The priest I lived with in Kenya was away for a much-needed break. He assured me it would be a quiet week. Which is of course a guarantee that something will happen. Perhaps not monumental in the way of things, but yes indeed is was a memorable week. It was the week the Kenyan Security Forces came looking for the leaders of the Rwandan refugee community – of which my name was on the list. We were all in a meeting when they showed up. We all slipped out the windows in the back of the church. All very dramatic, but in truth I don’t think they tried that hard to catch us. Still, kind of memorable to be on a top ten list if even for an hour. But that wasn’t the most memorable.
Mama Mariam died that week. Mariam was a poor soul who lived in Gatina, a part of the parish slum. She was older than old, did not seem to have family, lived in a wretched place, and seemed to be a person apart from the ebb and flow of life in Gatina. I enjoyed visiting her. The mwneyekiti (chairman) of the parish council asked if I would preside over a graveside service.
Mama Mariam was a humble person. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We arrived at the public cemetery in Langata where Mariam was to be buried in a pauper’s grave. Things are loosely scheduled at Langata. They know there will be, say, six funerals that day, so they did six graves – all right next to each other. The protocol is that when everyone has arrived and it seems right – because there is always a picnic associated with the burial – and if there is no other group at the graveside – then it is your turn. So, as we arrive at Langata I began to look around for our gathering. There was a very small one over under some jacaranda trees that I was sure was our group. The mwneyekiti said no, our group was over there. It was a huge gathering of people. Mama Kenyatta, the wife of the first president of Kenya was there. Our member of Parliament was in attendance. All kinds of people from the Gatina area and beyond. I had the sense that, like me, many of them were surprised to see so many people present. But here we were, this disconnected web of friends, associates, what-have-you, all of whom knew Mariam in life, in some small way – and all who came to honor her in death. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There were lots of remembrances of Mama Changa – that’s what they all called her – and with affection – Mama Changa. Roughly translated, it would be Mama Moonshiner. It seems she made the best hooch in the area. It was what she knew and how she was able to make ends meet. Most of the stories were accolades of her moonshine, but some few were stories of meals shared, time spent in conversation, time coming to know Mariam as a person.
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
It was those some few stories I remembered. People who had taken the time to take this her into their homes for a meal, had shared time in conversation, had checked in on her to make sure she was OK. Blessed will they be at the resurrection of the righteous.
When it was time to celebrate the burial rites I told a story or two, nothing monumental, about Mariam. I could tell by the facial expression and reaction, that my small contribution that day was even though I had never shared a meal (or a drink), I knew her name, Mariam. She had long been only Mama Changa. Now in death she reclaimed her given name among the community. Mariam – the highly favored of God. In those small, shared moments we all came to know, just a little more, a woman who lived on the margins of our lives.
There are lots of people who lived on the margins of our lives. Many of us who have been around here for a while remember Reginald Rogers. You never heard that name. Everyone called him Bruce. Every Sunday he sat on a stool at the corner of the office building – chatting with folks, getting a little help to make ends meet, doing what he could. Some among us shared a meal with him, checked in on him to see how he was doing. Some knew his name.
Bruce, Mama Changa – Reginald, Mariam. We are called to be attentive to the margins of our lives – when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This day, in this gospel, we are reminded what is ours to do.