By the Rev. Tom Hansen
One Sunday morning in Tanzania I traveled with my wife, Beth, and the Rev. Msigwa to the Ifunda Parish for worship. A short ride from Iringa, it is a thriving congregation with good leaders and fantastic choirs. I was to preach two services, translated by Pastor Msigwa.
As I sat down and surveyed the faithful before us, I couldn’t help but notice a young man in the front pew. He wore a yellow shirt with an American flag-print tie and had a generous and engaging smile. On the floor next to him was a pair of crutches. Polio, he later told us, stunted the development of his legs. Both legs were twisted and underdeveloped, yet, somehow, with those crutches he was able to get around.
During the second worship service, he stood abruptly and asked Pastor Mwilafe if he could speak. (I tried to imagine the response if this happened in Minnesota!) Pastor Mwilafe agreed, stopped the service, and invited the visitor forward.
He introduced himself as Mohammed and told the congregation of how he had been left alone after both of his parents had died. Unable to do physical work, he came to the people at Ifunda Parish for help. He asked the congregation to donate money so he could begin a new project, which would help support him.
As Mohammed returned to the pew, Pastor Mwilafe addressed the congregation, “This man needs our help. Let us offer him what we have.”
No background check, no long interview, no council approval required. The need was real, and the pastor acted immediately.
The people of the congregation, who had already come to the altar twice in the service with their weekly offerings, came forward to offer gifts to help a man they didn’t even know, who wasn’t from the community, who needed help. We watched as these faithful saints, with very little of their own, came forward and gave with their hearts. “Humbled” is too small a word to describe how I felt. After the service, Mohammed joined Beth, Pastor Mwilafe, and me for lunch. The congregation had donated 39,200 shillings, about 25 U.S. dollars. He was delighted.
It would have been an incredible faith story to witness even if Mohammed had been a member of the parish or part of the Ifunda community. But he was a stranger, an outsider, whom no one had known prior to the morning worship service. The people not only accepted him and gave what they had to support him; they loved him as if he was one of their own.
In addition, Mohammed is Muslim. The people at Ifunda Parish knew that and loved him anyway. It wasn’t a big deal for them to leap the theological and cultural hurdles that limit the rest of the world from embracing differences and welcoming the stranger.
Christ was present. Love—through hospitality—clothed Mohammed and the congregation in the living gospel. Just as Christ intended it to be. Thanks be to God!
Note: Ifunda Parish is partnered with House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Oakdale.