In failed states and states of plenty, what saves and keeps us is the same | Mindy Belz

Nat Belz

When we think of the first Thanksgiving as a group of Puritans discovering a “desolate wilderness,” as William Bradford described it, and out of it creating a horn of plenty, we tend to veer off in the wrong direction. Corporately we head into Manifest Destiny territory, where everything we Americans put our hand to is good and right. Individually, and speaking for myself, we get the idea that the food we put on our tables the fourth Thursday of the month is a result of our own year’s hard work and honed skill.

When we think of it as a cross-cultural experience, of the Puritans crossing a cultural divide when they sailed across the Atlantic into a land that was completely other, we may come closer to what actually happened. Bradford again: “They had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.”

The 101 passengers who sailed aboard the Mayflower were thus reduced—from shopkeepers, teachers, and lawyers in England where they began as separatists from the church; to silk weavers, carpenters, and maids in Leyden, where they lived in exile for 12 years; to a New World where they became farmers, loggers, and those “exercised in fishing.” And thus to a table in the autumn of 1621 came the 53 who remained—having survived the rigors of this culture-clash and the wrath of the English venture capitalists who received back an empty Mayflower—to enjoy a feast not so much of their accomplishments as of God’s mercies overcoming their failures.

And so we glimpse both where we are and the divides that remain to be crossed. This brings me to the road to Budiriro Baptist Church and the culture clash that is an American in Africa. The road veers from city to country and threads through Harare’s idled factories, teeming black settlements known as “high density areas,” and across hilly fields where Zimbabweans gleaning for food any way they can are hoeing black ground on a Sunday morning.

In a hollow building with a bare concrete floor and rough wooden benches, congregants are gathered who survive by the work of their hands and on perhaps a dollar a day. There’s more common ground than you’d dream. First, they are surrounded by enemies and false teachers: Outside these walls in Budiriro are tent meetings strung out on the prosperity gospel and hillsides covered with Vapostori, a white-robed sect beckoning in the open air with primitive dance, charms, and promises of faith healing.

Second, the poor face temptation same as the rich: Into Budiriro we followed a pickup loaded with “Natbrew,” a preferred Sunday pastime for many to hearing pastor Gardener Moyo teach on elders and deacons from 1 Timothy. And everywhere is the temptation to discouragement. Moyo has worked hard to build this church, and now the city wants to take away the lease, unless he pays back taxes on it that he does not owe.

But inside Moyo is bringing the Word, asking questions, and getting good answers—in Shona, then in English—and we are as hungry for it as any African there. And as needy for fellowship. When Moyo finishes, he asks a man named (really) God Knows to pray for the guests. God Knows thanks God that we are “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Christ Jesus,” and he prays that we—white and black, west and east of the Atlantic, Shona- and English-speaking—will grow together in Christ.

The table we gather around today, thanks to technology, transportation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, encircles the globe. May we ask with our Zimbabwean brethren as we say with our Puritan forebears: “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?”

And as Bradford said then, let’s reply: “May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity. . . . Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.”

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