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The Greatest Gift

“Father, I’d like to become a Christian”. One never gets used to these words, even if one happens to hear them many times. Now, they come from the lips of a young woman who, since two years ago, every Saturday, has been giving a hand in washing the clothes of the smallest children of Kivuli. She is little less than thirty, with three children and was never married. Sometime ago, to one of my questions about her family, she had answered me: “I want children, but I do not want a man whom I must feed. By now, our men here at Riruta are only good at making children; other than that, they are a burden. At night they come home drunk, expect that you serve them supper whereas they haven’t contributed a single shilling for it, and they beat you up for any trivial reason only to prove that they are stronger.” I tell her: “How is that? I have always thought that you were baptized; isn’t your name Esther, a Christian name?” “No, I am not baptized. Esther is only a name that my mother gave me, but I have never belonged to any church even if, on Sundays, I have always liked listening to whoever spoke about God.” Then she tells me the whole story of her life, in that exhaustive, meticulous way that only Africans are capable of. No shortcuts, everything in details, the important episodes that perhaps happened fifteen years ago, quoting the words as if they had been pronounced yesterday: “Then I told him, and he told me, and then a woman friend of mine butted in saying…”

I listen to her, I look at this woman sitting on the bench of Kivuli next to me and, in the meantime, my thoughts wander… I imagine the sufferings and disappointments of a life that had started in the dignified poverty of the village, the unexpected luck of attending secondary school, and then the slow descent into the deepest misery and destitution, the despair of being unable to provide for the most essential needs of the children, the worry about the aged parents there, at the village, who are expecting a little help from her when they are sick. The betrayals of and disappointments the “husbands” have given her… Which feelings prevail in the heart of this woman? Hatred, rebellion, refusal?

She stops talking, gathers her hands on her lap and bends her head, in a humble attitude, as if expecting a verdict. The smallest child, frightened by the silence, hides behind her.

I ask her: “Esther, why do you like to become a Christian?” She answers me without hesitation, getting hold of the child and placing him on her knees. “I do it also for them, for my children. Because I have understood that the God of Jesus loves us as we are, in flesh and blood, dirty and sick, sad or cheerful, competent or good for nothing. I had understood it since sometime past. Jesus attracts me. I got confirmation here at Kivuli, when I saw the attention and affection that Bonny, your street social operator, has for all the children he meets. I have read the Gospel. I have seen the Light”.

Jesus said to His disciples that He was sending them to announce the Good News, according to Matthew: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. You received without charge, give without charge”. Gratuitousness: love given and received without calculations, without the fear of losing, without the hope of gaining something in the future, is the only way of announcing the Gospel. Esther has understood it, as well as the innumerable African mothers I have known, who called their children Given, Gift, with all the variations in the vernacular languages. They are the women who have understood that life has meaning only if it is a gift, a gift received with gratitude and offered with love, in a gratuitous way. The gift of oneself to the others is the logic of life.

It is the gratuitous gift of oneself that God wants. When Jesus, always according to Matthew, goes on saying: “Provide yourselves with no gold or silver, not even with a few coppers for your purses, with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic or footwear or a staff.” I do not think he wanted to make rigid rules for us, justified a little later by the fact that “the workman deserves his keep.” He wants rather to insist on gratuitousness. To travel without luggage means to leave room for the unexpected, not to be oppressed by the fear of not making it, it means to entrust oneself to the sense of gratuitousness of the other, besides providence.

What can I say to Esther? She has already understood that her children are the greatest gift that God has given her and she is ready to sacrifice herself for them, so that they themselves may walk towards God. I am going to tell her that God loves her and her children and that, together, we must kneel with respect and reverence in front of Jesus who has made Himself present to her.

This is to be missionaries: to contemplate the presence of the spirit of God; to remain in silence in front of the mystery in order to discover the right words, not arrogant or empty, but true and humble, in order to attempt to speak of Him and of His work to others, the friends who are around us, the indifferent who believe they can lead a full life even without Him. It is to learn where words end, silence prevails, and the Light shines on everyone.

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