I look around me at all this Christmas abundance, and I feel so blessed. Every day, I fill the little pockets of my children’s advent calendars with treats, and I am grateful that I can lavish so much love and generosity on my children.
In the middle of all this, though, I remember one of the most life-impacting moments of the past year. I remember the day I ate bread with the Bishop…
We munch on the Bishop’s bread as we bump along rough country roads in SUV comfort. “It’s for my diabetes,” he’d said when he’d sent his driver into the store before we’d left town. After the bread, the Bishop reaches back from his front seat and hands me a fruit juice. “You can wash it down with this,” he says benevolently, and I receive it like a penitent parishioner receiving communion.
The Bishop laughs his deep belly laugh as he recounts stories of the days when he’d left Tanzania to study in America. “I could tolerate almost anything,” he says, “except for the rock and roll. It’s an abomination that they’re letting it into churches now.”
When we reach the village, throngs of people await our arrival. We step out of the comfort of air conditioning and leather seats, into the hot African sun. I step out alone on my side of the car. The Bishop walks ahead, bowing graciously to the multitude that clamours around him. Always, his chuckle can be heard above the din.
As the Bishop disappears into the crowd, I try to follow, but the masses close the gap and I am quickly surrounded by curious and eager faces. They stand a respectful distance away. There must be fifty sets of eyes on me. Some of them giggle as they examine my blonde hair and pale skin. One woman tentatively reaches out and, when I offer my hand, fifty other sets of hands take courage and reach out to touch me.
I feel hands all around me – all of these people eager to touch the woman whose white skin, to them, means “one blessed by God.” My throat begins to close with overwhelming emotion. My eyes fill with tears. “This is how Jesus must have felt,” I think, “when the hemorrhaging woman reached through the throng to touch his cloak.”
“I am not the Messiah,” I want to shout, as I struggle to move forward without jostling or offending anyone. “Hold your honour for someone more worthy than me.”
Finally, I make my way to where the Bishop and the others are standing. The crowd forms a reverent semi-circle around us. Eager faces await words of greeting from the benevolent Canadians who have brought the food they will eat for the next three months while they pray for rain.
The Bishop speaks first. He urges them not to let sin enter the village. His voice rises as he preaches to them of the blessings God will bestow on them if only they are faithful. They peer at his broad girth, and I wonder if they are hoping they can be as faithful as he has been.
The hot sun is unforgiving as the villagers wait – they’ve waited all day for us to arrive and now they are at the mercy of the Bishop’s words. All this they must endure to take home a few morsels for their children.
I feel hands urging me to step forward. “They want to hear from you,” someone whispers. Tiny needles pierce my throat as I try to speak. What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?
“Thank you for your kind welcome,” I begin falteringly. “In Canada…” my voice breaks, “my father was a farmer just like you.” My mind races, searching the past for one kernel of connectedness. “We were poor, and sometimes we didn’t know if we would eat. Just like you, we’d wait for rain, and when it didn’t come…” I pause to wait for the interpreter to catch up. “When it didn’t come, we ate less than we did the year before. My father worked hard, just like you. And yet, sometimes the crop failed, or the markets sank and times were hard.” Pause. How can I let them know they are as valuable as I? “I know that, if there were no food on my table in Canada, and you were blessed with bountiful crops, you would help me too.” My voice drops to little more than a whisper. “I will pray that God will bring the rain.” The words come out of my mouth, but in the same instant I know that God will hear my anger and confusion before I remember to pray for rain.
Others speak, and I step back into the crowd. A group of grinning young boys wave me over. They gesture at the camera around my neck and strike a pose for a picture. As they ham it up, I life my camera to my face. Before turning away, I smile and wink, and they giggle behind their hands.
Someone thrusts a bucket into my hands and points in the direction of the mound of maize. Standing on the food they will eat, we fill the sacks held out with eager hands. Just enough sacks to satisfy the photo opportunity, and then we are whisked away again.
As we pull out of the village, I sink deeply into the leather seats, tears stinging my eyes. The Bishop’s bread and juice threaten to erupt from my churning stomach.
I turn to look back at the crowds. Part of me longs to jump out of the car and rush back to them. “You shouldn’t be thanking me,” I want to tell them. “You should hate me with every fiber of your being. I should be stoned in the village square for throwing away more food than you will eat this year. I should be flogged for my closets full of greed. At the very least, I should be barred from the village for keeping silent in the face of injustice.”
The Bishop chuckles in the front seat. “We’ll go to another village now,” he says, settling into his seat. “They have prepared a feast for us. You must try the goat.” He smacks his lips. “I do love goat.”
Later, as I try to swallow the dry hunk of goat meat the Bishop pushes my way, I silently plead to the God of confusion for absolution. Surely, there must be some worthy penance for my sins.