(Warning: this post is long). Today I visited with Pastor Miguel Gil. He faithfully serves his flock in the mountainous town of Manica in the Western part of Mozambique. Manica is one of the most scenic places in the world. Imagine a place where the town, tucked in a valley, is surrounded by a fortress of mysterious mountains. These unsolved bastions fortify the town on all sides and late in the afternoon they throw their shadows over the town like a concerned mother covering her child against the late afternoon chill.

The walk to Miguel’s house takes me through the bustling of the local market. People swarm like excited bees. In this African town, like millions over the world, commerce is alive. The market offers a cascading sensory experience.

People walk so close to each other that my shoulder inevitably brushes against a passer-by – here’s touch.

The plethora of fashion is striking – traditional African dress, “just do it” shirts, American Football franchise jerseys and even Rambo, Sadam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden gaze at me as I navigate the market. Made in China is also represented here – here’s sight.

To my sensitized South African nose the market offers an almost nauseating experience. Here, baking in the sun, you will find fresh and not so fresh produce, the fish release the most pungent odour; the distinct smell of sweat (showers and baths are luxuries here) fill my nostrils. As I pass the local bakery my nose appreciates the respite – here’s smell.
A dilapidated pick-up truck approaches the market – at the speed its coming I expect at least twenty dead. The driver honks aggressively and the market is changed into the Red Sea and the rundown vehicle moves through the crowd with ease. People comment in Portuguese – of which I understand next to nothing. Two friends on opposite sides of the road have an animated conversation; it’s definitely not private. People haggle, shout, laugh, and a kid cries – here’s sound.

I’m accompanied by a friend, a local, my guide. His name is Nelson. Nelson is the link between me and this ‘other’ environment. To say that I feel people staring at me is probably the understatement of the century. Some people stare blatantly, others steal a look, a young boy face me defiantly his three other friends shying away – he must be the leader of the pack. The amazing thing is even though every thing is different to what I’m used to, even though I’m one of twenty white people in this town of thirty thousand, even though I’m alien – I feel safe!

Nelson and I have a conversation about greetings. I try my best to greet the people I meet on the road. “Bom dia” I say. “Bom dia” comes the reply. Most people leave it at that; two strangers saying good morning to each other in a civil manner that’s becoming for us the human species. But then there’s the odd individual who asks “Como esta?”

This morning I’m reflecting on this specific question. I’m wondering why people would want to know how I’m doing. Are they really interested in my well-being as an alien to their town? I must confess that a part of me wonders if they’re not ‘testing’ the affluent whitey to see if he knows more than the opening line of the local greeting. I think they want to expose me for the shallowness of my local knowledge; they are on a mission to reveal me for the alien and fake I really am.
As you probably deducted by now, I’m one paranoid boy – I actually think most of them are just being nice. They are just going along with the prescribed and accepted gesture of greeting. “Muito bem obrigado”, I reply.

And then I stop in my tracks.

I think to myself that I don’t know how to say “Actually I’m not doing so well.” This in turn reminds me of an exercise I conducted as a younger follower of Christ. At some point I got frustrated by the superficiality of our western greeting form. Fuelled by my frustration I added something to the usual greeting that forced for some deeper disclosure. After the almost always expected “how are you? Fine and you, fine” pleasantries I just added the simple question why. Why? Why changed everything. Most people couldn’t answer! The others reversed their plastic answer and said something to the effect of “it’s not really going that well.”

I’m frustrated by my inability to tell the locals that I’m not firing on all cylinders.

As Nelson and I turn the corner and thankfully exit the market I ask him questions about greetings. Our conversation is basically what I wrote above. “So how do you say all is not well in Portuguese?” I ask him. “Estou muito mal”, is the answer.

We cross the bridge. The river has a poignant smell that reminds one of sewage. Far from Montana’s ‘river that runs through it’, this stream is the toilet for a lot of locals (flushing toilets are also a luxury here). Nelson shows me the remnants of houses that were washed away in recent floods.

On the other side we continue our conversation. We talk about the fact that if we’re not honest with at least the people closest to us then we’ll not be open in our relationship with God. When God says “Good morning” to us, then we can’t afford to present a fake version of our real selves. Jesus told us that He’s seeking for people who will worship Him in Spirit and in truth. And this is the basics of it – to share with honesty when things are going well, “Muito bem obrigado”. And to be honest when things are more or less like the river we just passed, “Estou muito mal”.

By now we’ve climbed a steep hill and I’m thankful for the fact that we’re on level ground again. Nelson leads me off the beaten track onto a small footpath. We pass an old man busy tilling the ground with a hoe. A few feet after we passed him the old man starts running after us and gives me a gift. He places the corn plant in my hand and says something through an enormous smile. “This plant is part of the year’s crop, he wants you to have it – a gift“, Nelson explains. “That man is handicapped” he adds. I refuse to reduce his colossal act of kindness by a soul-numbing label like that and explain to Nelson that I believe it was Jesus who gave me the plant.

