Editor’s note: Trevor Barton lived in Mali in West Africa for three years as a teacher and friend.
It was early morning. The African sun had yet to rise above the mountains, and the sky was the soft yellow of newly shucked corn.
“Beep, beep,” sounded the horn on the old truck as it rumbled to a stop in front of my house. My old friends – Momadu, Madu and Balamusa – greeted me with smiles, waves and morning blessings.
We were on our way from Kenieba, a small town in western Mali, to Sitaxoto, a large village about two hours away over a broken dirt road.
A church was there, a little group of people who met each week outside under a big baobab tree to pray, study the Bible, share their stories and ask, “How do we follow Jesus?”
On that day, we were going to share communion with them.
Before we left town, we stopped at the home of a baker with a stone oven to buy the bread that would become a symbol of Jesus’ body.
We bought dried leaves to make the red tea that would become a symbol of Jesus’ blood.
“Beep, beep!” With waves and departing blessings, we were off.
We arrived at Sitaxoto and found the believers sitting in a circle in the shade of the great tree. We spoke to each other and blessed each other in the customary and humanizing way of the Malinke people.
“How are you … How is your family … How are your children … May God send rain to your field … May God give you enough food to eat … May God give you healthy children.”
Their arms hugged me and their words encouraged me.
As we began the communion liturgy, Momadu whispered to me, “Will you say the words? It would be meaningful to our friends.”
“Yes,” I answered in broken Malinke. “I would like that very much.”
I held the bread tenderly in my hands, gave thanks, broke it apart and gave it away saying: “This is Jesus’ body, which is given for you. Take it and eat it in remembrance of him.”
Everyone ate the bread except a woman across from me in the circle.
“Why didn’t she eat the bread?” I whispered to Momadu. “Do you think she understood my Malinke?”
“It’s OK,” he answered. “I’ll tell you later.”
After the service, Momadu placed his arm around my shoulder and said, “Look very closely at our friend.”
I looked at her and saw what I had not seen during communion. There was a child in her lap laying against her body, a child as thin and frail as one of the furthest limbs on the tree.
“Her daughter has been sick for some time,” said Momadu. “Bread is expensive for her to buy. She was saving the bread for her daughter.”
I was speechless. Here, I had come to bring God to my African friends. Instead, God came to me in this small and forgotten African woman and her child.