Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Faith and the Eucharist

One of the things I miss about Los Alamos is that every time I went out, I would see someone I knew. David M. used to work in the Smith's produce section, and when I ran into him there, we would talk about theology and philosophy and poetry. One of the conversations I had with David was a foray into the eternal nature of the Eucharist. We were talking about science fiction tropes and wormholes and time warps and things like that, when one of us (I don't remember which) noted that the Eucharist was like a portal into every Church at every time and place where there was or will be a Mass or tabernacle, from the first Mass at the Last Supper and its culmination on the Cross, to the small adoration chapel in Los Alamos, to the Masses in Nazi concentration camps, to Fr. Damian's Masses on Molokai...  present in the Eucharist at every Mass, present in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in every Tabernacle, is the Same Christ. In a very real way, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are united to the whole Church. The Holy Spirit dwelling within all baptized Christians is the same, and as the song says, "We are one Body In Christ... and we do not stand alone." How cool is that!? Way cooler than anything any sci-fi author or screen writer or director has dreamt up.

Anyway, several times while on mission I have thought back to that same conversation with David (and others, of course!) and pictured the very real connection between the people in worship here in Kumbo and those we love back home. While we talk about and notice cultural differences, one thing that is the same is the faith. Of course, it is expressed in local, culturally different ways, but it is the same Mass, the same Eucharist, the same Creed that we profess. Regardless of cultural ideas about time, In the Mass, the timeless rules: our God present in the Eucharist is eternal, and when we receive communion we are united to the whole Church, here in Kumbo, in Los Alamos, in Virginia, in Rome, everywhere.

One thing I like is the ubiquitous nature of Faith here in Cameroon. Many people thank God in everyday conversation: "It is a nice day, it is not raining, we thank God for that." "I found what I had lost, we thank God for that." Not only are people grateful to God, but they are not afraid to express it. I'll admit that in the States, it can be difficult for me to use language like that. I feel self-conscious, but here it is natural. It should be natural back home, too! What is more natural than thanking God for what he has provided? Hopefully, here I will learn to be more grateful.

Another wonderful thing about the faith here is how the Sabbath is observed: Many shops are closed on Sundays, if their owners are Christian. Muslim owners close down on Fridays. (I'm sure if there were Jewish people here, they would close on Saturday.)  A few times I have gone to Junction to get some eggs or candles or what have you from the Muslim-owned shop we frequent, only to realize it is Friday and they are closed. I am put out for a moment, but very grateful that they take their faith seriously. The same for the Christians: how wonderful it is that I can't see my tailor on Sunday, or I can't buy my small things from the Christian-owned shop. It certainly makes me want to keep the Sabbath more mindfully.

I guess in a way my time here "On Mission" is teaching me to integrate my faith and my life, to make it so there is no difference or incongruity between the to, to really live my faith. I thank God for that!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Not A Normal Day

So, today is NOT a normal school day, but it has been normal in other ways. Since tomorrow is the Muslim Feast of the Ram and a public holiday, there is no school, at least for teachers. The students will still sit in class and "study." There had been some confusion about whether or not Monday would in turn be a holiday as well, because usually when a public day happens two days before or after a public day (Sunday, in this case) the day in the middle is declared a public day, too. Everyone was assuming that Monday there would be no school, but nobody was sure of it. This was the normal part of the day: Nobody, teachers and administration and students alike, knew for sure whether or not there was school. Simultaneously, nobody seemed to care. Either there would be school or there wouldn't, and life would go on.
I asked at Mass on Sunday, but there was no definite ruling yet, and then at Mass Monday morning, I tried to ascertain the situation... but got no definite answer. So, I showed up to the Monday Assembly, which usually eats up almost all my teaching time for first period, and thought that perhaps I would be teaching after all, as the students were gathered like usual and some teachers were arriving. There weren't many teachers there yet, but then again, there aren't normally many teachers until the end of Assembly. It's like Mass: the Church looks half-empty when Mass starts, but by the time the Offertory comes around, it is packed and you risk losing your seat if you get up to take a squirmy child outside.
So, by the end of the assembly I find out that there is no need for me to teach today. This whole experience is an example of a cultural difference: I wanted to know whether or not I needed to teach, and nobody else really cared one way or the other. I was going slightly crazy being stuck in a scheduling limbo, but it was just no big deal for anyone else. It wasn't actually that "bad," just slightly frustrating. But it's an example of the kind of thing that happens here when cultures bump up against each other: my Western need of advance notice of how I can spend my time butting up against the Cameroonian "M yo' ci," or "I don't mind." (pronounced mmyo chee) It's not a big problem (today) because it is also that case for me that M yo' ci. I'll just find something else to do today, which is no problem with five kids and life in Cameroon.

