Greetings from Tanzania!
Deacon Kevin Welch
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
In today’s Gospel, the Jews were “murmuring” & complaining about Jesus. How could Jesus say that “He is the bread from heaven” when they know darn well he was only the son of a carpenter from that dingy village in Galilee called Nazareth? What good comes out of Nazareth anyway?
The problem for those 1st century Jews, was that they were looking for someone of significance, and they missed the very presence of God, the Word made Flesh, standing right there in front of them.
Today, sometimes we complain and insist that God meet our expectations and our reasoning before we can encounter him. But the reality is that God comes to us in very ordinary ways. For example, at this Mass, God will come to us by transforming ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of His Son. And when we are sent from this church, Jesus can be encountered in the ordinary and unexpected people we meet in our everyday lives.
The question is not whether God comes to us or not… but whether we are able to recognize and encounter Jesus at work in our lives. We have to be careful or we might miss the messengers that God has sent to us… to speak to us and prepare us for eternal life.
Several years ago, my wife Susie was asked by a friend of our family if we would be willing to host a Catholic nun from a remote part of Tanzania Africa. She would be arriving in Oregon soon, and were told that her stay with us would be for a couple of weeks. That’s it… that is all we knew about her. Sounded like a good idea at the time. It probably would be the closest we would ever get to Africa, so we agreed, and Sister Sabina Kabuga, 10,000 miles from her home, came and lived with our family for a week.
It’s funny that when you don’t know much about an ordinary person, let alone a person from a different continent. It’s a little nerve-racking to just say “yes” to invite a stranger into your space for that long of a time. Well, we quickly realized that Sister Sabina was no ordinary visitor. What we thought was a risk, was our reward. Our commitment turned into seven months… having her live with us, not as a stranger, but as a part of our family. It was her rock solid faith, her contagious joy and how she loved others that ministered to us. Not the other way around.
We learned that Sister came from a very remote Southwest region of Tanzania called Sumbawanga… it’s a place far from the Northeast part of Tanzania where most visitors go on safari vacations. Her order is called the Sisters of our Lady Queen of Africa; a very small diocesan order dedicated to serving the most vulnerable of this isolated region of the country.
After her seven month stay, she returned to Tanzania and we continued to Skype with her on a regular basis. After all, she was part of the family. Over this past year, her stories motivated a few of us here in our parish, to establish a non-profit foundation to support the entire work of the sisters. It has been rewarding work, but we felt the need to first-hand experience the charism of the Sisters.
After several months of discerning, Susan and I accepted the invitation of Sister Sabina’s Mother Superior, and so we traveled to Tanzania to visit the sisters for most of this past month of July. The multiple flights and log drives to get to this sselcuded region of Tanzania was grueling, but worth it.
The whole trip was transformational for us. The memories of the sisters at work, still stick in my head as exemplifying a true approach to ministry as a Christian. Simply put, they’re for real. They take recognizing, encountering and loving Jesus in the other real seriously. They search the entire region of Sumbawanga looking for those places that stand out like sores on a body, and when they find them, they go there and wash them. And this is done with the kind of no-nonsense attitude which makes it possible to serve in the most downtrodden of places. While most of us spend our time trying to think up creative ways to love our neighbor, the Sisters of Our Lady Queen of Africa just move in and do it.
For example, in the town of Tudoma, we visited a small convent, where a group of the sisters worked in the town clinic, advocating for families that are often stricken with malaria and aids.
We crossed the border into Zambia where another group of sisters ran a kindergarten school that focused on teaching English to young children; because English will be the gateway for these kids to possibly climb out of poverty.
In Sumbawanga, we visited an orphanage of over 70 children; from a few weeks old up to about five years old. Sister Maria Stella told us that several children have been placed on their doorstep, because it is the only facility in the region that will unconditionally accept all children.
Some other children were not orphans, but from parents that do not have the resources to feed them. So the Sisters joyfully care for them, until they are healthy enough to return to their families.
Sister shared with us about one infant that came to them because one day, at the local dump, a dog was trying to find food, and a passerby noticed excessive digging by the dog. Upon approaching, they found a discarded plastic bag that contained a newborn that was still alive.
As we spent time with these children at the orphanage, the take away was the beautiful love, compassion and care that this order of Sisters gave to these children…. And then watch as these children, living in such a tough situation, respond to that love from God’s messengers.
