I’ve only lived in Umphumulo for two weeks, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve begun to join the ranks of the local Lutheran church ladies society. It’s amazing what the kitchen can do to bring folks together…
This past weekend, the Umphumulo Church Centre (where I live and work) hosted a three-day meeting for retired workers and widows in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). Along with getting to chat with some fantastically gracious older folks, I also had the distinct privilege of helping out in the kitchen for most of the weekend. And so Friday night, I waltzed into the big kitchen (which is actually attached to my little house) and joined 10 lively apron-clad women for what would be a weekend full of hard work and life lessons.
Let me tell you…it was quite the crew. Picture 10 lovely, talkative, bustling ladies buzzing around the kitchen, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and nursing stews in the biggest kitchen pots you’ve ever seen. They would strike up conversations in animated isiZulu, yell back and forth across the room, and break into contagious belly laughs that I’m sure you could hear 6 miles away in Mapumulo. This was more than just cooking. This was a ritual. There was a rhythm to the whole operation. From the cooking to the cleaning to the conversation, it was like a carefully choreographed dance that unfolded slowly and gracefully over the course of hours. There was no doubt in my mind that these ladies had been preparing these meals for years. And while I’m not exactly sure about the history of food around here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these recipes have been passed carefully through generations. And now, they were sharing that beautiful and carefully preserved gift with me.
To be sure, I felt a little out of place at first. But their expert hands and patient instructions guided me as I chopped boiled beetroot, chunked many pounds of beef, diced peppers, and mixed custard. While I understood very little of their conversations, they often made sure to fill me in on what was going on in English. And although I rarely caught the jokes, when the chorus of church ladies broke out into their laughter, I couldn’t help but join in, oblivious but caught up in their overwhelming joy.
I learned a lot during those 20ish hours in the kitchen. But I think the lesson that sticks with me the most is one about hospitality. I’m quickly learning that hospitality is a central value to many people in this part of South Africa. I’ve received many open invitations to just show up at someone’s home whenever I want. No plan, no schedule, no warning required. “Just stop by whenever. You’re always welcome in our home.” Plus, I’ve rarely paid a visit without being offered a warm welcome and warm food.
But for some reason, receiving such generous hospitality has been uncomfortable at times. At every meal this past weekend, one of the church ladies offered to serve me a plate of food before anyone else in the kitchen began to eat. Not wanting to refuse the gesture, I would thank her and begin to eat. And, inevitably, I would be the only one eating, while everyone else continued to work. And then well after I had finished, the others would finally sit down to eat. Every time, this unexpected situation left me feeling guilty. Why should I get to eat first while everyone else continues to work? Why should they dish up the food for me when I can certainly do it on my own? Why did I get to eat when the food was warmer and fresher? It was a privilege I didn’t want to receive.
Perhaps what made me most uncomfortable was the fact that I didn’t know why I was the recipient of this special act of hospitality. It is because I’m new to Umphumulo? Is it because I was trying much of the food for the first time? Is it because I was the youngest? Is it because I’m white? Is it because I’m male? I still don’t know.
This simple act of hospitality scared me because it separated me from the group, set me apart as something different than everyone else. At a time when one of my biggest hopes is to become integrated into this community, that early plate of food became a frightening reminder of the barriers that separate me from these people. While I still do not understand the gender dynamics, race relationships, or socioeconomic classes of this community well enough to talk about them in a blog, I still wonder what it means to be a white, middle class, male in rural South Africa. Maybe none of these factors played into the early plate of food. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot to learn about the complexities of power structures, social interactions, and cultural expectations here. What do people assume about me when they see me on the street? How do my race, my gender, my economic privilege, my citizenship impact the relationships I form here? How do I seek to meet people at a place of commonality and shared humanity while still respecting the layers of identity that culture and background inevitably create?
While I have no answer to these questions, I am grateful for people and situations that have made them real for me. And while that early plate of food stirred up a lot of confusing emotions in me, I remain deeply thankful to those 10 wonderful church ladies and the genuine hospitality that inspired their actions. They treated me out of compassion and care that goes far beyond gender roles, race struggles, and economic disparity. They didn’t serve me food in order to make me feel guilty or to separate me from the group. They served me because they are living deeply into the example of Christ, who dared to cross the deepest of cultural barriers to befriend people very different from himself. Once again, this community is teaching me to keep my eyes open for the hands and feet of Jesus every day.
I pray that I can be vulnerable enough to receive the hospitality of this community with humility and grace. I hope that we can continue to wrestle with the hard questions together. And I pray that we can all dare to step across boundaries in order to give and receive love.