As the sun set and the stars made themselves known in the Senegalese sky, I would watch the news with my eldest host brother, Amar.
We would sit on a colorful, woven mat and watch televised images from devastation in places like Ukraine, Palestine, Democratic Republic of Congo and the innumerable fatalities from the Ebola outbreak in neighboring countries.
Language proved to be a barrier that hardly allowed for conversations about my pacifist stance, my frustration with U.S. military involvement or explaining my Mennonite background.
In the midst of these frustrations, I took comfort in these commonalities I found with my Mennonite communities of Hesston, Kan., and my home during my college years in Goshen, Ind.
It’s been about eight months since I’ve returned from Senegal, where I did my Study Service Term with Goshen College, and my heart aches to sit under the Senegalese stars again.
For the service portion of my semester I lived in Ndombo, a village of around 2,000 people that sits along the Senegalese River about 20 minutes from the Mauritanian border. The village was composed of predominantly Wolof-speaking people and almost entirely of Muslims.
When people ask what I miss most about Senegal, I immediately think of those delightful moments when I caught glimpses of familiar concepts and could make connections between the Muslim context I was immersed in and the Mennonite context I came from.
This is what I tell people when they ask me what I’ve taken away from my three months in Senegal: My host family’s home had no door.
Yellow and white paint was chipping off the cement entrance. It was wide enough for cars to drive through, for donkey carts to come pick up our trash and for hungry, sleepy young boys to enter in a row five wide.
My family had no door.
The entrance was wide enough to fit a crowd of people cheering for my uncle after he won the mayoral election. It was wide enough to fit a small crowd of women dancing and banging on pots and pans to celebrate my brother’s acceptance into university.
My family had no door.
During every lunch and supper, there was a group of talibe—adolescent and preadolescent street boys, often orphans—who waited patiently in our courtyard, holding small buckets. When our meals ended, the leftover food always went to them.
After each trying day of Ramadan, when my family broke the day-long fast with sweet Nescafé, crusty baguettes and soft, chewy dates, I watched my younger brother give half his bread to one of the boys his own age who had no bread.
Each day I listened to my yaye—mama—call the young boys by their names to give them bread.
“Muhammad,” she said, “Come, take this.”
My family taught me lessons I thought I had already learned. All these lessons—about hospitality, sharing our variety of gifts and resources— suddenly made sense once I became the “other.” I didn’t belong there.
My light skin stuck out among the rich darkness of theirs.
Their language was difficult for me to learn and understand. I am Christian; they are Muslim. My home was across the ocean, and I was a stranger to their space. I didn’t belong.
By the time my six weeks in Ndombo came to a tear-filled end, the doorless entry to my home became a metaphor for the type of hospitality I hope one day to apply to whatever community I’m a part of.
The importance of community seems ever pressing now as I encounter the beginning of the end of my undergraduate studies, and the realities of searching for a new community looms over me. I think of what it means, and what it will look like to share my bread with whatever kind of talibe or “other” I may encounter.
I am reminded that when our doors are open so are our hearts to new opportunities to celebrate the gifts of our sisters and brothers in our own communities and around the world, and to experience the rich diversity of our Maker’s creation.
I am reminded that through Christ we are each called by name and given bread—or acceptance or unbounded love—whether or not we belong, no explanations needed.
Dominique Chew is a student at Goshen (Ind.) College and a member of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kan. This appeared as a column in the March issue.