Sam Janson, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Tanzania, describes how the people he works with model our call to "stay awake."
What does it mean to "stay awake," alert and ready for the coming of God's kingdom? The families I work with have taught me that it means maintaining faith that God's work continues in our lives, even if it is not immediately apparent, and even despite the bleakest circumstances.
Since coming to Mwanza, Tanzania, I have had the privilege of working for a parish-run community health program. Part of our program includes working with children with disabilities, brought to the parish two or three days a week to do physiotherapy with our staff and often to be seen by our pediatrician, Maryknoll Lay Missioner George Stablein. Nearly all of the fifty children we serve are brought each week by their mothers, who often carry the children on their backs as they travel from near and far on foot.
Unfortunately, the situations facing these mothers and their children with disabilities are often complicated by other challenges in their lives. The challenge of trying to raise a child with disabilities, while doing the necessary amount of work to keep your family fed, clothed, and housed, is near universal. Strained or broken marriages, family obligations, substance abuse, and physical abuse, are everyday realities. While it easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of suffering, I submit that God's call to "stay awake" and faithful is alive precisely because of the faithfulness of these mothers. They come each week, with no guarantee of really changing much of anything. They’re not promised for their disabled child to be healed. They’re not promised to be made rich, or to otherwise dispense of their financial burdens. They're not promised to be transported out of Mabatini into some other imagined life. But they have "put on the armor of light," contributing to God's kingdom by their sacred faithfulness to their children that brings them here. And they have a belief, even a faith, that maybe the lives of their children can be just a little bit better than if they simply stayed at home. While "the night is advanced" for these women, they act as though "the day is at hand," waiting and watching with hope.
My other ministry in Mabatini is helping to teach adult literacy. Twice a week, young mothers, old grandmothers, and young men in their twenties, all converge on a little classroom beneath the rectory to learn how to read and write. Many of them have had little to no formal education, hailing from rural villages where work took precedence over going to school. Week after week they show up, listen attentively, write carefully, and often are not shy about asking for clarification when my Swahili falls short. Learning literacy as an adult, particularly for some who are into their 70s, is a unique challenge. The mechanics of writing, vision challenges, and a decreased memory all make retaining the material very difficult. And yet, they remain utterly faithful to their endeavor. Even if it means practicing writing the vowels “a, e, i, o, u” week after week, as it does for one of my students, each week I can expect her in the first seat on the left in the front row.
I can think of no better models of this committment to "stay awake" and faithful than my literacy students and the mothers of disabled children. They believe in the possibility of their children living a better life, and they believe in their ability and their right to learn, despite life circumstances that tell them simply to accept their fates. To manifest our divine nature is to be faithful, despite doubt and despair.
Photo by Marie Dennis