Following graduate school, I served as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteer in Congo (then called Zaire) and had just attended a meeting in another province where we had been discussing rural development issues. I was booked to fly home on the national airline from the regional airport in that province but the return flight was cancelled while I was traveling. There were no other flights available for a couple of weeks.

A missionary pilot stationed nearby told me that while he would like to fly me back to the small city where I lived, he couldn’t because the plane’s engine was scheduled for maintenance. Heavy rains had washed away a bridge in the direction that I needed to go so I couldn’t travel home by road either, even if I could find someone to take me.

Feeling badly, the pilot then offered to drop me off on the other side of the river with the washed-out bridge where some missionaries lived. From there I could catch a ride home with one of the traders that regularly traveled through this area. Two or three vehicles passed this way on a typical day. The plane dropped me off in that small community where another MCC volunteer who taught in the local school gave me some sandwiches and water and then I walked to the main road to wait.

After several hours, a trader came along with his truck, stopped, and offered me a ride. The driver said he wasn’t going to my city but could drop me off at an intersection from which I could catch a ride home. A young student was riding with him in the cab. We reached the little crossroad village around midnight. It was completely dark and I could see a storm moving in.

“You’re lucky,” the young student said to me, “because you have brothers in this village, so you can stay with them.” Surprised, I asked what he meant. He explained that two Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) lived here and taught in a nearby school. He’d take me to their house so I could stay with them.

“What about you?” I asked.

He said he’d sleep under a tree. I told him no way! We were both staying with my brothers. As I knocked on the PCVs’ door, I felt the first drops of rain. The lightning and thunder were now intense.

“Who is it?” one of the PCVs asked.

Through the locked door, I explained that I was an MCC volunteer and was stranded, with no place to spend the night. The young guy 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 at midnight. I elaborated further—that I was from Minnesota, 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!”

Dumfounded and with nowhere else to go, the student and I ran through what was now, pouring rain, to the center of the village. We stood under the eaves of a store and pressed ourselves against the wall. That worked until the wind shifted.

This is crazy, I told the guy with me. We’re going back to my brothers’ house.

Again, I pounded on the door. Holding kerosene lamps, they peered at us through a crack. I could see a nicely furnished living room with a large couch, several comfortable chairs, and a dry cement floor, covered with a mat. It was the biggest house in the village, the only one made of brick and covered with a tin roof.

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

“What do you mean, you don’t have room?” I demanded. “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!”

By now the storm was intense. 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.”

We ran between rows of grass houses, waking several people to ask directions. Finally, we came to a tiny house where my guide stopped, called out softly and waited. Sure enough, a young man came out and immediately invited us inside. He apologized profusely for not having any food or hot coffee to give us. We assured him that we had already eaten and weren’t thirsty.

The one-room house was barely larger 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’re 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 are tired from your trip so you must rest. I should study anyway.”

Over our objections he 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.

The morning light was breaking when I heard a truck engine start up. I jumped up, grabbed my bag, and looked for my host so I could thank him. He wasn’t around so I ran to the market square and stopped the truck just as it was leaving. The driver agreed to take me along so I climbed onto the back and made myself as comfortable as I could on top of a load of cassava. I arrived home that night.

I never saw my host again but think of him every time I hear the story of Mary and Joseph on the night that Jesus was born. I remember the young man who welcomed me to his little grass house during a tropical storm and gave me his bed and his blanket when I was cold, wet, and tired. I also remember the two Peace Corps Volunteers who wouldn’t take me in during a storm because they “didn’t know me” and “didn’t have room.”


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