The rain beating down on the roof grew steadily stronger and made it difficult to hear. The temperature in the room soared as it was packed with people, but no relief was to be found despite the rain outside. Faces gleamed with perspiration in the thick, damp air.
Light murmur of casual conversation grew in competition with the rain. Swahili, French, and the pounding rain echoed throughout the room until we could not distinguish one language from the other. Suddenly a soft chorus broke out like a whisper among the crowd as everyone in the group began to sing with one voice, "Hakuna rafiki kama Yesu" (There is no friend like Jesus). The worship service had started.
I shouldn't have been completely surprised that we found ourselves in a worship service. After all, we were in a church. But in my defense, it was 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, not your typical worship time within the Western church. "Doesn't everyone have someplace to be right now?" I asked myself. "How could everybody afford to be here now during the middle of the day?" Most of our clothes were damp in the heavy air and our voices hoarse from struggling to be heard over the constant beating of the rain, but we tasted our first portion of Congolese hospitality.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is known for its vast rainforests, abundance of diverse mineral deposits, and political strife, which seems to have plagued the country since independence in the 1960s. For a people who are so good at the art of hospitality, it is a shame that they are not famous for it.
More men than we could count had greeted us at the airport in Lubumbashi, but 36 hours of travel had made our minds hazy, and it wasn't until we saw them in the small sanctuary of the church that we realized they were Nazarene pastors. They had brought their families and church members to welcome their new missionaries and everything else was put on hold.
All who were gathered there praised the Lord for what he was doing in the DRC, the Church of the Nazarene's Africa Middle Field, and throughout the world. They gave thanks for the fact that after entering the southern part of the country just 10 years earlier, there were dozens of churches throughout the province. In conclusion, they praised the Lord for our family and promised to partner with us to advance the kingdom of God in Lubumbashi, the DRC, and beyond. It was a humbling experience to be welcomed by our brothers and sisters in Christ with such grace and love.
The waning light was casting hues of red, purple, and orange as we entered our new home for the first time. We were greeted again by others who were cleaning and bringing supplies for our first nights in our new city. Our first African sunset marked for us the beautiful reception we had experienced and promised even more wondrous things for the future.
Since that time, the church body has responded in kind time and again, and we have been touched by the generosity and hospitality that overflows from them with joy in all aspects of life.
Often, when people enter a new culture they are confronted with constant feelings of being outsiders, ones who may be welcomed but who don't quite belong. I can say that even in our short time here we have never felt like outsiders.
From time to time, we have discovered that we don't know how to do some of the most basic things for ourselves as we would in our home country.
But the church has done its best to welcome us into its family and to cast out whatever doubts we may have of belonging.
One strong example of welcoming us to the family comes from the parents of triplet girls born just two weeks after we arrived. In this part of the world, children are not just the responsibility of their parents or even their extended family. Children are viewed as a blessing to the community, and in a sense, belong to the community as they partner together for the wellbeing of the children. The giving of names is one way this truth can be seen. A child may be named for a relative, friend, or neighbor who has had an impact on the family.
When a child receives your name, you are welcomed by the parents to have a more active role in the child's life. So as the pastor, who was surprised by the arrival triplets, announced the names of the three little girls, we were humbled to find that the first and second born were given the names Jillian and Macy after my wife and daughter. I can't think of a better way to invite us into the family of believers and make us feel welcomed in a place where we stand out for being different.
Any doubt that we could have experienced was quickly put aside during our first days here:
- Are you anxious about moving your family to a new place? Don't be afraid; we are all here, together, with you.
- Are you unsure about whether you are qualified for the task? Take courage; we will figure it out as we worship the Lord and advance the Kingdom of God together.
- Do you feel like an outsider? Don't worry; you are welcomed into our family as we share in the joy of raising our children together. We are in this together. You are welcome. You are family.
In these ways and many more, we have been made to feel like we belong and we are confident that the Lord has us here as a part of his divine purpose. We are outsiders who have been brought into the inner circle.
Jesus also had an active role in making outsiders feel welcomed. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, talked to adulterous women, touched lepers, received children where they weren't normally welcomed, called ordinary fishermen to be his disciples, and the list goes on and on.
In some places hospitality is a lost art. Sometimes it is difficult to open up to people who are different than us or who don't seem to fit in with our friends. We may be annoyed when we have to go the extra mile for someone we barely know, or explain simple things to them that they don't understand.
I believe that if we take the examples of our Congolese brothers and sisters, and certainly the example of Jesus Christ, we will see the need to strive to be hospitable people.
We are the church; let's bring back the warmth and nurturing of hospitality.
It was a humbling experience to be welcomed by our brothers and sisters in Christ with such grace and love.
So the questions now fall to us:
1. Who needs welcoming in our community?
2. Who would benefit from a bit of hospitality?
3. How can we bring outsiders into the same gracious inner circle of Christ's love and affection to which we have already been accepted?
Gavin Fothergill is a Nazarene missionary serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Africa Middle Field with his wife, Jillian, and two children.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2013