“And as they were eating, He took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is My Body’” (Mark 14:22)
The meaning of this Eucharist is understanding love. Christ understood. He understood that we have a terrible hunger for God. He understood that we have been created to be loved, and so He made Himself a Bread of Life and He said, ‘Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you cannot live, you cannot love, you cannot serve.” You must eat this Bread and the goodness of the love of Christ to share His understanding love.
He also wants to give us the chance to put our love for Him in a living action. He makes Himself the hungry one, not only for bread, but for love. He makes Himself the naked one, not only for a piece of cloth but for that understanding love, that dignity, human dignity. He makes Himself the homeless one, not only for the piece of a small room, but for that deep sincere love for the other, and this is the Eucharist. This is Jesus, the Living Bread that He has come to break with you and me. (Mother Teresa).
O God, by whose power alone men are enabled to live together as brethren; Look upon the broken body of our humanity, and grant that wherever men meet in council for the ordering of the world, thy Holy Spirit may bring them into unity. Let thy forgiveness make us ready to forgive and to be reconciled to those from whom we are estranged; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (B.B.C. Elizabeth Goudge.)
Fortified by these serendipitous words, I began a day of visiting people in the slums of Kibera, followed by another day of visitations in the neighboring Nairobi slum of Kawangware. I find there are many layers to life in the slums (and even Kenyans who live here, call Kibera and Kawangware “the slums” seemingly without shame). While I cannot help but see things through my Western eyes, the deaconesses who lead me through the narrow passageways to the various crowded huts, open my eyes and my heart to the terrible beauty of these places.
Stepping carefully around the raw sewage and human waste that runs through the dirt streets and alleyways, I pray I don’t slip and fall on the collage of discarded plastic bags that are everywhere in this place. (As a nurse, I really try not think about this possibility!) I also pray I don’t get separated from my friends because I would never find my way out of this maze. There is no “official” map of the slums, but there is an inner knowing of this vast community for those who live here.The smell of burning charcoal for cooking, burning trash, including those blasted plastic bags, diesel from local matatus (taxis), makes my eyes burn and itch. Sweat-soaked clothes add to the aroma that defines Africa.
Small businesses line the main streets, selling everything a person might want or need; drinking water, tomatoes, bitter herbs, onions, prepared foods, cooked in front of you over charcoal fires, hair products, medicines, clothes, meat (OK, NO I don’t want to eat it). The streets are crowded with people going to and fro, buying and selling, walking to work or school. The tiny alleyways are home to small children who play with bottle caps, plastic bottles amidst the mud and slime of sewage, their noses constantly running from colds or allergies to the pervasive smoke.
Ducking low to enter a home, I find that even among the poorest of the poor, there is pride in their home. Despite the ever- present mud and dirt, women do their best to keep their homes clean. Even broken down furniture is covered with some sort of doily or cloth, tattered as it may be. Tin walls (or in some cases, newspaper walls) are covered with sheets or old magazine pictures, trying to create a sense of “home”. The best chairs are given to guests. And there is such pride in having a guest enter into their home—to enter into their life. To give meaning to what might feel like a hopeless life when children are hungry and there is no prospect of getting food that day or the next.
At the heart of this hope are the deaconesses of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya (ELCK). Deaconess Mary, Dcs. Caren and Dcs. Susan provide mercy to people who are broken and hurting. They bring Christ through their smiles, their words of encouragement, their prayers and their love. They enter into brokenness and walk alongside those who are hurting and beat down. They bring hope. And, because of the steadfastness of these deaconesses, we, as their friends and colleagues, are welcomed and even trusted. We serve alongside these women, bringing Christ’s presence through words, prayer, touch and sometimes gifts of food, money or medical care.
Here are a few of the people we visited. Their names are important. The temptation is to lump people together in this vast continent of need and want, but each person is unique. Each person is loved by God and known by God before they were born. Included in each visit is a devotion for the family, with the pastor or deaconess making the sign of the cross on the forehead to remind people of how they were named by God in their Baptism
Nicholas, a husband and father, with a past history of tuberculosis affecting his spinal cord and ability to walk, laid in bed for several years to weak to even get up. While still weak, he does have crutches, but navigating the narrow, slick passageways outside his home is nearly impossible. What we are able to do here is bring hope through laughter and banter about the meaning of his name (Victory) and how in our weakness Christ is made strong. We help the deaconesses think through other options for care—instead of paying for transport to a physical therapy center, it might be easier and even cheaper to have home physical therapy. Encouraging the ongoing exercises he has been given.
We have the means to buy food for this family so they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from for at least the next four days.
Next stop was Rosa, widow and mother of six children, the oldest one being 18 years old. They all lived in a hut about 7X10 feet. She was HIV+ and on Anti-retroviral drugs, but feeling poorly on them because they lacked food. She sometimes got food from Dorcas, a preschool teacher who would “hire” Rosa to come and do laundry or clean the school. Her paycheck was food. One of her children was hiding behind the sheet separating the sitting area from the bed. Having no money for the school field trip, the child had to stay home for the day. (and I am thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding me—where is this mother supposed to get money for a field trip when she can’t even feed her family?!”).
Last stop was Agnes, widow and mother of five children. Agnes, has suffered from lower leg wounds for years, likely from poor circulation or perhaps diabetes? Lacking the funds to get her dressing changed, the bandages on her legs were filthy and inadequate. As a nurse, I was able to at least change the dressings on these wounds, and even though this was a temporary measure, I had some sense of relief at being able to do “something tangible”.
At the urging of the deaconesses, we stopped at a local shop to buy food for all the families we had visited that day, including a preschool teacher, Dorcas, who accompanied us. Agnes, the woman with the leg wounds, walked all the way up the hill with us, so grateful for our visit—for taking the time to care and enter her home.
I’d love to show you pictures, but alas, jetlag got the best of me and I forgot my camera. eeekkkk.
PS Arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania yesterday. Another beautiful country. Hoping to get out and about today.