Thursday, April 4, 2013

Barbacoa and Empanadas

The smell is heavenly and earthy.  Heavenly, if that's what it can be called, with the scent of cinnamon, sugar, and fresh dough.  Earthy with the aroma of slow cooked meat, vegetables freshly washed, humanity and food packed together in a place not quite big enough for all that it holds.  It is a smell full of vitality--it is the smell of living people, my neighbors.  

The sight is overwhelming.  People and color and food and people and baskets and food and people... People who do not look like me...but they smile like me, smell their fruit like me, stand indecisively in front of the pastries like me.  Here I see my neighbors.  

The sounds are chaotic.  Clicking, rolling, banging, yelling, shouting, greeting, crying, words rapidly fired in a language I don't understand.  The language of people working, playing, struggling, rejoicing.  The language of my neighbor.

As a person who took five years of French as a foreign language, I am absolutely at a loss in a Latin American grocery store.  My limited vocabulary and my white skin absolutely set me apart, not to mention my husband was also with me, making us even more conspicuous with his electric wheelchair.  Yet, as I walked into the Fiesta just a couple miles from our house, there was something in the air, something…real.  The store was clean, but it was not immaculate.  It was packed to the brim with food, not carefully manicured to present everything “just so.”  There were glorious smells coming out of the panaderia, and you had to be willing to wait quite a bit to get what you wanted because everyone getting their pastries had to scrunch into a very small space. But take my words for it, the cream cheese empanada was worth the wait!  Though there were national brands of products, I learned that if I wanted the cheap stuff, I was going to have to get a brand I had never heard of before and probably couldn’t pronounce.  But that’s ok.  It was worth it.

Then, we went to the cafeteria-style restaurant squeezed in a space not much bigger than some dorm rooms I've seen.  The tortillas were fresh, the food was simmering...and no one spoke English.  The only name of anything I recognized was "Barbacoa."  And it looked gooood.  So in my best effort I looked at the woman and asked "Barbaco?"  She proceeded to ask me questions that I couldn't begin to understand.  And we just looked at one another, lost, perhaps a bit frustrated, probably both wondering why I was there in the first place.  Was I crazy to come into a place that was not my own?  Thankfully, the one worker who could translate caught on to what was happening, came over and helped.  All the tension left my body, and I knew it was going to be ok.  (By the way, the Barbacoa was excellent!)

I did not go to Fiesta to make the experience fit my expectations.  No, the point of going was to start learning what it means to be a part of this neighborhood.  As a white female, I have a choice to ignore my surroundings and go elsewhere to shop for groceries.  But, to ignore the life of my neighbor is the very opposite of real hospitality.  As Ana Maria Pineda expresses, “When it is most fully realized, hospitality not only welcomes strangers; it also recognizes their holiness.” 
For a recent class assignment, I was asked to define hospitality.  My definition of hospitality is twofold: 
1. to recognize the holiness in the stranger 
2. to respond to the stranger’s holiness with full engagement  

This kind of hospitality requires an openness to encounter God constantly.  God cannot be put in a box that only opens when it is convenient to me.  The Triune God must be the Dancer swirling around all of life, encompassing the big and the little on the dance floor of Earth.  I must be on the dance floor with God.  But, I must also recognize that you--the person I meet on the street, the friend I embrace in passing, the child I call by name—are also created to dance.  Then and only then, can I—can we—extend a hand, step out in faith, and join in the Creator’s Dance as partners.  There will be stepping on toes, bumping into each other, and awkward moments of deciding who leads and who follows.  This is part of the reality of dance, and therefore the reality of hospitality.  It’s messy, rough, and real.  It encounters the grit of the human condition, the joy of the human spirit, the struggle of human existence, and the wonder of human life, and says “Welcome home!”  In  the opening of doors and extending of hands, I imagine that the welcomed and the welcomer both hear the quiet voice of the Partner saying, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

In our hospitality, we live the Kingdom of God, opening its doors to the stranger and inviting them in the journey, in the dance, in the grand welcoming of Christ.