It was 1985 and Mexico had suffered the worst earthquake in its history. The epicenter was many miles towards the coast, but since Mexico City was built on a swamp, the devastation was horrific. We moved into a small village south of the largest city on earth to be with the people and help anyway we could. We were brand new to the mission experience.
I was raised in a clean, well-to-do, middle class home in California. I had never in my life even imagined the poverty and devastation we would experience as missionaries. This was Stasia, well out of my comfort zone, and here I learned one of my greatest and most important lessons as a missionary.
This was nearly ten years before the Tequila Crisis of 1994, and people were being crushed under a corrupt government barely able to survive. A raw chicken would cost nearly a whole weeks pay, and a luxury to most families. The suburbs were filled with wafer thin, hopeless faces. This is where we settled ourselves, determined to help somehow, if just but befriend these precious folk, empathize with them and pray with them.
So we rented a gutted out old shell of a house, with no stove or fridge. I washed over a large stone out the back, hung the clothes on an old wire, and four houses down a dear lady would keep milk in her fridge for our little baby. We had rats so big they scared away our cat, I am not joking.
Every afternoon the city made a called for “entrada”, to go to the safety of your home while they walked the massive bulls for the bullfights. Our little pueblo was famous for the bulls, and “massive” just does not do them justice. They were like elephants, that had to be walked daily or they would break their pens and gore their keepers. I would watch from our window, thankful for what little fence we had.
We lived without any of the standard missionary rules such as we have now. Back then there were no guidelines or books on how to be a successful missionary. There were only biographies of the saints of old, in hard bound copies that were too heavy to carry in your luggage. This was well before the age of technology and computers. We received snail mail packets three maybe four times a year.
So we did what we could, giving thanks to the Lord for the water and food and just drank it and ate it like everyone else. And we were quite famous for it in our little area. People wanted to be with us, people wanted us to pray for them and honor their homes with our prayers. We know full well it was not us but Him who lives within us that they found so attractive. We are nothing in ourselves, and if they really knew us, well that would have been another story entirely.
It was this little fame we had acquired that had moved a dear elderly woman to invite us to her home for a meal. It was not uncommon by any means for us to be invited to people’s homes. However this dear woman had so much “verguenza’, sort of shame because of her meager living, that a friend in the church encouraged her weekly telling her, “the Nielsen’s don’t care about all that, they would be honored to be your guest,” which was in fact the truth.
So finally this dear woman got over herself and invited us to her home for a chicken dinner. Quite an honor we were told. The day came and I remember getting Brittany, our wee baby ready, and the diaper bag loaded with whatever we might need. We had come to learn that Mexican feasts were truly huge family affairs that lasted well into the night most times. I happened to find flowers and a note card for thanks to be ready.
Our friend came to accompany us to this dear woman’s home which was quite near the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. The area where she lived however was anything but a garden paradise. We took a bus to the general area but had to walk a couple of miles from that point to get near enough to her house by the river. By the time we arrived we were hot, sweaty and muddy.
Her home was crudely built under a tree. I think she made it herself. It had three sides and no door. Old woolen blankets covered the holes around the outside of the hut. Inside was a large table and a bed. It smelled musty and dirty. There was a camp type fire burning lena, Mexican mountain wood, upon it. There was quite a bit of smoke. Her hut was by the river and thick mud was everywhere. My sandals were eventually coated in the type of mud used for making the old adobe type houses. It was like cement and I had to throw my shoes away after that.
Mind you, this was one of my first mission experiences, and I was completely unprepared for this. In fact this would be the first time that I told the Lord that rather loudly, “I am from California and YOU did not prepare me for this one Lord!” But the grace of the Lord was so heavily upon me I will never forget it. This is why it is such an important mission memory for me.
There were several stumps gathered around the hand made wood table. An assortment of broken dishes were lovingly placed around the table with a centerpiece of some green stuff in a small glass. A foul soupy odor filled the air. I took all this in within seconds as the sweet woman came to greet us with outstretched arms apologizing the whole time for her humble circumstances. I immediately began to melt into her loving arms of hospitality. In fact, here I learned true hospitality. Hospitality is not a display of what we can do to impress others. True hospitality is the opening of our hearts and the welcoming of others into our lives.
We all sat down to her loving feast that I am sure she spent hours preparing. We held hands and prayed and The Lord was there with us. She served me first and poured a double ladle of the murky broth into my bowl. The gruesome smell was overwhelming. Then after everyone received their bowls of the broth, she left the table and to my horror came back with a tray of boiled chicken claws and heads, beaks and all. In honoring the nursing mother who needed more sustenance, she offered the tray to me first. I didn’t know what to do. Apparently, I was to choose one of the horrid pieces of chicken to put into the equally horrid broth. Nausea rippled through my entire body. I reached for as much politeness as I could muster and replied, “No thank you”.
Hospitality is not a display of what we can do to impress others. True hospitality is the opening of our hearts and the welcoming of others into our lives.
Isn’t the Lord amazing though? He so gently leads His stupid sheep, me being the dumbest of them all. It never ceases to amaze me how the Lord can stop time to teach us something, and have it take no real time at all. And so it began, our eternal conversation, between the Lover and Beloved, with no one else aware and no time lapsing.
He spoke to deeply to my spirit. “You know, if you choose this life of a servant, a missionary mom, and you really hope to make a difference, you cannot offend. You cannot offend at all. Whatever someone lovingly lays at My Feet, I receive in gratitude, as you must do as well. This was more than she will eat for weeks, lovingly prepared for you, her royal guest. You must not offend her. Your life must be an offering filled with grace and hope in whatever you do and wherever you go. This is how you share My Love to a broken world. There must be no offense. You will eat it and joy in the fact that this meal, however repulsive to you, was a feast born out of love and gratitude from a humble woman of no consequence to anyone but Me. That is her value, and because I value her and her whole life, you must as well.”
More words than this were spoken, and I was broken. Deeply moved. He, of course, was right. To be a missionary is to be a bridge builder, not a bridge breaker. Here I must help lead this precious soul to her Loving Father and if eating that horrid meal somehow helped, then eat that meal I would, and with all the gusto my mortal flesh could muster.
All this transpired within a matter of seconds and regaining my composure I spoke these words. “What I mean to say is if you would give me the honor of choosing what you would like me to try of these most delicious looking delicacies, I would be grateful.” A huge half toothless grin spread across her deep wrinkly face and I received both a huge claw and chicken head, beak and feathers still attached. She told me that as I was nursing I needed the extra protein to give the baby good milk. I did not see much protein in that bowl.
I lifted the claw with my spoon, and endeavored to piece it bit by bit, exclaiming the unique flavor, and what spices did she use? How long did it take to cook such a lovely meal? How much effort it must have been to build the fire? I complemented her meal and hospitality thoroughly without compromising my honesty. It is a unique gift every missionary must learn. Truly I enjoyed the meal, not the food but the entire experience. No one ever knew the lengthy eternal discourse between the Lord and I and they didn’t need to. He can speak worlds to us in a matter of seconds and that day is permanently marked in my memory as a very important lesson for me as a missionary momma.
She was so blessed that day, and that was all that mattered. We are blessed to be a blessing, that is what The Word of God says. She asked for prayer for her relatives. So we prayed together and she cried, we cried. It was amazing, truly. It is one of my favorite memories. That day, by the dirty river, heaven touched earth and lives were changed.