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  • Pastor Tom Cunningham


I had forgotten what Christmas really was — or perhaps I had never really known. Well, I knew intellectually, and I knew spiritually and I had all the right answers to all the right questions about Christmas, but I didn’t really know. I do now… I laugh when I hear that certain elements of our society want to change the name of Christmas to ‘Winter Holiday’, or the ‘Holiday season’. It’s funny in a way that borders on ridiculous. I grew up in Midwest America, graduated from Dover High School in small town Dover, Ohio — and in my whole life I had never ever met anybody that didn’t celebrate Christmas. Nobody. Ever. We learned about Hanukah and were fascinated and even jealous that they got to receive a different gift every night throughout the season. We never actually knew anybody that celebrated Hanukah, but we loved what we learned and were happy to share the Christmas Season with them. Atheists (or heathens as they were called) kept their humbuggery to themselves — and since everybody really profits in one way or another from Christmas anyway, we knew that they secretly enjoyed the season — in spite of their loosely held ‘ideals’. The most laughable addition to celebrating the Holiday Season is the creation — or invention, I should say, of Kwanzaa. Had anybody ever really heard of Kwanzaa before 1995? Really. I lived in Zambia, Central Africa for four years as a missionary and I couldn’t find anybody over there (the continent where it supposedly began) who had ever heard of Kwanzaa either. They do celebrate Christmas though and they love it! It was actually in Livingstone, Zambia that I learned the true meaning of Christmas — even though I am a Pastor and a Missionary — I didn’t have it right. Not at all.

Zambia is a mixture of peoples, 72 tribes of Bantu people and a gathering of transplants such as South Africans, British, a large contingent of Indians (from India) and a smattering of Americans. They all celebrate the Christmas season without one blink of an eye as to what it is to be ‘called’ or what it represents. I remember my first Christmas in Livingstone, stretching out my strand of blinking lights across the front of my Colonial English house — setting up the artificial Christmas tree with all the decorations. We had only been there 8 months and had already gathered a Zambian congregation of close to 500. They were a lively people and deeply committed to their newly found Christian faith. I would tour the village compounds and visit families who had recently been to church and was not prepared for what I would see. Poverty unlike anything I had ever even heard of, or dared to imagine — and all that comes with that.

There are not four seasons in Zambia, but two — rainy and dry season, better known as hot and cold season. With the rains come the breeding of another creature; the evil one; the dark side of Africa. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Rain season is mosquito season is malaria season. Fever and chills; sweating and shaking. And the granddaddy of them all; cerebral malaria. Coma. One can fall from healthy to coma in 24 hours. Dead in 2 more. That was the most dreadful sickness I had ever seen. My church usher and my friend — a man that called me his father and said I treated him more like a son than a church member, laid in the hospital fighting for his life. Just 26 hours before, we were talking and he complained of a rash on his arm, but felt fine. We found him in his hut on his bed in a coma after he failed to attend church service. A service he never misses and considers the highlight of his life. We picked him up and rushed him to the hospital. They began a Quinine drip immediately. Of course this is Zambia—so I had to provide the Quinine, the drip, the syringes and peripherals, but nonetheless, he got immediate care. Eight days later he was out of his coma, not yet able to speak, but was able to recognize us. We were bringing him his meals to the hospital every day and he had fallen in love with my wife’s cooking. He would see her, point to his plate and smile. He eventually made a complete recovery. That was the good part. Then came the hard part. After his recovery, I had to speak him in another way—A way a minister always feels inadequate. An issue there is no study for, no classroom, no testing, no preparation and no answers. You see, the day we picked him up and rushed him to the hospital in a coma, his wife had died of the same dreaded malaria at a different clinic. She was dead and buried, the funeral was over and the relatives were gone and Gideon still didn’t know it. Now that he was gaining his strength, it was unanimously up to me to tell him the news; ‘break it to him gently’ as the cliché goes. Like a father to his son, the words escaped me. Even in prayer, they escaped me — yet I broke the news of his wife to him that day — and life goes on.

Africa equals death. You can never be desensitized to it. It is too real. Malaria victims, AIDS victims, under cared for victims are dying and filling the cemeteries daily. Shallow graves are being dug to bury the newly dead on top of the older dead. That was the reason I was there. That was the urgency, the calling, and the need. The saving of a nation; a nation that can’t save itself and doesn’t even know it’s dying. This is where destinies are claimed, callings are confirmed and purposes are discovered. All else is trivial. We had a job to do; and do quickly. The words, “What do want for Christmas” are never asked because there is no money for such things. A special Christmas celebration for the whole family, if you’re lucky, includes the addition of sausage or any kind of meat to the evening meal of sticky corn meal (Nshima) and vegetables.

I wanted to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my family, in our house, the American way, opening gifts and eating cookies, the sugar kind with frosting on top. But, my congregation wanted special church services on Christmas Eve, then again on Christmas Day. “That is Saturday” I replied, “we’ll meet on Sunday, the 26th as usual.” They were secretly appalled that I would dare to deny them a Christmas service on the day that celebrates the very birth of Christ. They didn’t say it openly as they would never want to hurt me, but I could see it in their eyes. I felt shallow.

They were there in their special Christmas services with hands raised, singing and praising God with all their soul as they celebrated the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. There were no presents, no decorations, to some, there would be no food — but there was celebration and there was praise — and there was a church service that to them symbolized the future and only hope for their nation. I looked over the crowd of 500+ and I spotted Gideon. His hands were raised — his mouth open, singing and praising God, his eyes closed. He had no money, only one set of clothes to his name — his wife buried just weeks ago — yet the joy in his countenance was astonishing. To Gideon, Christmas was the birth of his Savior — and the symbol of hope for tomorrow. I bowed my head, almost in shame, tears rolled down my cheeks — and I learned that day what Christmas really was.

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