By the time the fourth African family settled themselves into the pews on Sunday morning, I was sort of crying. Happy crying, but crying nonetheless.
I tend to tear up a lot in the back row. Just ignore me and pretend I’m not weeping over the amazing things God does when I least expect it. Nothing to see here; move along.
My tears were completely and totally due to a tiny portion of Africa streaming into church. A new family with the three boys arrived early, smiling tentatively (because at that point the foyer was full of blindingly white people such as yours truly), shaking hands, and pronouncing their very non-English names carefully for us.
Then, as the service started, their fellow continent-men joined as they got around to it. The three boys headed to children’s church, the smaller twins in matching white shirts did too, and I’m not sure where the baby ended up after the last family walked in.
It was really the baby who got me crying. He was just so pudgy and fat and happy and I was so profoundly thankful to be in a congregation where Kenyans feel welcome.
It all started a few years ago with Harry. He wandered into our church one Sunday because our building was close enough for him to walk from his apartment. A doctoral student at the local university, he was studying in Kalamazoo while his wife and children were home in Kenya.
I’m not exactly sure how we got from “Hello, welcome!” to a congregation with beautiful African dresses. I’m not sure when we moved from warm smiles to needing the translate option on Facebook to decipher Swahili when our friends switch over to their native language.
But we did. Somehow a warm welcome turned into friendship, and then the congregation brought Harry’s family here, then one international student after another ended up in our pews.
We don’t even have a formal ministry to international students. We don’t teach them English, or help them prepare for the Michigan driving test, or intercede on their behalf with their professors.
But we do give their kids a few too many cookies during the fellowship hour. We invite them to parties in the backyard and heaven knows we make sure they’re warm enough through our terrible Michigan winters.
It occurs to me that formal programs aren’t really what most of us are looking for, are we? Do you wake up in the morning and hope your husband will give you a formal lecture on how to load the dishwasher? Do you have a six-hour retreat scheduled for your friends tomorrow?
Probably not. That would be super weird. What we’re longing for is relationships, real and deep ones, to share food and time and parenting duties as we trudge through life next to each other.
And it appears that the Kenyans want exactly that, too.
It’s the smallest things that sometimes lead to the biggest, longest lasting relationships. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. We don’t need formal programs or fancy meals or the next ten years mapped out.
I need to be honest– I’m still pretty bad about this. Part of the reason I leaked tears on Sunday was because I’m not great about the invitations and all the hanging out. It’s often our pastor and his wife and a few specific families in our church who turn those invitations into the kind of relationships that keep our congregation full of Kenyans.
But I can see the results in living technicolor from that back pew. I can see the relationships that have grown, three years after an invitation was offered. I learn from hindsight and others’ actions, it turns out.
And maybe, after this long and meandering blog post, you can too.