I stuck out in Zambia like a sore thumb.
Not only was I the only white girl in the town of Mazabuka, where I was spending two months at a local orphanage, I was the white girl who ran. Who ran everywhere: to the market to buy groceries; to the hospital to visit our sick children; to the shop to purchase clothing for the orphans. I was in Africa to complete the works of mercy—to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and clothe the naked—and I wasn’t going to let the absence of a car stop me.
On my first Sunday at the orphanage, I rose early, threw on my running shorts, t-shirt, and shoes, and began the four-mile jog to the nearest church. I arrived sweaty and exhausted, yet determined. Waiting to enter the church amongst a throng of spirited strangers, I was approached by a middle-aged woman wearing a chitenge, the traditional cloth worn by Zambian women around their chest and waist, or often used as a sling for babies.
In typical African fashion, the woman’s words to me were blunt, catching me off guard: "It is not proper to wear shorts to Mass here."
It turns out I stuck out even more than I had expected! Flustered, I futilely tried to explain how I had come from an orphanage a long ways away, and that it was too hot for me to run in pants. She didn’t need an explanation, however, for as I spoke she removed the chitenge from her body and extended it to me. "Here," she said placidly, "I will show you how to wear it."
Without giving me a chance to respond, she meticulously yet gracefully draped the cloth of vibrant colors over my shoulder, around my torso, and tied it off behind my waist. She smiled gently and pushed me through the doors of the church, where I worshipped as one with my brothers and sisters.
I showed up in Africa ready to clothe the naked. I showed up in Africa prepared to stick out. I did not expect to be clothed, much less to fit in. But God’s mercy defies our expectations, our preparations, and especially our abilities. That morning, through the gift of a stranger, God’s mercy clothed me. And, as is characteristic of God’s mercy, I was welcomed in.