Although I was technically going to Uganda to train leaders, I knew full well I would learn much more than I taught. As we are developing an Urban Monastery here in Hamilton, I was specifically interested in learning what the church in Uganda could teach us about community, hospitality, prayer and justice, which are key monastic practices.
As I meditate on my experience of Ugandan hospitality, one phrase that comes to mind is “gracious invitation”. We were graciously invited into the Leadership Training School, essentially sight unseen. Really they had no way of knowing if we were good teachers or if we were awful, but they made room for us.
Likewise, on Sunday we were invited into the pulpits of a couple of local churches and entrusted to speak to their people. We were warmly invited into people’s homes, and I was a little shocked to see how much effort went in to feeding us lavishly. One place we ate laid out nine different dishes before us, including a bowl of roasted white ants, and some more Canadian style noodles.
Finally, we were invited into people’s personal spiritual journeys. Some of the best times at the Training School were the question and answer periods, where together we wrestled through some of the challenges of leadership, and the students shared with vulnerability and transparency. We, strangers in a strange (to us) land, were welcomed as gifts and friends, not potential threats or rivals.
Honor is another phrase that carries greater weight for me at this end of the Ugandan visit. Ugandan and Congolese (there were many Congolese pastors at the school) culture is a culture of honor and respect. Very different than our casual Canadian culture. It was a little unsettling to have young women curtsey or kneel as they greeted me, and to be seated at head tables and served food first. I was renamed “Mamma Hannah” in deference to my roles as leader and mother. I discovered that if I wore traditional Congolese or Ugandan dress, that communicated honor to my hosts, and made them happy, and I learned to give special respect to the “Musees”, or elders of the communities I connected with.
How to bring this learning back to my own context? Hospitality as a mindset and heart expression, rather than as a task, is one way. Embracing newcomers and strangers as a Christmas morning gift to be unwrapped. Re-examining my casual and cavalier attitude towards those I meet and those I rub shoulders with daily. Expending extra effort to let people know that we are glad to have them with us. Probably a lot more, as I let my new experiences settle into my heart and life.