Waking up at 4:30 a.m. on my first day back in Cotonou, Benin, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace of Benin Bible Institute to walk and pray by the light of the moon.
I heard the drumming and syncopated rhythms of a traditional religious ceremony in the distance. Across the street, a Christian praised God and cried out loud intercessions. A half-hour later, the muezzin (Muslim call to prayer) rang out into the darkness.
My heart leapt to embrace the world that had been my home for 13 years when my husband, Rod, and I served with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor of Mennonite Mission Network. We came to Benin straight from seminary, in response to an invitation from 30 Beninese denominations for us to be a bridge between them and North American Mennonites.
Rod and I grew as we were mentored by our Beninese brothers and sisters and as we encountered real-world challenges and paradoxes. We learned how to parent three children. We matured in our faith as we encountered a world thoroughly steeped in the spiritual realm.
Most of our friends in Benin eagerly share their faith. They describe what God is doing in their lives as easily as most of our North American colleagues talk about their weekend activities.
In Benin, Rod and I learned the physical world is a doorway to the spiritual world. Little by little, we expanded our dualistic categories of either/or thinking. We gained a more holistic worldview, which enables us to understand the biblical worldview better.
Several days after we arrived in Benin for our visit, Rod and I walked along sandy streets as people woke to a new day. Rod, who has spent a decade immersing himself in contemplative prayer, said the Beninese traditional worldview sees a spiritual reality everywhere.
Similarly, a contemplative worldview seeks to find God in everything.
“Contemplative prayer helps to integrate the African part of myself and the North American part of myself in a way that nothing else has been able to do,” Rod said.
Rod’s reflections helped me understand why I felt such a sense of well-being — or shalom — when I returned to Benin.
I think of 1 Corinthians 12, which tells how the Christian community needs one another, extolling the importance of sweaty armpits and dusty feet. The Message, Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase, talks about how we say goodbye to our partial and piecemeal lives when we become part of Jesus’ global body, the church.
We are all part of Jesus after resurrection. The black-and-white labels we once used to describe ourselves — citizen or immigrant, insider or outsider, capitalist or socialist — no longer work. We need something larger to describe who we are in Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:19-26, as interpreted in The Message, tells us that understanding our need for one another keeps us from “getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of.”
This is my prayer: Jesus, open our eyes so that we may truly see one another, recognizing you in our neighbors across the street and around the world. Humble us and elevate us as we engage in conversion as members of your broken, beloved and glorious global body.
Lynda Hollinger-Janzen is a writer for Mennonite Mission Network. This fall, she visited churches in Benin, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo through a partnership with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, Mennonite Church Canada and MMN.