I am halfway through a 25-day whirlwind of work and holiday in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. There have been close encounters with Presidents (Obama, Bush, Kikwete of Tanzania), First Ladies (Obama, Bush, and a baker’s dozen of African president’s wives), and media celebrities like Cokie Roberts. Joyful and occasionally tearful reunions with friends and professional colleagues from the last 30 years of my working life connecting Dallas and Washington and East Africa. But no meetings have mattered more than the daily engagement with wananchi – the “just plain folks” of these countries who drive taxis, serve meals, open doors, and make their dignified way through often-challenging life circumstances.
My heart feels at home all day and every day in Africa in ways that I only experience in short bursts at church on Sunday and in purposeful engagement with the closest of my friends back in the United States. Why? It all boils down to three simple words . . . and the intention behind them. When a Kenyan says, “How are you?” I know that she genuinely wants to know. She wants to hear about my family, my health, my plans for the day, and how I slept last night.
When an American – especially one trapped in one of our over-worked, underpaid, often-without-benefits service industries – makes the same inquiry, those same three words often come across as, “Keep moving, would you?” And for those of us who imagine ourselves puffed up and important, the simple courtesy of those words, even if delivered dismissively, just seems like too much to bother with.
Where did we lose the impulse for meaningful connection with those we encounter out on the highways and byways of our busy lives?
Lest we pretend that we don’t have time to stop and really inquire after someone’s wellbeing, and certainly not a stranger, or that it just doesn’t matter . . . remember these words from the incredulous bystanders in Matthew 25: “Lord, when did we visit you in prison or sick, or clothe you when naked, or relieve your hunger?” And the straightforward answer, “Whenever you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters.”
The last time I wrote, I quoted Ed Browning’s admonition that there would be “No Outcasts!” in the church he had been elected to lead. Africa reminds me that there are “No Strangers!” There are no lesser brothers and sisters in daily encounters with our extended human family. Everyone we meet carries with them the presence of the Lord, and it would serve us well to stop, breathe in, and enquire how our Lord is faring today and if there is anything he requires of us.
The answers may surprise us.
Warren (Buck) Buckingham is Senior Warden of the Church of the Ascension, Sligo Parish and was most recently director of the Office of Global Health and HIV for the United States Peace Corps. Share your thoughts, comments, or questions with the diocesan community on Facebook.