Mama Veronica: teaching me to receive.

July 28th, 2015 Posted by Immersion Internship - 2015

My entire life, I’ve been taught and immersed in the values of loving, welcoming and sharing with others. My mom has personified the esteemed virtue of Southern hospitality, even way up in snowy Buffalo, and Dad has consistently told and demonstrated to me that generosity is not merely an action, but an attitude that gradually shapes a way of life. I’ve watched my family utilize a home that’s laughably too large for the three of us, looking for every opportunity to host our friends and acquaintances who could use a treat. This environmental mindset has rubbed off on me, so that I find it easy and natural to go out of my way to make others feel loved. I do this using the resource that’s most valuable to me – quality time – and my best friends know that I love a good conversation more than any other form of blessing. Yet there’s a surprising drawback to this approach, at least in my experience. This summer, I’ve been realizing time and time again that as much as I love to give, serve and invest in people, I’m downright bad at receiving any of that from someone else.

One of the most noteworthy, adventurous aspects of our two-week stay with FCE – indeed maybe of the entire summer – has been the opportunity to spend three days and three nights with a host family in Kalungu village. I have friends who have done mission work in contexts where they only ever live among local families, but the entirety of my African experience since the very beginning has been on some sort of ministry base with most or all of my team. Needless to say, I was both impulsively excited and horribly nervous for this launch out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at home, even my future sons and daughters, about ‘that time when I lived in an African hut and ate bugs n’ stuff,’ but I also had real, intense anxieties about how much and what kind of food I would eat, how I would begin trying to speak or otherwise communicate, as well as what might be waiting for me in the spiritual climate of this indigenous community. For reasons like these, I was vocally enthusiastic in preparing for the weekend, but I dreaded it inside.

A major theme of our program this summer has been ‘expecting the unexpected’. As I’ve said before, there is occasional material tossed into the bustle of our responsibilities, purposefully designed to test our patience, but the real face of this is seen when things are truly unanticipated. For the record, the latter has been far more frequent for our group, as well as much more impactful. So in order to clarify the unexpected we ought to be expecting, we had an orientation meeting immediately prior to our stay in the village. The FCE base’s program director, as well as a pastor from the community, encouraged us to keep our eyes open for every opportunity to serve or otherwise bless our host families. We learned some basics of Namonga, the local tribal language, in order to show our new friends that we valued and actually wanted to experience their way of life. All of this was right up my alley, and I couldn’t wait to get out there once I heard what an opportunity this would be to serve. I was paired up with Prince Sinyangwe, who’s become a brother to me, and directed to the house of Mama Veronica, a widow who used to be the cook at FCE’s Kalungu base. And that’s where my hard and fast expectations began to shatter, one by one, like glass into a million little pieces.

Mama greeted us with a warm smile and reverential curtsey, responded politely to our local greeting, then took our bags out of our hands and showed us to our sleeping quarters: a private room with two beds covered in fresh beddings. Next, she led us into the sitting room, sat us down soft couches and asked, in near perfect English, if we were tired from our week working on FCE’s agricultural projects. We admitted that we had seen some early mornings, but that was no matter; that we were there to serve her in any way possible. Mama smiled that signature warm, ‘I run this show’ grandmother smile and said, “Not today. Maybe tomorrow. I know how busy they are at FCE. You will rest while you are here.”

And friends, if that didn’t set the tone for the entire weekend, then I would be writing fiction. Prince and I were literally treated like royalty the whole time we were in this woman’s home. We were fed some of the best, most plentiful meals I’ve had since getting here. Seriously, this might be the first time in my life that I’ve discovered any sort of fat tissue around my ribs – it’s so cool! Every time we would try and wash our dishes, or really do anything else that might be considered service, we were reprimanded and shooed back to our couches. Saturday, after a late, leisurely morning complete with homemade rolls and strawberry jam, I walked outside to ask how I could help. Mama looked up from her massive pile of maze that she was just beginning to shell with great force and said, “We don’t have any work to do today. You go rest.”

After a few more confusing confrontations like this one, I began to realize the game that was being played between us. Both of us had viewed and prepared for that weekend as a chance to love, serve and provide for the other. I felt like a failure if I wasn’t completing my mission, and she felt the same way if she wasn’t carrying out hers. I occurred to me that denying Mama the room to live out her heart’s passion for hospitality wasn’t just doing disservice to her – it was causing her pain by keeping her from doing what she loves. As much as my upbringing caused me to reel with guilt, I spent the rest of the time allowing her to have her way, that is, sitting on her couch while she fattened me up. And in the midst of that, I found a marvelous time full of meaningful conversation with Prince, writing for the first time in at least a week, and praying for my friends and the home I was in. I was also reminded of how this tendency of constant outpouring is something I do in most every other aspect of my life, especially when it comes to faith.

This summer, I’ve been convicted by the story of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15. The younger son, the one we tend to see as the focus of the parable, gets it into his mind that while he isn’t worthy to be called his father’s son, he might as well go home where he can earn a decent living as a hired servant. In the same way, I convince myself that God’s grace an blessing can’t possibly be free; that I need to be constantly proving myself to him and others, convincing them that I’m worth their attention or love. Little do I know that all this time, God’s been wrapping me in his arms with immeasurable love and rejoicing over my return to him. I don’t need to prove to him or anybody else that I’m enough – he already knows that I’m absolutely insufficient on my own, but made totally clean and acceptable in Christ. This kind of love is so far beyond anything I’ll ever be able to grasp or understand, but he calls me to receive it with joy and walk in it nonetheless.

Hospitality and service are amazing forms of love that God created and calls us to do in his name. Yet if you’re at all like me, then we so easily get caught up in trying to give of ourselves that we forget to bask in the love and grace offered freely in abundance. This weekend, I learned to open my belly and allow Mama Veronica to fill it with nshima, vegetables and other wild delicacies. May we learn to open up our hearts and let the Lord fill them with his ever-satisfying love.

William McCauley • 2015 International Immersion Intern