As a pilot flying cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force, I recently found myself in Zambia, located on the high savannah plains of central Africa.
Arriving on a Thursday, I walked around the capital city of Lusaka. I could not help but feel a sense of gratitude for the blessings we have as Americans. Even some of the poorest Americans have a wealth unheard of in much of this country.
The average income for a Zambian family is $800 per year. Extreme malnourishment is declining, thanks to modern farming techniques and readily available malted meal, but the dire threat to this country is the expanding AIDS epidemic. Of adults, 18 percent are infected with HIV/AIDS, and the number of children orphaned by the disease is staggering.
One of the strangest sights to my American eyes was the large walls surrounding any home or business of means. Embedded in the top were sharp shards of broken glass or coils of razor wire, creating the impression that those on the outside were prisoners and those within were free.
By Saturday, I needed an escape to the sanctuary of Holy Mass and the sacraments. I also felt the first hint of nausea that many experienced Third World travelers know all too well.
The hotel concierge gave me walking directions to St. Ignatius Catholic Church, about a mile away. She recommended that I attend Mass at 7 a.m. because the 8:15, 9:30, and 11 a.m. Masses were full. That information provided the first hint of what I was about to experience.
Sunday morning dawned bright, but I did not. My nausea had multiplied to bad cramps and night sweats. I seriously considered giving up Mass, but thankfully my need for the sacraments won the day.
On my walk to Mass, I passed row upon row of razor wire-lined walls. Looking at my watch, I started to get the uneasy feeling of being lost with only five minutes to go until Mass began. I did not recognize any of the landmarks mentioned by the concierge, and I was beginning to enter the unpaved, unkempt section of the city. I was lost.
A prayer in my heart to St. Anthony was answered by a young man, dressed in his Sunday best with missal in hand. He was running down a side street. I called after him, asking if he was headed to St. Ignatius. Of course, with St. Anthony on the job, I need not have asked, but he smiled and said yes. A quarter mile later we arrived at St. Ignatius.
St. Ignatius was a large concrete and mortar church, old but lovingly cared for by its parishioners. Like a breath of fresh air, there were no razor wire fences to keep people out. It was beautifully open and inviting.
Walking into the building, I was completely enveloped in an angelic opening hymn. The entire 800-person congregation was singing, with gentle weaving harmonies and simple joy. Within five minutes, there was standing room only with a line outside the door. The kneelers had no pads, yet the entire congregation worshiped in a kneeling posture.
Scanning the sea of parishioners, I noticed at least 25 nuns, many of whom were young. Every ear was attentive and silent during the readings and every voice joyful and uplifted during the psalms and other songs of the Mass.
Witnessing their joy amidst unbelievable poverty, my head was spinning as much as my stomach. Our country enjoys unbelievable blessings, but what I would give to have the joy and faith of these poor people.
Although not prone to emotion, I nearly cried when the congregation prayed for peace for America and for her people during the prayers of the faithful.
Mass ended all too quickly with the singing of “Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and the church emptied to make room for the next capacity crowd. I had just enough time to take some pictures with some very happy children who were mesmerized by their images on the tiny digital screen of my camera.
In the courtyard outside, I was happily greeted by many of the parishioners and some of the nuns who were from a variety of orders, including my favorite Paulines. I asked what they could use, and of course they needed prayers. When I pressed them further, they meekly told me about a growing apostolate caring for 26 mentally ill children. They didn’t mention the many other works of charity I read about in the small bulletin.
I spoke briefly to one of the five priests and told him that I felt blessed to be there. He simply smiled and said that he was glad I could come.
While walking back to the hotel in a euphoric state, it dawned on me that my nausea had vanished upon receiving the Eucharist. My soul and stomach healed. What a blessing.
As I reached the road where St. Anthony had provided a guide, another young man engaged me in a conversation. He was very happy and full of faith. When I mentioned the liveliness and joy of Mass, he said that the 7 a.m. Mass was subdued and that I should go to the 11 a.m. Mass if I wanted to see a joy-filled congregation.
My experience reminded me that Christ came to us in the poverty and humility of a stable. He came to me again that Sunday in the poverty and joy of that Mass in Zambia.
That experience has had a profound impact on my life in the way that I view my blessings. I have come to realize that being blessed with material wealth pales when compared to the blessing of simple joy and faith.
I pray that we all come to see this beautiful truth and trade some of our wealth for some of that joy.
Joe Shahid is a major and a C-17 commander in the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Charleston Air Force Base. He and his family live in Mount Pleasant and belong to Stella Maris Church.
Want to help?
To help the orphanage or St. Ignatius Parish in their important work, write to St. Ignatius Parish, P.O. Box 30125, Lusaka 10101, Zambia, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.