Finally we arrived at Miguel’s house. I call it a house but realise that some qualifier would be in order. It is basically a plastered rectangular of roughly eight by four meters. It’s not painted and has visible cracks on the outside.
Outside the house I meet Teresa, Miguel’s wife. She has a beautiful smile and she initiates the greeting. With my newly acquired Portuguese I answer her question of my wellbeing by saying that I sometimes have moments of extreme ecstasy and then fall into deep valleys of depression during which I contemplate my existential purposes. Nelson smiles approvingly at his pupil. In actual fact I answer her “Muito bem obrigado” choosing for the less complicated option.

We sit down and Teresa continues in Portuguese. Nelson explains to me that she’s asking how I slept and then he helps me to ask her the same. After we established that both of us had a good night’s rest Nelson asks her where Miguel is. I understand nothing that follows but deduct that he’s not currently there.
Pastor Miguel Gil’s house has a magnificent view of the Manica Mountains. I sit and drink it all in, like a newly acquired pole being painted and thirsting for the paint, the scene crawls deep into my soul. I ponder the immense paradox of the scenery. In South Africa people will pay a lot of money to have a view like this and Miguel has it every day.

Miguel’s wife is busying herself with one of her daughter’s hair. At her feet two of the other children are dallying in the dust – Miguel has five children.
Nelson stands up and explains to me that he would like to show me the progress on the church they’re building. We don’t have to walk far. The building project is only five metres from the Gil’s house. It is close for a reason. Miguel must make sure that someone doesn’t illegally occupy the piece of land. The site of the property was allotted to the church by the local municipality and Nelson explains to me that they only gave the church the ground because they didn’t expect them to actually do anything with it. The municipality serves as a voice of thousand of other critics of our faith. They are so used to our saying everything and doing nothing that they can make assumptions like that.
Thankfully they were wrong in this case. Nelson and his friends cleared the ground and before me stand a newly erected foundational structure. With a sense of pride he shows me where teenagers from Johannesburg laid the cornerstone of the building. The base is a fine-looking structure of stone; the inside of the walls are filled with ground. Corn sways rhythmically in the wind, a picture of future worshipers blown by the Spirit. Nelson takes me through almost every inch of the building and he’s beaming.

When the municipality realised that this time word and deed were on the same page, they decided to retract the church’s rights to the ground. They realised that this particular parch of land was in a prime position and made their plans known that they wanted to start a new market on the very ground. It seems like business and church will always clash. True to His word, Jesus sorted things out and the gates of hell didn’t prevail. But just in case Miguel’s guarding the building for any renegade marker starters.

Miguel is in his mid thirties; he is of medium length and has a smile that could electrify Cape Town for at least a month. His beard gives him a sage-like. We also exchange pleasantries (the usual form) and then he asks us to forgive him for being late. He had to help one of his friends move. Nelson translates. I explain to him that the waiting is a very good thing for a city rat racer like me. The three of us discuss the church building – they are very excited and keep on saying that it’s a miracle how God has helped them so far.

We return to his house and Nelson tells him about the handicapped man and his gift and what I told him. Miguel takes the corn, looks me in the eyes and says that God works with us like this plant. That when I plant, in due season I will also bear fruit. It always amazes me when I meet people like Miguel. A person like him has this natural ability to see God in metaphor – to take the most ordinary things and repaint them into the exciting drama of God’s working in our lives.

Miguel signals that we should come into his house. We all pile in. Nelson follows Miguel followed by me and behind me Teresa and the five kids surge into the room – or what’s left of it after we’re crammed in. The house is dark inside; as I enter it I observe a washbasin to the right. Right in front of me is a low table with three chairs. The left wall has an opening covered by a curtain (the holy-of-holies, the main bedroom) and to the right of the opening stands the family’s transportation – two bicycles. Miguel says something and Nelson explains to me that he wants me to bless them, to pronounce a blessing on him and his family. I ask him if there are some specific issues he would like to pray about after the blessing. He answers that he would appreciate prayer for the furtherance of the Kingdom, the health of his congregation – especially malaria – and for the building of the church. We all stand in a circle holding hands.

Cultures differ. The one place where this is most obvious is when white and black people pray together. When white Protestants and black Pentecostals ask together, the differences are obvious. Let’s just say that we have different volume speakers and leave it at that. I’ve always felt that if I were to keep my relationship with God real I’ll have to keep it as close to how I conduct my normal conversations. When my wife Lollie makes a killer dinner I always thank her. I tell her with a normal voice how much I appreciate her and that I love her. It would be extremely weird for our relationship if I shouted at full capacity HONEY! I LOVE YOU! THANK YOU FOR DINNER. I think after the initial shock of the volume Lollie would give me a tongue lashing for doing something like that, because Tayla’s usually sleeping at dinner time and a raised voice would wake her. But I regress.

