Unusual Visitors

Robyn Michaels

© Copyright 2022 by Robyn Michaels

Photo courtesy of Global Giving.
Photo courtesy of Global Giving.

The first time I ever encountered someone in America who had never met a Jew was when I had just turned 15. This was in 1968. I was living in the north suburbs of Chicago, where at least a third of the community was Jewish. I went to visit an acquaintance who lived in Pana, a small town in central Illinois: corn country. We went to her mother’s for Christmas. She had cooked a ham.

                I had actually never eaten any pork but deli sliced ham and bacon. We Jews: always making excuses for which dietary laws it’s ok to break.  But that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that my friend’s mother had never talked to an actual Jew. She asked if we kept kosher, and if we celebrated the Sabbath on Friday nights. She said something about being Jesus’ people.

                Living in a mixed community as I did, my religion never came up. My name is Americanized, so most people, guessing my ethnicity, guess Italian. No matter. It wasn’t until I decided to volunteer one summer in Kenya that I had to deal with religion.

                Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, said, “When the Europeans came, we had the land, and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

                So it was. What we learned on that trip, in 1987, was that virtually every educated Kenyan identified as Christian or Moslem. We met a lot of Maasai on that trip. The Maasai believe in one God, and for the most part, were not easily converted. The European missionaries enticed the Africans not just with stuff, but with ‘education’. That’s how they do it: get them while they’re young. Teach them songs. The Africans might or might not have believed in an afterlife, but they definitely did after being inculcated by Christians.

                A group of us Americans were volunteering at a girls’ boarding school, in Kajiado. The school was sponsored by the African Inland Church, a Protestant group. Well off African families of all religions sent their daughters because the quality of education was considered better than most local primary schools. All the teachers were at least high school graduates. Some had more education. This school was nothing fancy, but you don’t need fancy.  Girls had to haul water in the morning before classes started.

                We volunteers were mostly college students. A few of us were older, with ‘careers’.  I volunteered to get a taste of what Peace Corps might be like, and to improve my KiSwahili. It so happened that, of the eight of us, two others were also Jews.

                The plan was to help a community group but they didn’t need our help, so the District Commissioner (local ‘mayor’ type of person) brought us to the school. The headmistress was a well-educated Maasai woman, and it was decided that we’d make bricks for a new class building.

                Sand, small stones, and frames were ordered, and a community development worker, a young African guy, showed us how to mix the materials and pour the goop into frames. We learned later that the bricks should have been ‘cured’ in a pool of water for several days, but none of us had ever done this and had no idea what we were doing. I eventually realized that the quality of our bricks was so bad, we probably didn’t have enough for a latrine. However, that wasn’t so important. What was important was that they saw us working.

                We were told that if teachers asked us to teach, we should leave our brickmaking and teach her class. The headmistress thought it would be a good idea for the girls to get used to listening to our American accents.

                A teacher approached me with her lesson after we had been there about a week, and asked me to teach. Her lesson was: ‘How we know Jesus Christ is with us every day in our lives’.

                This was not a public school, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  How many of us went to primary schools in the USA and learned Christmas songs, possibly even hymns and the Lord’s Prayer?

                I tried to hide my smirk as I told the teacher, “I’m sorry. I can’t teach this. Jesus Christ is not with me every day in my life. I’m a Jew.”

                Looking very surprised, she asked me, “Don’t you believe in Jesus?”

                “Well, we don’t doubt he exists, but we believe we’re all God’s children. And we don’t believe in virgin birth,” I replied.

                “What do you believe?” she then asked.

                “Well, we don’t really have a concept of Hell,” I said.

                “We don’t have a concept of Heaven, either,” another volunteer, also Jewish, added.

                “So, what happens to you when you die?”  She asked us.

                “You’re dead,” we told her, in unison. Rather funny.

                She gasped, and asked, “So what causes you to be good?”

                “You’re responsibility to your community. Integrity,” I responded.  My Jewish companion nodded.
                We continued to make bricks. The word got out, and people from the community started visiting and asking questions. They called us ‘Unusual Visitors’. Not only were we the first white people they had ever met who weren’t missionaries, but we were the first white people they had ever seen do physical labor.
                Young guys started telling us about how missionaries made them take ‘Christian’ names. In some cases, they had to go to church if they wanted to be able to use the missionary medical clinics.

                We told our new friends we didn’t come to change what they believed. Whatever they believed was their business:  Jews don’t proselytize.

                When I got back to the USA, I read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”  I completed my undergraduate degree in anthropology (Africa area studies), then got a master’s degree, and returned to Africa, this time, Malawi, as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Robyn Michaels has lived in Chicago most of her life. She learned to groom dogs as a teenager, and didn’t go to college until she was in her  thirties.  She paid cash for school by grooming dogs.  After earning her masters in urban planning & policy, she was a peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi.   This was in the early 1990s.  Upon her return to the USA,  she worked for several nonprofits, was a UN Volunteer in Bosnia, and also volunteered briefly in Delhi, India.  She has trained several dogs to  obedience and rally titles, and continued to groom dogs until her retirement when COVID closed everything down.

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