Our van pulls into the bumpy dirt space next to her bumpy dirt house and there she stands, her smile like sunshine. It is hot and we are late but her joy reminds me of where I find my Joy. My two youngest see her and their grins match hers as they clap and chant, “Miss Angelina, Miss Angelina!”
Her hug is warm and encouraging like a mother’s and I rest there a moment. “Good morning, sweet friend,” I say and the word rolls off my tongue and fills up my heart as my children pull on her skirt and crawl up into her arms, because she is. She herds them into her house no bigger than my kitchen and has cups of tea and biscuits waiting for them and I cannot believe how blessed I am. I have to run down and start working, but the girls don’t bat an eye. They know they are safe here. “They’ll stay here with me,” she chuckles, “enjoy your meeting.”
I thank her and I whisper more thanks as I walk away and the full weight of it hits me. This woman, she is my friend.
* * *
She lets me put my hand on her shoulder and take her baby for her as she bends her head to weep. This baby was named after me shortly after she was born straight into my lap, the same lap that her father died in just minutes ago. I mop her house. What else do you do?
We stand in the rain and we cry. Neighbors come and I feel their reassuring hands on my shoulders and an on-looker might think that I should be afraid here, in the dark, in the rain but I feel only comfort. So many faces press in to the candle light and I marvel at the stark contrast of people who used to spit at me because of the color of my skin to people who now join hands with mine in the night. “Thank you for crying for our pain,” she says and words fail me. I remember that Nouwen wrote “Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there,” and so we sit.
I walk back up the muddy hill and by the dim lantern light from a near-by chapati stand I embrace people that my heart so deeply loves and even on the hardest days I can’t help but feel gratitude because I know: These people, they are my friends.
* * *
We sit in a circle in my yard and I serve tea and paint their toenails and our laughter is real. We read the word and share prayer requests and praises and not all of them believe yet but they are starting to recognize His answers, to see that our prayers are real, too. We have laughed at our days and cried for our sorrows. We have shared wild stories and we have sat in the silence. And despite a million difference we are really all just the same, and we have forged relationships that will last.
* * *
I speak English and Luganda. She speaks Nkarimojong and Swahili.
Her baby is sick, but I can’t figure out how in the world she is going to tell me what is wrong. I try all kids of crazy sign language and she stares at me. I’ve got it! I start making gagging noises as if I am going to vomit. She nods her head enthusiastically. “How many times?” I ask, and even try to sign. She doesn’t get it. I make the vomiting sound once; she shakes her head “no.” I make it twice. I make it three times. On the fourth, she nods her head earnestly again. We stare at each other. And then, we fall to the floor in stitches. We both realize how ridiculous this is.
I hand her some medicine. She smiles, but pulls me back onto the couch as I stand up. “Eklip,” she says, and I know that one. Pray. She wants me to pray for her baby. She doesn’t believe just yet, but still, she wants me to pray. I curl myself back up next to her on the couch and I thank Jesus for Namele and for her baby and for His love. She stays for dinner.
And as she sits at my table and holds my hand as we bow out heads in prayer again, joy floods over me. This woman, she is my friend.
Status, and culture, and language mean nothing in these moments. Race and age and life experiences fade away. Her hand is in mine and we bow to our Creator and we break bread and we laugh, oh we laugh. I hold her baby and she holds mine and we care about each other in a way that is real and deep. She sits on my couch or I sit on her dirt floor and we exchange a few words that we can both understand in broken verb tenses and we love, and it is enough.
I have long put aside my dream that I might change the community of Masese, but this place, these people, they change me. I share with them so little and they share with me wisdom and joy and laugher. They let me sit with them and know Him more. What is success when children still go to bed hungry and husbands still beat up their wives in a drunken stupor and lives are still cut short by terrible illness? Surely only these faces. Surely only love that transcends all cultural barriers, defies language and race and age, destroys stigma. Lord willing, in ten or twenty or thirty years, Masese will look different as the people here are empowered with a love and a hope that can only come from Jesus. Lord willing, in ten or twenty or thirty years, I will look different too, as He continues to shape my idea of ministry into His. And in the mean time, through the hard, we will hold our heads high and gaze in wonder at the Savior and say with full confidence, “Love has won.”
Love has won. And against all the odds, these people, they are my friends.
Incredible photos by the wonderful Jackie Kramlich!