Clumsy Agents of Grace
It rained on our second morning in Chokwe, Mozambique—a fat, staccato, cooling rain. The breeze was indescribably good, sweeping through the window of our room in Sybil’s blue cement house. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed earnestly for English class to be cancelled. Every morning, Liz and I taught a class of twenty students, from ages ten to eighteen, who knew approximately as much English as I knew Shangaan (i.e., none). Daily, they sat and gaped at us like so many bug-eyed goldfish. Perhaps, I prayerfully suggested, He could spare us that humiliation today. I watched from my bunk as the light in our room went from blue to gray. Danielle and Liz lay silently in their beds. I turned my body toward the window and listened to water hitting water, giant drops of rain smacking the lake that had once been the yard.
To my disappointment, the rain stopped. Danielle and Liz and I, along with the three male members of our team (all of whom are named Ed, an amusing convenience for our students), picked and hopped our way around canal-sized puddles to the mud church/classroom. Using my hand as an eraser, I cut my palm from end to end on a nail that was sticking out of the chalkboard. My blood shone on the chalk dust on my hand, vivid red on white. Liz, who is a nurse back home in New Jersey, said, “You got your tetanus shot, right?” I ran out into the blinding daylight and rinsed my palm under the tap outside, trying not to think of foreign microbes swimming up my veins. I taught the next three hours of class while clutching a damp tissue. Now, when I hold my hand up to my eye, the cut is a hair-thin scar, growing fainter and fainter.
Those first few days in Chokwe weren’t what I expected. It wasn’t so much culture shock as it was like stepping onto a movie set. Like I had doubled myself and sent my clone to do my usual things, eating hamburgers and driving to work and checking my email every half hour, while the other me took two weeks off to play a role in a film about this village in Mozambique. This isn’t real life, I told myself, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
Approximately fifteen years ago, Sybil Baloyi had given up her reality to become a part of someone else’s. She was working as a nurse in her home of South Africa when she visited Mozambique in the late eighties and saw firsthand what civil war had done. Disease, hunger, and violence were everywhere. Bodies lay on the streets. Children wandered, crying, looking for parents who had been killed in the conflict. Her heart broke for them, and she picked up her life and left her home to join World Relief in Chokwe. By the time that Ed Lin (our group leader, and Liz’s husband) met her in 2003, she was World Relief’s Children’s Programs Coordinator. When we arrived in early 2009, she was heading up a nursery school and several Gospel-centered youth clubs as an independent missionary. Eight other women, who we called Manas, or “sisters,” served with her in the ministry.
During our time in Chokwe, we lived with Sybil and her three “adopted” daughters: Viveca (21), Martina (15), and Tlangue (11). Poor parents in Mozambique tend to have many children, and both Viveca’s and Tlangue’s families had struggled to provide for them. To lighten the burden, these girls live with Sybil, though they still frequently visit their parents and siblings. Martina, however, is an orphan. Her mother and father died from HIV/AIDS.
Sybil is a single woman in a male-dominated society. But, with the Manas and the three girls, she had formed a family that opened its arms wide to welcome us. And not only us—the blue cement house was a safe haven for the hungry, the orphaned, the lonely, and the abused. Our afternoons, when not occupied with construction work, were often spent out on the veranda with those who would come by. These are the times I will remember best: Marcos, from youth club, teaching Danielle and Eddie a song in Portuguese. Viveca and Mana Melva slicing carrots and singing on the veranda. Sybil tending the fire nearby, sliding carrots into a pot of agitated water. Smoke from the fire wisping past the broad leaves of the almond tree. In the evenings, after a supper of pao (Portuguese rolls) and mango jam, Tlangue and Martina would unroll a grass mat onto the living room floor to play cards or Scrabble or mancala with Sybil. The girls cheated slyly, hiding cards and shrieking with laughter when Sybil discovered their trickery and pretended to spank them.
Every night, under the tent of my mosquito net, I would wonder with my pen hovering over the page if it was even appropriate to try. My instinct has always been to write it down. But I kept pausing, conflicted. How much do we record to help us remember? How much do we record to give ourselves permission to forget? If I wrote it, did I expel the memory from me and fold it between the pages of my journal? I was afraid to forget this place, this house, this family. But the images jostled and crowded each other until I made an attempt to lay them out to dry.
The smell of the air at dusk when they burned the trash. Warm water in a basin and a bar of soap, hospitality in the seaside village of Xai Xai. Sybil’s hand reaching out to brush away my hair, touch my cheek. The flies collecting at a malnourished baby’s eyes and mouth. His oversized head drooping against his sister’s thin shoulder. Massive vats of rice and beans that the Manas cooked over open fires to feed three hundred and fifty neighborhood kids. Mana Yvonne’s abdominal pains, the nighttime rush to the understaffed hospital, the whispered rumors that this was not appendicitis, but a result of her husband’s beatings, and how, with this information, we watched her situation quickly become routine.
