Imagine I was visiting you and from your curiosity you found out that that I am a Spanish-speaking female rabbi that has lived in Japan. You might think I was rather exotic. Earlier this year I met my match. I went to see a small community of Nigerian nuns, whose convent was a modest apartment on a modest street. They were all wearing royal blue habits, except the patient, who was wearing a native dress as varied in hue as Joseph’s coat of many colors. One of the nuns, as if eager to exhibit to me how she was the exotic one, said to me, “Do you find it threatening to be visiting us? We are nuns, and we are from Nigeria. Were you nervous about what you might find?”
“Threatened? No not threatened. But I must admit I’m fascinated and very curious.” As I answered, I wondered why she thought they might seem threatening. If anything, it felt like a very safe, sacred and peaceful place to be. I went on to say, “And besides, we’re colleagues.” She nodded happily and I continued, “Also, I have met many kinds of people from many cultures and ways of life; I have traveled to over 20 countries and lived in a few. I’ve been around the block, and am not young.”
Usually as a chaplain I tend not to talk much, so I must ask myself why I went on like that. I think because I did not want the nuns to think I was uncomfortable, which would result in their discomfort. But more than that, I yearned to communicate how feeling threatened was so much the opposite of what I felt. Here is a group of women whose spirituality is at the top of their list, and who are in pursuit of meaningful lives. As white married, financially secure, Jewish and as American as I am, I too try to put spirituality at the top of my list and pursue meaningful moments. See that? We have plenty in common.
I was darn curious, though. I could not resist asking why they were here. Doesn’t Nigeria need the services of nuns? She gave me a startling answer: “We are here to help American blacks.” Help Americans? She went on to say something like, black people are not trusting of whites and they need Africans to look up to.
All those years ago slave traders forced Africans to leave their homes and come to the U.S. Here we have Africans voluntarily braving our culture, including our freezing weather, to offer redemptive routes to those slaves’ descendants. I am honored to have met those engaged in such a sacred task. I am humbled that they are the ones doing it, as we whites have failed to repair the damage we have inflicted on African Americans since slavery through the present. Much less have we enhanced their spiritual well being.