Earlier this year, before the Coronavirus wreaked havoc on our world, Edie and I decided to worship with the Matacalane church, located 20 kilometers from our house. Two weeks earlier when we had found the unmarked church, we had gotten out of our car and wondered how we might find a member and introduce ourselves. We knew that, as foreigners, we would attract attention. Sure enough, one of the church ladies saw us and came running to see what we wanted. She was very happy to learn that we were missionaries.
That Sabbath as we drove to the Matacalane church, we wondered how surprised and pleased they might be to have us join them for worship. We wanted to get acquainted with the whole congregation, and we hoped to start some friendships.
Arriving at the church, we parked in the deep sand under the shade of a tree. The elder of the church rushed out to greet us and invited us in. The one-room church is constructed of tan-colored reeds with a cement floor and a rusty sheet-metal roof. As we entered, we noticed that there were no pews. Half of the people sat on the cement, and the other half sat in plastic chairs they had brought from home. There were around 40 people there and they greeted us. We joined them and began singing hymns and spiritual songs in Portuguese and Xitswa, the local tribal language. Someone would just start singing a song, and everyone would join in. There was no need for anyone to lead from the front. It was beautiful to listen to the harmonies. Singing seems to come naturally for these members.
The children’s Sabbath School class was held beneath a mango tree. The teacher was sick that Sabbath, so a 9-year-old girl was in charge of the program. Edie was impressed with her leadership skills. The children sang and prayed together, and then Edie shared the story of Jonah and the huge fish that swallowed him. The elder preached the main service in Xitswa, and a lady translated into Portuguese for us.
After the morning service was finished, the members invited us to sit under the mango tree and have potluck with them. We knew this would be our opportunity to talk and form relationships with everyone. After potluck, everyone goes back to church for another sermon followed by Sabbath-afternoon youth activities. Bible games and singing traditionally continues until sundown.
Under the mango tree, the men congregated around me, and the women surrounded Edie. The whole congregation was curious to discover what our families and homelands were like. We thoroughly enjoyed talking with these curious people. We discovered that the church had two bus drivers, farmers, street vendors, a barber, and many housewives. They were genuinely friendly. One man got a chair for me.
A bent-over 97-year-old woman named Lerena asked Edie in Xitswa if she likes vegetables. When Edie said she did, the old lady flashed a toothy smile and led Edie away to her house. The other church ladies left to get their food as well. Edie had already placed her pan of pasta under the mango tree, but Lerena didn’t know that. She got the only two plates she owned and filled them with cold rice and matapa, a sauce made of the mashed yucca leaves stewed with crushed peanuts and coconut milk, and escorted Edie back to the mango tree. Once we were seated, she served us her food. She reserved nothing for herself. We were touched by her hospitality! Edie served up a plate of pasta and gave it to her. We watched her enjoy the pasta as we ate the local cuisine. Unfortunately, sand had gotten into the food and it was gritty as we chewed. But, wanting to show respect, we ate it all with grateful smiles. We will never forget Lerena’s hospitality, selflessness and love.
Since that potluck, we have discovered to our dismay that gritty sand can be found in all the bags of dry beans, millet, and rice. The fresh mushrooms and salad can’t be entirely washed of sand, either. But each time we experience a gritty crunch during a meal, it just reminds us of the hospitality of our 97-year-old friend.