Post Script: Just what IS a normal school day, you are wondering? Well, I typically get up at 5 am and cook a small breakfast and have coffee while I read or knit or stare into space, then head out to 6am Mass at the SAC chapel. Mon and Fri there's a 7:15 assembly it starts at 7:20 at the assembly grounds, and the other days the 7:25 first period starts at 7:35. So, I either prepare lessons in the staff room, read, or head home for a brief time to help Logan with the kids in the morning. I especially head home if I haven't had breakfast yet. Then, there's class. I teach four or six periods every day, except Thursday which is my off day (helpful when you have business to take care of around town.) I teach Maths to forms I and II, which is like middle school in the US. If I have a free period I'll go to the staff room and prepare lessons or socialize, or to check if any important announcements have been posted. It is fascinating to listen to the various conversations in order to learn about the culture here. Slowly I am beginning to understand more and more. I am usually done teaching by 11-ish if I only teach four periods or 1-ish if I teach 6 periods, so I go home and hug my babies. Friday afternoons I supervise the Lamnso' club (which is now more like  teach the kimbang teacher the dialect club) and every month or so I have afternoon supervision duties, which means I wander the campus making sure the students are seated and quiet, or I break up arguments about who stole what from whom in the dorm, or I correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation of the chalk graffiti I find on the board.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Losing Things In Africa

Our goat ran away today. We had just bought it last week, a momma with a kid, and we haven't even settled on a name yet. Our house help thinks we are a little crazy to name a goat, but hey! We think it's fun. We were thinking the baby could be Kidzeru, Lamnso' for “it is true” and the mother could then be Kanga or something like that.

We have left an umbrella in a taxi (twice actually, only one was found), and I've lost a knit cap, probably in a taxi. I left my bag in a taxi once, but Isabelle, who was out running errands with me for what we call "a special day" with mom or dad, alerted me through tears that we left the bag in the trunk and I was able to track it down by sending a guy on a motorcycle to chase the taxi and bring the bag back. We've lost a couple of water bottles we had bought at REI before we left the States, and who knows what else we've lost.

My wife reminds me that we lose things all the time anyway, that this is no different. Still, the gravity of the loss seems greater here, more permanent, especially with the more important items. The knit cap, for instance, I had knit for my older brother, and when he died last year, I inherited the cap back from him. I have treasured it as a cozy and personal reminder of Ben. I was devastated when I noticed it was missing, and spent too much time in a fruitless effort to track it down. I guess the experience with the bag had given me hope.

Losing things is an opportunity to become more detached from material goods. We don't need those water bottles, though they are nice to have. We don't need an umbrella, though it is useful. I don't need that particular knit cap, though its emotional value is priceless.

Because our goat was missing, I spent a good part of the evening searching the campus, the pastoral center, the path to the bishop's house, the thicket below the path, new paths I had never trod before, and more.  I saw parts of the world just behind my house that I had never seen. I saw the same things I always see from a new perspective.  I got covered in burrs from the overgrown paths.

Coming out of the woods covered in burrs and branches, but still goatless, another teacher saw me come from behind her house and asked, "where are you coming from?" I explained my predicament, and she said that the goat has likely gone with the others. It will return in the evening. I told her it was a new goat, we just bought it, and it might not know its home yet. When did I buy it? Last week. Well, if it was yesterday, that would be different, she said, but a week and it will already be enough time. You can relax, it will come home.

Sure enough, when I arrived home, the goat had come back. Tomorrow we'll be sure to tie it better, but for now we're thankful that what was lost was found! I know I likely won't ever find my brother's hat.

Caps don't wander home at sunset. My goat was never truly lost, it knew the way home. In looking for it, I saw something new, and old things in new ways. Hopefully, for everything that is lost, we'll gain a little perspective.