How easy it would be to assume that nothing will ever change, and that these people were better off fending for themselves. The status quo was as it had been for centuries. How could we say that our way was better? Would education solve problems without creating new ones? Would rights for women free them from oppression? Would it breed a backlash of discontent and brokenness? There was a gridlock of conscience at every turn.
While I waffled and wavered on everything from English lessons to polygamy, Sybil fought her battles head-on. She refused to accept domestic violence and adultery as a part of the culture, despite pressure from both in the church and outside of it. She believed, definitively, in a God who hates evil in all its forms, who excuses no harm done to His children. There were times when I took refuge in her convictions, failing to have any of my own. And Sybil, with all her determination and optimism, put us straight to work. Every morning we conjugated verbs in the one-room mud hut, our voices hoarse by day’s end. We sang tunelessly about heads and shoulders, knees and toes, and cookies stolen from cookie jars. In the afternoons, we designed and built a playground out of old tires and ironwood. We gave our testimonies at youth club. We even preached at village churches on Sunday.
Preaching was the last thing I expected, or wanted, to be doing. I am an English tutor, I have a bit of ministry experience with teenagers, and I sort of know how to operate an electric drill. But preaching? At a church? On a Sunday? Wasn’t there some sort of rule against me doing that? On Saturday night, Sybil smilingly waved away all of our protests and instructed us to pair up. I was with Uncle Ed, Liz with Ed Lin, and Danielle with Eddie Chen. The next morning, we piled onto the back of a pickup truck and set out into the countryside. The driver dropped us off at the three churches, one pair plus a translator per church. I tried my best not panic.
Thankfully, Sybil’s translation of my sermon sounded infinitely more fascinating than what I was saying. Fewer than five of the fifty or so in the congregation had ever heard of David and Goliath. Sybil had told us that one of the deepest spiritual needs in Mozambique was for biblical teaching, so I brought my Bible with me and read passages of the familiar story. Later, we learned that churches grew quickly, but lacked spiritual depth. The Mozambicans welcome Jesus, but remain reluctant to put aside their ancestor worship and their witch doctors. Villagers, many of whom are illiterate or unable to afford Bibles, rely heavily on their preachers. The preacher can rail against idol worship, but with no way to study the Bible for themselves, and with little to no contact with the rest of the world, the congregation often doesn’t know what to believe. We were proof of a God much bigger than some small-town pastor’s imagination.
If God uses my feet to carry his gospel, then I am a reluctant, clumsy vehicle at best. Even so, He has been preparing me for years, filling me with biblical teaching and the instruction of many godly men and women, so that I found myself possessing something that the Mozambicans wanted and that I barely valued. Even at my lowest, most doubtful, most fearful, and most clueless, Sybil and the Manas saw the good in me, deposited there without my awareness. They saw Jesus. It was a miracle.
To thank us, the church presented us with an honorarium of about 600 meticais (close to $20), six bars of soap, three kilos of cashews, and a handful of matchboxes. Uncle Ed and I looked at one another uncomfortably. But Sybil pressed the gifts into our hands. “Let them give,” she said. “They must learn how. When they give out of their poverty, they are practicing their faith. Allow them to trust God.” The other two teams had also been given a chicken each, tied at the feet and flopping on the truck bed. We named the brown rooster Eddie, in honor of the three male members of our team.
We killed Eddie (the rooster) that night and ate him for lunch the next day. Liz conjured up a Kung Pao chicken with cashews and the Manas gathered around, settling down on grass mats and thoroughly enjoying their first taste of Chinese food. Mana Ramina lay Baby Ebby on a large rectangle of patterned cloth, called a kapalana. Ebby’s eyes were bright as two pearls in her glimmering black skin. Martina and Tlangue played with Maggie the cat. The Manas teased Ed, who had not paid one cent of bride price and yet had procured a wife who could cook. We sat on the veranda, laughing and draining bottle after bottle of Fanta. In those moments of pause, everything felt so different. I can’t explain it. It was more than the obvious, the tangled foliage, the wandering goats, the Manas joking in Shangaan that rolled and whistled off their tongues. It was more than that sensation of being on a movie set. Even God felt different here. More necessary? More welcome? I don’t know. Just…more. I looked up from my seat on the veranda wall. The sky was blue, wide, scattered with clouds.
Weeks have passed, and I see a woman at Whole Foods, browsing the bakery aisle. She has a baby strapped to her torso in a complex harness with buckles. I picture Ebby, slung on Mana Ramina’s back like a bulgy hammock in a brown and red kapalana. The baby at Whole Foods looks suddenly in my direction. His hair is fair and wispy, his eyes like two pearls.