They were there when we got off the plane. They were all along the route as we made our way through town. They were there when we arrived at the church. And at the next church. They were there on the banks of the Congo River, waiting in the rain for hours as we made our way out of the canoe and into their makeshift church. They were there when we visited the school. And at the next school. They were even along the one paved road we bounced upon for hours upon end until we made it to the interior—the rural area outside of Mbandaka. They were there when we visited the hospital.
No matter where we went, at what time we arrived, or how many or few of us there were, they were there—waiting, with great anticipation. The Congolese know how to welcome. No need to form welcoming committees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for everyone in the community joins in; all eagerly take part in welcoming the stranger. As the new kid in town, I was simply overwhelmed by the hospitality offered—not just when we first arrived, but during the entire trip.
I must admit, it never got old. The moment we would get close to nearing our next destination, I would hear the faint sounds of singing. Their voices, drumming and clapping bid us welcome long before we could actually see our hosts. On many occasions we were not on schedule, but that did not stop our Congolese brothers and sisters—waiting and wanting to welcome us in the ways only the Congolese would, in song and dance and utter enthusiasm.
It is precisely that kind of awesome anticipation that I wish I felt as I wait for the Christ-child to be born. I admit it; I wish I could continue, year after year, to conjure up that kind of sheer excitement. But let’s face it: we know the story. It’s no longer a surprise! We will find the Christ-child again this year wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mary and Joseph will have gone through one heck of an ordeal to finally make it there—lucky to find a dirty stable where they could bring their baby into the world. I wonder if their initial fear eventually did give way to excitement—Congolese style excitement, that is—when they finally realized that they truly were going to become the parents of the Newborn King.
But there was no welcoming committee in the stable. No women in bold and bright colored dresses; no children dancing; no men drumming. I highly doubt that there was anyone there ululating or clapping. No palm branches were waved; no hands shaken. No voices raised, nor was there any singing that could be heard far off in the distance, signaling that we were there, waiting, ready to welcome the King of Kings.
Ironically, the great anticipation with which the Congolese waited and welcomed us could have been deceiving, for I knew that the excitement they felt as they waited for us to arrive should not be confused with the other things they long for: access to health care, medicine, and medical treatment they can afford; sources of nutritious food or opportunities to grow enough of their own food; clean and accessible water; education for all; an end to violence against girls and women; peace across their land.
O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.
Likewise, the pastor from Central Christian Church in Waterloo, Iowa, wrote me on Monday. Do you recall the horrible floods of last year that affected many parts of that great state? As most of us have moved on with our lives, barely remembering this news from 2008, we learned this week that one of our dear Disciples families is still struggling to make ends meet. They have received all the resources possible from FEMA and other community organizations in the area. But after a disaster of this kind, it can literally take years to get back on your feet. This family, one of our own, is still waiting for a full recovery. Waiting to catch up with their overwhelming bills. Waiting to pay subcontractors. Waiting for their life to regain a sense of normalcy. Waiting for peace.
Thanks to you, Week of Compassion responded to our family in Iowa, just as we faithfully respond to our sisters and brothers in need in the Congo. We respond to those who wait for just the basic necessities of life. Our gifts of compassion are our way of welcoming the Christ-child again this year. They are our way of beckoning him forth into our hurting world—O come, o come, Emmanuel.
Now that is something to get excited about…
May you and yours have a very merry Christmas.