Maryknoll Fr. John Siyumbu reflects on the gift of encountering God in new ways when experiencing racial and cultural differences.
I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as part of my formation and preparation for ordination to the Maryknoll missionary priesthood. Having lived with the Dazas, a wonderful host family, during my language school program, I moved into our Formation House in a different part of the city. From here, I would walk to the city’s Cathedral during the weekdays for the 7am morning Mass.
I came to be familiar with many of the traders on the streets. There was a lady who sold delicious tucumanas (empanadas). Many others sold everyday items from makeshift stalls and tienditas (small retail shops) that lined the streets. Shopkeepers sold assorted items ranging from auto spare parts to apparel to stationery. We would wave our "buenos días" as I walked by. We did not know each other well, yet it seemed to me that we looked forward to seeing each other each morning.
I noticed a curious thing during those first days in Cochabamba. Whenever two or more people were at a stall, one would lightly pinch the other, then whisper something as I passed. This happened with a discernible regularity. I spoke about these observations with some of my language school teachers. I learned that my sighting was an occasion to wish luck to a friend or colleague. What was whispered was "suerte para ti" (good luck to you)! I learned that this was done whenever someone of African descent was seen.
It occurred to me that I was treading into the spiritual garden of a people. Further, I could, as the first reading from the book of Wisdom explains, prod deeper into this cultural phenomenon.
I’ve lived among cultures where the sighting of a person of African descent would prompt similar but less benign responses. There was something spiritual about this Bolivian cultural response to difference and to the difference of someone of African descent. There are a variety of ways of interpreting it.
The reading from Hebrews invites us to adopt an attitude of reverence. This is helpful when approaching the ‘other’ person, culture and situation. Cultures, just like persons, are imbued with a mystery that points to God, to the creator of all. Sure, this mystery is mediated through human ways, still, the humble disciple of Christ will choose to sit where she’ll be invited into deeper truths – in God as God reveals Godself in a culture or in a person.
Mediated through the ‘other’ we are invited to experience the awesomeness of God; the presence of Jesus Christ through the ‘blazing fire’ manifested by South American cariño or other occurrences that may appear to be what Paul calls ‘gloomy darkness’. The darkness of polarity that impedes the practice of humility. The darkness of divisiveness that brings contention and controversy to everything rather than allow for the creation of unity.
Through the blazing fires and gloomy darkness of our lives, the letter to the Hebrews invites us to humbly discern God’s presence in the particular circumstances of our lives. God beckons to us to humbly approach God’s awesomeness.
Photo: Maryknoll Fr. John Siyumbu with members of the Maryknoll Young Adults program in Chicago, June 12, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Maryknoll Young Adults.