No place to go
Greetings from Tanzania, Africa. The people here are a Karibou, or welcoming people.
As we celebrate this holiday season, I am reminded of how difficult it was for Joseph and Mary to find a place where she could give birth to Jesus. At last they found a hidden place behind a lodge in a humble manger. So many people in our world have no place to go because they are homeless, or are refugees from their homeland because of war and violence. Some people are just rejected by their families because of illness, problems or conflicts.
Petro Gabrieli was born 61 years ago in the small village of Gaeta, Tanzania in the northwestern part of the country. His parents were from Rwanda, but they came to Tanzania and settled here in the 1930s. They are of the Mzinza tribe. As an infant he was baptized into the Catholic faith and given the name Petro Gabrieli. At age 20, he contracted Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy). As the eldest boy of five children, he was to help with the responsibilities of caring for his family. Because of the leprosy, he was told by the family to leave as they were afraid he would infect the entire village with the disease.
As a result, Petro wandered from place to place seeking help and assistance. He was given help at a local clinic in Gaeta, but was then sent to Mwanza to the major hospital of Bugando, where over a period of years he had his fingers and toes amputated, but eventually was cured of leprosy.
Since contracting leprosy in 1968 until 1999, Petro has had a difficult life. He could not return home, he could not find work anywhere, he went to eat in a restaurant and he was told to leave. The reason was that he had no fingers to eat the food. Normally, Tanzanian people (and Africans in general) eat food with their fingers. The traditional food such as Ugali (a wheat or corn based dough that is cooked and baked over fire) is dipped into a tasty sauce with fish, beans or vegetables. Since Petro had no fingers, he had to use the palms of his hands to dip the Ugali into the sauce. Most people regarded that as gross and impolite and he could no longer go anywhere to eat except alone with whatever food was given him.
In 1999, Petro became desperate trying to find a place where he could be accepted as a human being even though he was cured of the leprosy. He was tired of living in the streets or sleeping on the curb. Petro heard of a place called MJI wa husuma (the home of compassion) founded by a local Tanzanian Catholic priest, Father Godfried Biseko. He has lived here ever since with us and has found a home of acceptance and welcome for the rest of his life.
The message of the Christmas story is to open our hearts in welcome to everyone just as God embraced our human family, to welcome the stranger, the homeless one, the hungry or lost individual seeking a place of refuge from the storms of life.
May we do whatever we can to be people of welcome and hospitality for those who have no place to go this Christmas and always. Heri ya Noeli (Merry Christmas!)