Jesus ate with the unclean
Elizabeth Eichling has just completed her first year of the MDiv degree at Duke Divinity School and is a summer intern at St. Monica’s School for Girls in northern Uganda as part of the Center for Reconciliation’s Teaching Communities internship program. At St. Monica’s, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus provide a home and vocational training for child mothers and their children, many of whom are survivors of abduction, enslavement, and rape by the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). You can read more about Elizabeth’s summer at http://lilibette.blogspot.com/.
Most evenings before dinner, I wander over to the compound where the child mothers live. Sunset is my favorite time of day here. The heat subsides but the light still glows. The day’s work is finished, and all that is left to do is eat and rest.
“You will eat with us,” Evelyn told me one of the first nights. Her daughter Mirriam was still terrified of me at the time, but Evelyn has become a friend. I watched as the women set down a bucket of kwon (a dietary staple made from maize flour and water) and a bucket of beans swimming in sauce. They arranged plastic bowls on the concrete porch and started scooping the food with the bowls. People washed, the children found their mothers.
These mothers have accepted the messes and indelicacies that come with small children. They raise their babies without toys, storybooks, strollers, bottles, tissues, cribs, or diapers. While their home is clean and well-kept, there are also plenty of runny noses, wet bottoms, exposed breasts, and African dirt.
I carefully studied the food, coming up with several unspoken excuses not to eat with them. The sisters are expecting me to join them for dinner soon. I don’t want to take from the mothers’ portion of food. I have no idea if those bowls have been washed with soap.
From the haze of my thoughts and excuses emerged the clear truth that Jesus ate with the unclean. God assumed the messiness of flesh in Jesus Christ. Jesus touched and healed the sick. He accepted the hospitality, gifts, and anointing of the unclean and “sinners.” Jesus taught that cleanliness is about what comes out of your mouth as an outpouring of your heart.
Any polite excuses would have been an expression of my own self-interest and fear. The mothers were seeking to give, to share with me from the little that they have. I pondered these things in the pause of that moment. Jesus ate with the unclean. I knew that breaking bread with these women was the most important thing that I would do all day. To refuse their gesture of hospitality would only further cement relationships of power, the politics of skin and passport.
So I ate, and it humbled me. We continue to eat together with our hands, scooping soupy beans with sticky kwon in gestures that chip away at my self-interest and fear. Though as Catholics and Protestants we cannot share the communion table, we have been knit together in the fellowship born of a shared table of beans and kwon eaten on a concrete floor in the glow of an African sunset.
Thanks be to God.
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.
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