Susan and I also had the opportunity to visit a junior high boarding school for 500 girls that the Sisters run. Sister Scholastica shared that their order believes that a more just society is when women have equal opportunity as men. Right now, the regional statistics are staggeringly low for women getting any education beyond grade school. So the Sisters started a boarding school in 2007, because if the girls were to live at home, they would be put to work, and they never would be able to get the education needed to advance out of the cycle of poverty.
In addition to visiting these wonderful missions, during our stay we were able to be completely immersed in the local culture. For example, a shower was luke-warm at best, and lasted no longer than two minutes. We washed clothes in a bucket. Electricity was intermittent, and WiFi was non-existent. We never watched TV or listened to a radio.
We only drank bottled water and there was not a great selection of food, because everything had to be cooked or boiled. However I think we did taste 15 different recipes for cooking bananas. We learned a little bit of Swahili, since English is only spoken by those privileged to be educated.
Their Masses were incredible. We watched as people walked miles to attend Sunday Mass… getting there on time and dressed to the nines in their finest. In fact, one of the Masses lasted a shade over four hours. The presentation of the gifts alone lasted 20 minutes as everyone in the village brought from their means, not there excess, to the altar.
The music was rockin and people danced in the aisles. There really was no need for their choir, because the congregation belted out every song with a joy that I really have never heard in the US. And absolutely no one left Mass early, because they want to visit with friends after Mass for at least another half of an hour.
The announcements lasted 20 minutes, because the congregation wanted to know what was happening in the lives of everyone in the diocese and their community. Everything was in Swahili, but it didn’t matter. It was a place we encountered Jesus.
We were continually humbled at the simple encounters; like the elderly lady who knelt in the pew in front of me at Mass; and all I could see were cracked skin on the feet that had not seen shoes for years… but was encountering Jesus at Mass.
Or the teacher at the school for girls who was retired from teaching in the government schools, but now in his 70’s, teaches science to the teen girls, because his job of “building the kingdom” was not done.
I could go on and on about the pilgrimage; but all I can say is that it was amazing. We were able to experience a reality that extreme poverty can come with overwhelming joy; as compared to the reality here at home where riches often come with murmuring and complaining about not being satisfied; a fast paced world, where the hunger is to find a supernatural encounter with Jesus. For Susan and I, God revealed himself in a nowhere place like Sumbawanga Tanzania; a remote place no different than our Savior coming out of a nowhere place like Nazareth.
Sometimes it’s easy to become immune to the poverty in Sumbawanga – after all, everything is relative. However, our visit was a very humbling experience. Sumbawanga has become a very special place in our heart. It is a quiet place; a place where the tears of the stranger and the tears of the searching visitor meet; a place where east meets west; where boundaries are broken.
Our trip reminded me that even though our lives are so different; different languages, cultures and customs; as I talked with the people of Sumbawanga, we were somehow united "together" in our humanity through the Sisters and a Christian faith that calls us to action; that shared experiences matter, and realizing that touching each other’s brokenness is where we find Jesus.
I would like to say my motive for our visit to the sisters was altruistic, but I needed them far more than they needed me. The irony is, it is easy to love in Sumbawanga, where the physical poverty is so great. As Mother Teresa once said “you will find places like Calcutta all over the world if you have the eyes to see”; and this is the biggest challenge for all of us back here in the comfort of the US.
So once again, the question for us at Our Lady of the Lake, just like the 1st century Jews encountering Jesus of Nazareth, is not whether God comes to us or not, but whether we are able to recognize and encounter Jesus at work in others in our ordinary lives.
So slow down, recognize the gift of the ordinary parts of your life, and start by doing small things with great love – and recognize Jesus in the one person that stands in front of you at any given moment.
Deacon Kevin Welch and his wife Susan are shown visiting with the students at St.Theresia’s Secondary School in Sumbawanga, Tanzania. Run by the Sisters of Our Lady Queen of Africa. The school provides a quality Catholic education for 450 girls in a remote, impoverished part of Africa. Kevin and Susan and friends have established a non-profit to help the Sisters in their mission, the Friends of Our Lady Queen of Africa, with a first goal of trying to build a kitchen and improve nutrition for the students of St. Theresia. For more information, and how you can help, go to www.ourladyqueenofafrica.org.