Thunder shook the ground. As the lighting flashed across the midnight sky, I could see the churning clouds and palm trees bending in the wind. The hot, humid air signaled the arrival of a tropical storm.

Standing under the open night sky, outside a small village in Africa, I had nowhere to go.

The day had started 18 hours earlier with a flight on a small Cessna airplane from one Mennonite mission in Congo to another. I had just attended a meeting of community development workers and was now returning home. The national airline offered weekly air service between a regional airport near our meeting place and the small city where my wife and I served as Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteers. Unfortunately, there were no seats available for several weeks. Driving was not an option because heavy rains had washed away several bridges and closed the roads. I was stranded.

Learning of my predicament, a missionary pilot had offered me a ride to another Mennonite mission 100 miles away where I could catch a ride with one of the traders that traveled throughout the region. Although not where I wanted to go, it got me across the closed sections of road and moving in the right general direction.

After the pilot dropped me off, I walked to the direct and road on which trucks traveled through the region. I waited under a small tree. Two or three commercial vehicles passed that way on a typical day.

After several hours of waiting, a truck finally came along. The driver stopped and offered me a ride. Though he wasn’t going to the city where I lived, he agreed to drop me off in another village several hours away where two major roads intersected. From there, I could catch a ride home with another trader. I tossed my bag in the back and joined the driver and another young man in the cab. The route was indirect—like driving from Minneapolis to Chicago by way of Kansas City—but at least it would get me to a major road.

Over the next few hours, I learned by that my traveling companion was a student on his way home. As we approached the crossroads village around midnight, it became obvious that we’d be stranded for the night.

We stood there in the dark, a major storm moving in and no vehicles on the road.

“You’re lucky,” the young student said to me, “because you have ‘brothers’ in this village, so you can stay with them.”

Confused, I asked what he meant. He explained that two American Peace Corps volunteers taught in a nearby school and lived in this community. He would take me to their house so I could stay there.

“What about you?” I asked.

He’d sleep under a tree, he responded. I gazed anxiously at the lightening.

“No,” I told him, “we’ll both stay with my ‘brothers.’”

By the time I knocked on the Peace Corps volunteers’ door, I felt the first drops of rain. An almost continual flash of lighting illuminated the landscape.

“Who is it?” one of the Peace Corps volunteers asked.

Through the locked door, I explained that I was an MCC volunteer who was stranded with no place to stay for the night. The young man with me, I added, had been a student in their school.

“Go away!” one of the volunteers shouted. “I don’t know you.”

Again, I explained who I was, what I did for MCC, and why I had arrived in their village at midnight. I elaborated further; I was an American from Minnesota, a Mennonite volunteer working in community development. I also dropped the names of every Peace Corps volunteer I knew in the region.

“Go away!” he repeated. “We don’t know you! You can’t stay here!”

I was dumbfounded. With nowhere else to go, the student and I ran through what was by now the pouring rain to the center of the village. We ducked under the eaves of a nearby building. By pressing ourselves against the wall, we avoided the downpour until the wind shifted and soaked us again.

Deciding that this was unacceptable, I told my traveling companion that we were returning to my “brothers’” house.

Again, I pounded on the door. Carrying oil lamps, they peered at us through a crack in the door. The light revealed a furnished living room with a large couch, several comfortable chairs, and a dry cement floor covered with an inviting mat. It was the biggest house in the village, the only made of brick and the only one with a tin roof.

“You can’t stay here,” one shouted when I asked if we could come in and wait out the storm. “We don’t know you. Besides, we don’t have any room.”

“What do you mean, you don’t have any room?” I asked. “All we need is a dry place to sit until morning and then we’ll be on the first truck out of town.”

The two volunteers began moving furniture to block the door.

“You can’t stay here,” they shouted. “Go away! Go away!”

As the student and I ran back to the village center, he asked me what my ‘brothers’ had said. (The Peace Corps volunteers and I had conversed in English.) I told him they claimed to have no room for us.

“That’s what I thought they said,” he responded. “Why did they say that?”

I had no answer.

By now, the tropical storm had arrived in force. The student turned to me and said, “Let’s try one other thing. I think that a guy I met in school lives around here somewhere.”

In the pouring rain, we ran between rows of grass houses, waking several people to ask directions. We finally came to a tiny grass house where my guide stopped, called out softly and waited. Sure enough, a young student—who knew the guy with me only slightly—emerged and immediately invited us inside. The young home owner apologized profusely for not having any food or hot coffee to serve us. We assured him that we’d already eaten and weren’t thirsty.

The one-room, grass house was barely bigger than the bed that took up most of the floor. As soon as our host heard our story, he pointed to the grass-filled mattress and said, “You are going to sleep here tonight.”

“We can’t take your bed,” I protested. “If we can just sit inside until the rain stops, we’ll be okay.”

“No,” he replied, “you are strangers and don’t know anybody in this village. You’re tired from your trip, so you must rest. I should study anyway.”

Over our objections, he then gave us his thin, worn blanket saying, “you’re cold and wet. You’ll get sick if you don’t warm up.”

He picked up a book, huddled over a small lamp in the corner of the house and began to read. Exhausted and grateful, the student and I collapsed on the mattress and went instantly to sleep.

Early the next morning, I heard the sound of a diesel truck starting up. I jumped to my feet, grabbed my bag and looked for my host. I wanted to thank him, but when I couldn’t find him anywhere, I ran to the market square and flagged down the driver who was just leaving. He agreed to take me along so I climbed into the back, making myself as comfortable as possible on top of the load. I arrived home that afternoon.

Although I never saw my host again, I think of him every Christmas when I hear the story of Mary and Joseph on the night that Jesus was born. They had nowhere to stay until a compassionate innkeeper gave them shelter in his warm and dry stable.

I remember the young Congolese student who welcomed two strangers into his little grass house in the middle of a tropical storm. Noticing that we were exhausted, he gave us his bed. Seeing that we were cold and wet, he gave us his blanket. Fearing that we were hungry and thirsty, he apologized because he didn’t have any food or hot coffee to offer us.

I also remember the two Peace Corps volunteers who lived in the biggest house in the village but sent us back into the storm because they “didn’t know us” and “didn’t have any room.” Whatever these young Americans were there to teach, they clearly had much to learn from their Congolese neighbors about compassion, hospitality, and caring for others. I also wonder how often I turn my back on those in need rather than doing what I can to help.

Note: A version of this article was published in the December, 2002 issue of “Christian Leader,” the denominational magazine of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Church.

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