I was coming back from dropping off some groceries to a local pastor of ours. I stopped at a roadside market stand to get some veggies to take home. I was shooting the breeze with the owner of the stand when a fight broke out beside me. I had heard the voices raising beside me before the blows and the threats started. A local pousse-poussedriver (rickshaw) had walked away with a mandarin without paying for it. He was still nonchalantly eating the last few slices as the woman who owned the adjacent stand rained down blows and abuse. You could tell he knew had been caught, but he defiantly yelled back that no one had seen him pay for it and if she didn’t like it she could call the cops. They were starving after all!
Sidebar: No one wants you to call the cops here. There’s no telling who they’ll take away and they’re probably going to walk away with more bribe money from you than you lost in the first place.
The other vendor, the woman’s brother, turned from me and began shouting at the guy too. But the offender just stood his ground, bristling as he shouted louder and gestured harder. Things were escalating and, as so often happens, a large crowd was forming. This is in the middle of the Corona Crisis! No one was wearing a mask—except me—and social distancing doesn’t really exist here. [Although, since then, masks have become mandatory here for all.] Plus, I’m a foreigner, with more money than most, in a volatile situation, where anything could happen. It was the moment when my instincts scream to pay quickly, get back in the truck, and drive away.
But something else happened. As at other times, it wasn’t so much that I directly chose as that something made me aware of another choice I then knew was the right one. I pulled out a dirty, old bill (what amounts to $1), and handed it to my vendor. “Does this cover it?” I asked.
He never answered. He just stared at me for a minute, then quickly nodded as he grabbed the bill and waved it in the air. “Hey! It’s paid for! It’s paid for!”
I was moving before really thinking about it. The two were now wrestling each other in a ring of bystanders. They hadn’t heard what had happened yet. I pressed forward with the vendor, and with several others we separated them. The vendor explained to his sister that I had paid for the mandarin. The pousse-pousseoffender looked a little confused. I looked around at the crowd and then at the thief, and said as loud and as clear as I could. “Look! All of us have done wrong. This guy’s theft has been taken care of. But only God can take care of the wrong we have all done. Repent and turn to God. Only he can take care of our curse (the comprehensive word for sin and evil here).”
The crowd was slowly breaking up. The vendor asked me who I was and where I went to church, thanking me. What had been a brawl diffused instantly. As I walked back to my truck, I knew something amazing had just happened. I had almost missed out. I had looked at COVID-19, a gathering crowd, money in my pocket, and my status here as liabilities. I was almost willing to miss out on life for the cost of one measly buck. Instead, God taught us all something. I’m so grateful. And haunted. What else have I missed for less than that? How much more could I see God do if I was willing make less of all my privileges?
Here in Mada, there’s a distinction drawn between stories (tantara) and living stories (tantara velo), the first being any old story and the second being something that actually happened. We use this distinction pretty often with the Bible. We tell Bible stories here not just because we admire their quality as great stories (which they are!) but as tantara velo, living stories that actually happened in the lives of everyday people.
I’d like to think of this as my tantara velo: that amazing, unplanned moment when the story of Jesus bursts through the pages, through a heart, and lands on two feet, walking and talking in front of a local market stand.