I pray for Miguel’s family in a normal tone of voice and Miguel, Nelson and the rest of the family accentuate some points with a loud AMEN or HALLELUJA or THANK YOU GOD. It is a lovely time. I thank God for being so creative, for making people of different colours, languages, hair styles and nationalities. The ebb and flow between my soft spoken words and their pulsating thunder is invaded with Another and after we say our differing amen’s Miguel says that he really experienced God’s presence during our prayer. A part of me is relieved. When I’m praying with louder types I always wonder if they interpret my soft spoken prayers as a timid spirit, I sometimes wonder if they think I lack boldness in our great God. My wondering is dissipated by the affirmation.

My host gestures to one of the three chairs and I sit down, Nelson to my right and Miguel to my left. For a few brief moments we sit in silence. I ask Miguel what challenges he face as a pastor. He mentions two; his health and food. He tells me that his biggest concern is for his wife and kids – that they will resent God because they have almost nothing to eat. He is concerned that they’ll equate their hunger with the lack of God’s provision. I have asked a lot of pastors this question and I have never received an answer like this. Pastors in the city worry about success and existentialism or being purpose driven they don’t worry about things like food and drink and medicine.

Miguel explains to me that he and his family suffers from Malaria. He is frustrated because he can’t serve God with all his energy. I wonder if he believes in medication and I ask him if he views going to doctors as a compromise to his faith. He assures me that he has no problem with modern medicine and that he went to the hospital to get some medicine. The first set had an adverse reaction with his head and eyes and the second prescription helped.
He explained to me that he suffers from frequent headaches and that his sleep is not regular. All of this he tells me with the most gregarious expression – there’s no self pity here. I remind myself that I asked him what his challenges are and that this is not a pre-planned agenda to move me through manipulation.

At this stage Teresa appears with a basin of water. She offers it to me and I wash my hands followed by Nelson and then Miguel. When I offer him the basin (instead of allowing him to put it onto the floor he shows a shy smile). Miguel and I have had some experience with a basin and water. Two years earlier a group of Americans visited Manica and Schalk and I led them into a foot washing ceremony. I’ve touched Miguel’s feet two years earlier. Since that day he has touched my thoughts a few time and that was it. I pondered the fallacy of a symbol that’s not translated into action.

With our hands washed Teresa brings in a bowl with four corn cobs. They gesture at me to take one. I expect a cold cob and am pleasantly surprised by the warmth of it and it tastes delicious. Situations like these always humble me; when someone with almost nothing gives me proportionally so much! He gives out of his poverty and I’m challenged to give more. The corn comes from the rows planted on the church’s foundation – these corns are the staple diet of the Gil family.

As our conversation continues it becomes clear to me that Miguel’s open to medication and that the real issue here is a lack of money. Miguel’s poor. Not because he’s a lazy person, or someone with a huge character flaw. He just finds himself in a situation of extreme poverty. For the next hour we talk about stewardship and tithing and I find out that he believes that a pastor should be paid. I also find out that his congregation is really poor and that they don’t really have the means to help him. Every other week the church family brings him some practical items like soap, washing powder, butter, oil and sometimes some money. There’s not a problem with Miguel’s theology or his church’s administration with money. It is just that they don’t have enough money – not he not the community.

A lot of people say that they find it difficult to serve an invisible God. They try to pray God into existence, search Him in conferences or conjure up moments of religious ecstasy. Today I found out (once again) that Jesus loves wearing disguises. In one instance I knew that the man before me was not just Miguel. It was Jesus. On this Saturday of Holy Week I knew that here before me sat a sick and hungry Jesus and the question I had to face were: will I clothe Jesus and will I be with him in his sickness? Jesus came for the poor and he is in the poor – full stop. If I ignore the poor I ignore Jesus – full stop. “As you did it onto the least of me” … Jesus disguised as Miguel.

Violet is just over a year old. During our conversation Teresa enters again and little Violet hung on her back – sleeping her late morning nap. I know about these naps. My seven month old needs hers every day. The only difference is that Tayla takes her nap in a camping cot and that her room is almost the same size as Miguel’s whole house. Seven people crammed into a miniscule room. I am struck by the comfort of my life – again.

One would think that the whole Jesus is with the poor thing is easy. You see him hungry and sick and thirsty and then you feed him. Right? Nope. It’s hard. As I sit there I’m plagued by an army of thoughts attacking me like a pack of stray dogs. Can I trust this guy? Will he be wise with money? Will I become his white ‘friend’ who he associates with mammon? How will my heart do in a helping situation – will I develop a patronizing saviour attitude?

