“I Feel God in This Chili’s Tonight,” Or How a Scared Jewish Boy Found Peace in West Africa

After a week of radio silence, I logged onto the Peace Corps wifi and was immediately inundated with information about the tragic events that have happened recently at home. At times like these, it’s easy to struggle with faith. Why do these horrible things happen? Is this how it’s meant to be? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’d like to share with you how I found faith here in Togo, West Africa. I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but my faith has really been helping me here, so I thought I would share.

One of my top ten biggest fears about coming to Togo was adapting to a country where Judaism is not really practiced or celebrated (some of my other fears: hiding other parts of my identity, abstaining completely from alcohol without offending anyone, and not being able to find any smoked sardines. Luckily the third problem has not been an issue). I love my Jewish faith. I love the holidays and simchas. I love the closeness I feel with my family. I love my mom’s brisket. All of these things were so difficult to leave behind. 

Luckily no one knows what the Star of David means here. So I can wear this fabric all the time!

One of the first questions my family asked me was, “What religion are you?” I was completely ready for this question! I answered, in perfect French, “My religion no here of Togo. But I want to will go to church with you if that’s good.” My family was excited to hear my response! (Fun side note: je suis excité means “I am sexually excited.” This realization explains the very confused looks I got from my pastor when I tried to tel him how excited I was to be at church) On my first Sunday in Togo, we put on our finest clothes and headed to church!

Our church is located in Tagligbo, the Akron of West Africa. It’s a 1.5-mile walk from our home to the church, which gave me a solid 30 minutes to pray: “God, please give me a sign that this church is where I’m meant to be!”

Okay, this may have been a little too on the nose. 

When I walked in to Church Shalom Shalom Shalom, it was immediately pretty clear that I was new to the church. For one thing, I was sitting in the kids’ section, where the oldest kid was 13. I was full-on Buddy the Elfing it.

Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite sardine?

My skin color may have given it away too. Also I was the only one in the congregation wearing a Fitbit. I guess there were a lot of signs. At the end of the ceremony, the pastor invited me to the front of the congregation, allowed me to introduce myself, and then formally welcomed me into the church community. When the crowd applauded, I knew that the welcome was sincere. I wasn’t expecting the welcome at all, so it was an extremely pleasant surprise. 

The church ceremony lasts approximately 3.5 hours. It’s less of a transcendent religious experience and more of a chance for kids to poke me for an entire morning. But as my French has amelioré recenty, I’ve been getting more and more out of the sermon. Today’s message was: “Un bon mettre, un bon disciple, donnent le suces.” That translates to: “A good Master and a good disciple give you success!” I think I’m going to make that my mantra! 

I’ve gone to the church every Sunday I’ve been in the region, and I plan on continuing the routine when I get to site in late August. There’s a chance I’ll be in a Muslim community; if so, I’ll go to the mosque. Even though it’s not my faith, it helps me integrate into the community and brings me, I hope, closer to God.

So what have I learned that somehow correlates to what’s happening at home? People just want to feel like they belong. It’s cliche, but there is so much more that unites us than divides us. Do you know a police officer who is doing a great job keeping us safe? Thank him or her. (ps Hi Brian! I heard we have chickens at the farm now!) Do you know someone of a different race, or faith, or sexual orientation, or anything else? Don’t fear that person; get to know him. Invite her to break bread. Reach out a welcoming hand in a time of need, like right now. 

I was accepted into a religious community in West Africa that could not possibly be more different than I am. It can be done. And you can be the one to do it.



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