay here with us in our terrible situation. It will kill you. A mosquito might bite you and you’ll get malaria and die.”
I said to myself, “Ah. Ah!? Who has done this to these good people? Who has made these people believe this about themselves?” Your food is amazing and I don’t care if the toilet flushes. Get me out of this whitewashed prison!
The Master said of his mission, “I come not to be served but to serve and give my life for others.” The creator of the universe says this.
If your food kills me. If your viruses kill me. If living with you in your country kills me. So then I will die and it will be worth the dying. And even if I die. I will not stay dead. And that is the point.
So, I ate their dinner with them. And we sat at the same table. And we washed our feet in the same bucket of dirty water. And as you can see, I did not die. And the people saw and were amazed. They said to each other, “Ah, Ah!? Who is this who has come to eat with us and sleep with us and walk the dusty road with us? And the terribleness of our messy lives did not kill her.”
How can I tell you what happened in Africa. I, myself, barely understand.