I still remember that day. I was with three other mission helpers wrapping up our three-week visit to India. We were in our hotel room when one of the other mission helpers called us to the balcony overlooking the busy road below. “Come here, quick!” We rushed to the balcony and we knew immediately why we had been summoned. In the busily-moving crowd of passersby, our eyes quickly settled on two white faces moving among the Indians. They were the first light-colored faces we had seen since we parted from the rest of the mission helpers in Nellore over two weeks earlier.
Years later, as I planned my annual
visitation to Tanzania, I was somewhat dismayed when I realized I would be flying solo for the first time. It’s a blessing to have someone with you to share the work, share thoughts, and reflect on the activities of the day. But on this trip, I wasn’t going to have that. For the most part, things went well on the trip. It was more work, and a little more lonely, but a wonderful thing happened.
I was spending a few days in Makanya, Tanzania, where the General Pastoral Conference for Tanzanian churches was being hosted. Makanya is a very dry and desolate area in the northeastern part of Tanzania. Never-ending crops of sisal (a plant from which rope is made) are about the only things to be seen on the barren landscape, and the town of Makanya boasts no tourist attractions or recreational activities. Yet I wasn’t there for tourism or recreation. I was there to work with the pastors of the Tanzanian Church of the Lutheran Confession (TCLC). We studied the Augsburg Confession, focusing on Article III (The Person and Work of Christ) and Article IV (Justification). It was a very rewarding conference and many of the men expressed their joy and their appreciation to the CLC for hosting and leading the conference.
As the conference concluded, we gathered in the evening for our final meal, the “goat feast.” A goat was roasted over a freshly-dug hole just outside the door where we had held our two-day conference. It was there that one of the pastors made this statement: “We like it when you come alone. We feel closer to you when you are here alone.”
I had never really thought about that before. When I had come with others, had I inadvertently given the impression that I didn’t want to be around my African brethren, or that I would rather spend time with my American friends? Upon reflection, I realized that I had become closer to several of the men with whom I spent extra time on this trip. I didn’t want to believe it, but there probably was some truth to what that pastor had said. I began to notice that when I was on the bus or walking down the street in Africa, I felt more of a connection with those with light skin. I was more inclined to start a conversation with a person who looked like me, over someone with dark skin. But just because a person has light skin, that doesn’t make him any more like me than someone with dark skin. There are light-skinned people with whom I can’t even communicate, because they speak a different language (Italian, French and Dutch are examples of nationalities I have met). Even if I can communicate with them, I usually find out that their ideologies are completely different from mine. This may also be true of many Africans, but the point is that it is not the color of our skin that makes us similar or different. On that trip to Africa I came to realize (again) that I have much more in common with my African brethren than I do with the average “mzungu” (Swahili for “white person”). And that is just as true here in the United States as it is in Africa. It just goes to show, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
We all need this reminder from time to time, because we tend to look at the outside for commonalities first. But this is really the least important of all. What valuable relationships have you missed out on because you judged the book by its cover?
I found that I have a great deal in common with these Tanzanian pastors, even if our skin color is different. And I did enjoy getting to know them better on that trip. What a wonderful reminder of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians about the fellowship that we Christians share through faith, no matter what the color of our skin or ethnic heritage: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).
Nathanael Mayhew is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Sleepy Eye, MN and Faith Lutheran Church in New Ulm, MN, and a member of the Board of Missions of the CLC.