The bucket of corn has one cob left. Miguel gestures to me. He wants me to take the last one. But how can I? Nelson explains to me that I should take it; if I refuse it, they will be insulted. I dip my hand into the bowl and take the last cob of corn. Moments like these cut deep into the soul. Reveals dark crevasses of sin and illuminates possibilities for change. I want to grow, I want to change.

For the next hour we talk through issues of trust and stewardship and secrecy. It’s a good conversation – a tricky conversation. Especially for two people who have no long-term rapport and history. During our conversation I ask him what he and his family currently earns in a month. 700 000 Meticais is the answer. In my mind I convert it to South African Rands – R175 ($28). R25 per person in a month – 80 cents per day. I must admit that the numbers make me stagger! I spend twice this amount on my dogs in a month than this whole family consumes. Seven people two dogs – I feel small and sad. I think about Tayla and imagine Miguel’s love for his five children. I’m overwhelmed.

I tell him that I would like to become involved in his life in the specific area of finances but that I’m concerned of two things. The first is that he will view the money as a gift from a white person a “bronco”. The second issue is that of trust – will he use me and reduce me to a dollar sign.

Another few minutes of conversation ensue. He shares with me something absolutely astonishing. Whenever someone in their church gives, Miguel and the leadership earnestly pray for that person so that they don’t become proud and conceited and think of themselves as something special and then ‘fall into the trap of Satan.”

Profound!

In the city if someone gives money for the ministry we do a lot of things like place them on a pedestal or a committee or the church board. We don’t pray for the health of their souls.

Whenever I spend time with the poor I have to fight the inbred response of wanting to play God. I fight the reflex reaction of placing myself ‘above’ the poor; and seeing them as people who could potentially learn from me. I need the poor. As I’m sitting with Miguel I’m learning lessons of perseverance, faith, suffering and what it means to be a faithful shepherd of a flock.

I sit in the house – mosquitoes circling everywhere – and I thank God for second chances. Two years ago I washed this man’s feet. I had a ‘great experience’ and it translated to no action. I thank God for repentance, reparation, restitution.

Without action any religious experience is a cheap way of enriching ourselves and stealing from others. It becomes spiritual colonialism – using people for an experience and not serving them. To receive without giving is like rape. It’s like taking something out of the intended context it was made for. Blessings received without giving equals thieving.

I ask Miguel’s forgiveness.

He accepts.

On this Holy Saturday I’m confronted with two facts. The first one is that I’m a sinner, the second that I am a sinner saved by grace. I’m not going to make the same mistake with Miguel. Grace propels. I commit myself. I’ll answer the call. There’s no turning back. I share with him that I feel God’s call to help.

He smiles.

I know he’s praying for my soul; asking that I won’t fall into some form of pride.

Giving is easy; receiving is a harder journey for me. There’s something utterly humbling in accepting from other people. During this week someone in a jocular fashion said that they don’t listen to other people, they only listen to God. The problem is that God speaks through other people more often than not. Today Miguel is the megaphone.

I know that I’m invited to open my heart and hands to this man – that a refusal to do so would be saying no to God. I ask Miguel to pray for me.

He suggests that we kneel together and place our hands on each other’s shoulder. In this uncomfortable position his mouth is extremely close to my ear. The previous day I swam in the Chicamba dam. Schalk and I tried to hide from his dog by diving underwater. I blew out some air and plummeted to an unfathomable depth. With the decent my ears filled with water.
In this peculiar praying position I’m thankful for the protective layer of H2O. It’s another example of redemption.

Miguel prays and Nelson translates. The process is a stuttering one, Miguel repeats every phrase twice. The prayer, the blessing enters my heart and I thank God silently for this moment; for allowing me this visitation.

My knees hurt and my Achilles heel is at snapping point. Receiving is difficult – it is truly my Achilles heel.

The prayer ends and Miguel explains to me that he has two Scriptures that he wants to share with me. He turns his worn-out Portuguese Bible to a passage in 1 Corinthians 15 and reads, Nelson translates:

“But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:57-58, NIV)

And then in 2 Corinthians:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.” (2 Corinthians 2:14, NIV)
I thank him for the words. After a few minutes of sharing stories about our families the three of us stand and I say goodbye to Teresa. Miguel walks with us as we descend to the valley. We cross the bridge and my friend signals that this is how far he can come with us. We smile at each other and share a big hug.
As we walk home I’m overcome by the experience. Poverty is such a huge issue that I sometimes feel totally defeated. But when poverty gets a name or names: Miguel, Teresa, Violet, Moises, Micael, Sienisfa and Eunice – then I’m challenged in so much more than a general concept. A stewardship has been entrusted to me. Through the two Scriptures I’m invited to give myself fully, to be a fragrance of God.
And so the journey continues.