Tears on the Equator: Muzungu

I wrote “mzungu” into a poem and my teacher commented, “My friend wrote a book titled that!”

I bought the book. Tears on the Equator: Muzungu, by Gerasimos I. Kambites.

Crazy is the only word I can find for this man’s life. A Greek-Canadian from Montreal with Communist parents, he is converted in Greenland under the most bizarre circumstances, goes to school where he meets and marries a Muganda woman, becomes an Orthodox priest, heads back to Uganda where he lives with his family during the reigns of Obote and Museveni’s takeover, and finally gets kicked out of the country.

Several things drew me to this book. For one, I’ve only read biographies of Protestant missionaries, and Greek Orthodox faith fascinates me. Secondly, this guy can write. He worked for National Geographic, and his book is well-written. Third, he marries a Muganda woman. Last year I got a little introduction to the Muganda stereotype, and it is polar opposite to the Greek stereotype! I wanted to see how this would turn out.

The book did not disappoint. Most of all, I appreciated Kambites’ honesty. He really tried to adopt his new people into his life and heart. And he failed miserably, on countless occasions. I have two pet peeves in missionary reports: when they make everything out to be rosy, and when they play up the stereotype of “poor Africa”. The reality is always complex. It takes time to explain a situation, and it takes realization that no matter how long you as an outsider have been in a country, you never, ever fully understand. Kambites writes about reality. He doesn’t try to gild his story, he doesn’t soften it, and he doesn’t blur it.

The end of the book took me completely by surprise.

In the end, he loses everything. His sanity, his medical career, his priesthood, his vision, his family – everything.

It was so hard to read. Because I could understand his position: wanting so much to do some good for people he had come to love, yet discovering how wrong everything he did was, and how his own sin and anger messed up everything around him.

I think that’s a secret fear for me. I’ve grown up knowing many missionaries of all shapes and sorts, including my parents. I know the sacrifices they’ve made. I know the mistakes they’ve made.

It only takes a brief perusal of missionary history to see glaring errors, shocking ethnocentrism, and downright legalism. Read a little, and you’ll find time and time again people in a new land bringing their culture more than they bring Jesus.

I’ve already had my share in it. The mistakes of my life that I most regret are the ones I made during two years of co-leading a discipleship group in Congo for young ladies. It is a terrifying thing to look back on the “good” you poured soul and strength into, and to find that it was destructive, not helpful.

Looking forward with a hope to return to Congo long-term, there’s an underlying fear. What if I give it everything I have, what if I end up being broken mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally; what if I lose family, community, reputation, everything; what if all this happens, and there is no good thing to point to and say, “at least it was all for that”?

It happened to Kambites. He gave so much up, and got back an x-ray vision of his own soul.

And yet, this book brings me hope. Kambites was never left alone by God. The very last sentence of his book is a powerful summary, “In the end, I have learned that the only credential worth having is that of a penitent.”

Giving up a home culture to enter another culture, only to fail miserably at all you thought you could do, only shows what already was there: you have so much of yourself bound up in your “good deeds”. Your own agenda is the king, not Christ’s. Maybe it is a gift to see that.

Because Christ, His goal is to discipline His own as a father does his sons. This is how he breaks us: by commanding us to love as he has loved us. By not letting us run away from the risk and hurt of loving other human beings. He makes us into penitents, in love. And He uses our most broken attempts to build a beautiful Kingdom.

And in the process, he shows his own his face. Kambites wrote a prayer years before he even became a Christian,

“If you are real and come into my life, do not hesitate to drag me to You over sharp stones and broken glass, because if You are real, then not much else matters.”

If You are real, Christ, not much else matters.

That is the triumphant chorus of the messed-up missionaries; “See what our King has made.”

As I lay down the book Muzungu, I am reminded:

There is boldness to risk when you belong to a Redeemer.

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