Jesus[d] replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Mt. 12:48-50
Jesus’ words to his disciples always struck me as a bit harsh and puzzling. Yesterday we celebrated Sunday liturgy at Transfiguration church in Mabatini, a poor settlement in Mwanza, Tanzania. We were the only white faces in a sea of local Tanzanians who filled a medium sized church for 7:00 am mass. The liturgy lasted two hours and yet the people were never in a rush to leave. We sang, prayed together and shared communion. The kiss of peace was more than a simple handshake, People left their seats to greet one another with hugs of joy.
After mass, we visited parishioners who lived in the settlement to listen to their stories and learn about each other. About forty percent of the parishioners are connected to small Christian communities (scc). These communities composed of 20-30 families who live near each other meet every Saturday to pray, read the Bible share news and offer support to one another. When one of the members is sick or has a financial or other need the leader of the scc organizes to address the need. These communities closely resemble the early Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles.
In each home we were welcomed as friends, as brothers and sisters. Their sense of hospitality was incredible. They shared the little they had with us. Africans are a communitarian society. They find their identity from their family and extended family. When they gather for a meal, all are welcome. Strangers who are passing by and are hungry are regularly welcomed to share a meal with the family. Our western culture which values individualism, competition and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps has much to learn from the people of Africa.
Maybe the people of this vast continent would better understand what Jesus was saying when he asked who are my brothers and sisters? The Africans would say everyone who is willing to open to become part of their family, and for them, that means everyone regardless of race, color or creed. We in the west have much to learn from these small Christian communities and the African culture.