Advent 2023 newsletter
Anna Johnson, Tanzania
It’s been almost a year since our family stepped off the plane and set foot in East Africa as brand-new Maryknoll lay missioners. As our first Christmas away from home approaches, I find myself reflecting on a year that has simultaneously felt like a lifetime – as well as a blink-of-an-eye.
In 12 months I have learned more Swahili than I ever thought possible, but still find myself unable to understand most of what locals say when speaking amongst themselves. I’ve mastered the art of grocery shopping in open-air markets and ordering beans by the kilo. My definition of the word “road” has changed completely and my 4WD skills have improved dramatically.
I’ve learned to dance with the students and teachers at Huruma School – experiencing the universal language of music and movement and how it draws us to one another, crossing cultural divides and differences in an effortless, almost magical way. As a family, we’ve laughed a lot. And we’ve cried a lot. We have felt angry, alone, amazed, in awe, scared, amused, exhausted … Mostly, though, I think we all agree we feel incredibly grateful to be here, sharing this experience as a family and with one another.
During this Advent, as I find myself far away from the customs and loved ones I typically associate with Christmas, I am reminded of the importance of family. Here in Tanzania, Christmas does not start in October when the decorations at Costco go up. Instead, the Christmas season begins with the end of the official church year and the beginning of a new one (around the first week of December).
Unlike back home, we will not decorate a tree this year or put lights up around our house. We won’t buy and wrap lots of presents or attend lots of Christmas parties and eat lots of sweet things for four weeks.
Like Joseph returning to his hometown, Tanzanians often return home to their villages around Christmas time to spend time with family and friends. And so the month of December holds not the anticipation of physical gifts and presents, but the anticipation of seeing loved ones again. The gift of each other. The gift of family.
In Tanzania, the gift of family is so visible: a young girl carrying her infant sister on her back, an elderly grandmother taking in her two orphaned grandchildren, an aunt adopting her young niece with cerebral palsy. Repeatedly, these past 12 months, I have seen how families pull together to live (a sometimes very difficult) life.
I recently read a reimagined Christmas story. Instead of wandering into an unwelcoming Bethlehem with Mary in labor – Joseph and Mary were likely warmly greeted by his extended family and relatives. While these relatives may not have had a guest room available, it is likely that a relative of Joseph’s offered what he could: a large living space attached to his house that doubled as a stable at night. They likely settled in for a time (days, even weeks?) before Mary gave birth.
While this image is contrary to what I learned as a little girl (with innkeepers angrily slamming the door in Joseph’s face with Mary in the throes of labor pain), I enjoyed imagining this new possibility. I’m sure having a distant relative with a very pregnant wife show up at an already overcrowded house did not feel like a gift. The situation was (at the very least!) quite challenging. And yet, as I imagine it, Joseph’s family pulled together and offered what little space they had left to make room for this young couple in need. And in that simple space provided to them, God literally entered the world.
This Advent season, I think warmly on the family celebrations and gatherings that will soon be front and center in villages and towns across Tanzania. Our own family will travel to meet with my parents. Our three children are waiting with great anticipation to hug their grandparents that they have not seen for 12 months.
My prayer is for all of us, across Tanzania and throughout the world: that – like in Bethlehem so many centuries ago – we make space for God to enter into our families, our work and our lives. And that we recognize and celebrate God’s presence – welcoming God with open minds and open hearts so that as a human family we can more fully answer the call Jesus gave us some 2,000 years ago: “To love one another.”
Please consider supporting our family’s mission work in Tanzania with a donation through the link below.
We invite you to walk with us as our “COMPANIONS IN MISSION.” Companions in Mission are friends and generous donors who give financial gifts on a regular (usually monthly) basis. For more information, visit Become a Companion in Mission. Thank you so much for your generosity!