The impoverished people of Goz Beida welcomed refugees from Darfur and showed me what radical hospitality really looks like.
Goz Beida is in Eastern Chad, less than 100 miles south of the Sahara Desert. Visiting there last fall brought the term “sub-Saharan Africa” vividly to life for me—sandy soil, walled compounds, unpaved streets, dust clinging to everything, goats everywhere. Chad is among the poorest nations on Earth: It has virtually no paved roads and no ATM machines at all; the World Bank estimates per capita household consumption at $223. So the sultan’s house is a tiny bungalow. But his heart is huge, and in it I discovered a lesson that I brought back from Africa with me, something I would like to share with you.
I had gone to Goz Beida to learn something else, to learn first-hand about the genocide that has killed almost 200,000 people in Darfur, the region of Sudan that’s just across the dry riverbed that is Chad’s border. Another 200,000 residents of Darfur have streamed into Eastern Chad seeking safety, and 15,000 of them are in a refugee camp at Goz Beida. I was part of a joint fact-finding visit of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the UU Service Committee.
When we visited the sultan’s house we were welcomed, ushered to a shaded area next to his house, and invited to sit in plastic lawn chairs. He spoke with us through translators for forty minutes while a servant served us tea and broken crackers. The broken crackers were an expression not of disrespect but of how impoverished the people of Goz Beida are, even the sultan. These are people who share what they have with strangers, however little it may be—and not just a few strangers from far-away Boston but also strangers by the thousand from the country across the dry riverbed.
The refugees started arriving in a trickle, the sultan told us, but soon they were a flood. The sultan’s response was to open Goz Beida’s granary to them. It was three months before nongovernmental organizations could create an orderly camp for the refugees. Until then the 5,000 original citizens of Goz Beida found ways to feed not only themselves but also 15,000 refugees.
The sultan spoke in Arabic to someone who could translate to French and speak in French to someone else who could translate to English for his guests. “If you are comfortable in your house and your neighbor is not,” he explained, “then you will not have peace.”
I have been calling for Unitarian Universalists to practice radical hospitality in their congregations for several years now. Until I experienced the sultan and people of Goz Beida, I must confess, I didn’t have a full sense of what my own words meant.
Our task as religious people is not only to love our neighbors as ourselves, but also to always be expanding our understanding of who our neighbor is. There is no question in my mind that the citizens of Goz Beida and the refugees who outnumber them are the neighbors of Unitarian Universalists in the United States.
In our congregations we often talk about creating radical hospitality for our neighbors who visit on a Sunday morning, looking for a church home. We have so much opportunity to reach out, to in our own way open our plentiful granaries to our neighbors!
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The Rev. Bill Sinkford is a former president of the UUA and now senior minister at First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon. He was appointed Interim Co-President for the roles of President as outlined in the UUA Bylaws on April 10, 2017.