Although I often forgot that my African brothers and sisters and I don’t exactly look related, I found that our hearts all look the same – like the beautiful, suffering Sacred Heart of our friend, Jesus. In Tanzania, I entered His Heart: a place of total abandonment to a painful, purifying, completely exhausting bliss. And in turn, He performed a cardiac operation and rehabilitation on my heart in Africa, allowing the people’s sorrows to pierce it and transform it to look a bit more like their hearts – and His.
One of my last days in Arusha, I felt the pain of the scalpel as the Divine Physician worked. It all began some months earlier. One of the first friends I made in Tanzania was a precious, smiley, three-year-old boy named Malachi. He and his mother, Jackie, owned a tiny shop and lived down the street from our home. Each day, when he saw me walking by, he screamed at the top of his lungs, “HI, MARY!” It, of course, brought a smile to my tired face, and simultaneously introduced me to our entire neighborhood. He brought so much comfort to me in this foreign place. He helped me feel at home, like I belonged on our little dirt road.
I didn’t speak much Swahili, and neither he nor his mother spoke much English, but it didn’t keep Malachi from running to embrace me or from mimicking every word or sound I said. The language barrier intimidated me from asking many questions, or entering into their lives very deeply. I would greet them at least twice a day, smile at them, and continue on with my ministries.
However, the Good Lord eventually gave me the opportunity to enter deeper into their lives – and pierced my little heart to get the blood flowing again. In my last week in Arusha, I had a very busy schedule, so I had to walk my street up and down many times. Each day, Jackie asked me (at least I think she was asking me), “Is today the day?” I would respond with the countdown.
Finally, the day came. Our bags were packed and our priest’s car filled with donations of things we were leaving behind in Africa: pillows, dishes, and the last bit of oil – things that were necessary for our life in Africa, but unnecessary in our already overstuffed bags. We were really leaving.
I had gone by Jackie’s home shop on my way home from Mass, but she and Malachi were not there. My heart lurched as I imagined leaving Africa without saying goodbye to them. Then, driving down our street for the last time, I caught a glimpse of Jackie through the gate in front of her home.
I climbed out of the car, ran to my friend, and embraced her. Her eyes may have watered up a little bit, or perhaps it was the reflection of my own tears off her beautiful dark eyes. I looked around and asked for Malachi. He was asleep. I’m sure my face, as it so often does, failed to hide my disappointment. Jackie’s friend sitting there motioned to let me go inside their home and hug on him. Jackie looked hesitant, but smiled and nodded.
I lived just down their road for seven months, but I was now walking into their home for the first time. I gasped as my breathe completely left my body. I had stepped into a completely empty room, save two moldy foam pads, a plastic chair, and trash scattered about the floor. I rushed over to Malachi, asleep on one of the two pads, splitting my energy between trying to hold back the tears and trying to wake my little buddy. How often had I walked by the home of my dear friends, how often had I gone into their gate, hugged on them, bought bread from them, and continued on with my day, completely unaware of the poverty that existed behind their beautiful smiles and the sheet that covered the doorway of their home? How often had I spent unnecessary money and time on things of such insignificant value in light of the destitution I was witnessing in this moment? Sorrow and remorse pierced my little heart.
As I rubbed my little buddy’s back, he finally woke and looked at me confused through his sleepy little eyes. I said goodbye and hugged him. He rolled over and immediately fell back asleep. As I stumbled back out of the house, my mind immediately jumped to the things we had filling the car – donations and things we didn’t need. I asked Jackie if she had any pillows or blankets of any kind. She said no. How often had I complained about feeling too cold in the chilly winter months while my little friends suffered silently?
I rushed back to the car and, with my teammate, grabbed the blankets, pillows, some dishes, and the last bit of oil. I brought them to my friend. Hugging her, smiling at her through the tears, I said, “Here, these are from Jesus – He loves you.”
As we drove away, I wept. I wept at the thought of leaving my friends. I wept over the realities of their beautiful, broken lives. As I continue to lament my lack of awareness of their physical needs, I hear the still small voice of the Lord’s truth; He did not send me to Africa, nor call me to be a missionary to meet every physical need of the poor. He invited me to something more impossible. His invitation in this moment and every day has been this: to enter into the realities of suffering, broken people, and to suffer with them as He does.
I am broken and wounded. My heart is not big enough to handle the sufferings and sorrows of Malachi and Jackie, not to mention all the rest of His beautiful people throughout the world. Yet still, He calls. Still, He invites me, and all of us, to intimacy with Him and solidarity with His people. He desires to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with His heart of flesh. And as I continue to recognize my failures to suffer with His people, I pray for the grace to remember that I can do all things – not because I am strong, or brave, or whole – but because I can do all things through Christ. He replaces my weak little heart with the throbbing, pierced, Sacred Heart which is my strength.