“Les blanches! Les blanches!” The call sounded like it came far away. “Les blanches!” Urgent. I turned to see who might be calling the white women while we were sitting in church and I saw the hole in the wall next to my head, no more than 4 inches in diameter, and two pairs of bright eyes and a gap-tooth smile on the other side of it. Delight! I saw them!
I smiled and turned away and they called again. “Les blanches! Les blanches!” This went on for a while and though no one else could hear them, not even the other “blanche” who was a few seats away, I could, so I did my best to shut them up but the only solution was to ignore them for a good half hour. The little boys finally went away or found some other entertainment besides making the white woman look at them.
See me. Hear me. I hate the celebrity status I get just by showing my white face in certain neighborhoods in Congo but I can understand the need for attention. To be recognized. Is anybody out there paying attention to us?
I represent the “out there,” not only to little boys in a labyrinthine quarter of unremitting poverty in Kinshasa but also to the members of this little church, which I have visited a half a dozen times before. “You remembered my name!” an elderly man said. “I was surprised!” Frankly, I was, too. That name came at the right moment, as I was shaking his hand. Other names eluded me until later and I trotted them out as best I could after the service when everybody greeted everybody in a kind of conga reception line that unfurled as people came out of the sanctuary. Greet everybody in the line and then join the line and be greeted. It’s a good system for learning the faces and the names. Enough repetition and even I can remember quite a few, especially since my congregation exchanges prayer requests with this one by emailing photos back and forth.
The two previous days I represented the “out there” to groups of women who were ordained or preparing for ministry. Several of them had developed a vision of what they would like to do, now that they were ordained and empowered by the church to lead. They sent a letter, asking for advice and partnership. The letter landed in the right hands at the right time. We paid attention and Sandy and I came, we were sent. We came to listen, to learn more, including what our role in this might be. We came knowing nothing and bringing nothing except our attention.
The women who called us had, themselves, heard a call from the women of the scattered congregations of their church, the rural women, the urban women, the suffering, the struggling, the unheard. “Now that you are ordained, what will you do for us?” The newly ordained ministers paid attention and began to put together their ideas.
As we talked in a larger group of their peers the flame of a vision spread around the circle, igniting the attention of each woman. The women with whom the vision started didn’t know this could happen. They didn’t know that the attention of their own circle was as important as the attention of those of us “out there.” That they can listen to and inspire each other.
In India there is a whole movement built around paying attention. It’s called swadhyaya. City people, professional people, go to villages and plant themselves there, bringing nothing, no ideas, no plans, nothing but their attention. They listen and listen until the villagers themselves know what it is they want to do. How does that work? An organization my husband and I served when we were young, Mennonite Central Committee, sometimes operated that way, too. It’s free-floating, it doesn’t work well with project goals and budgets. It’s hard to put a dollar value on attention or calculate the results of growing self-worth.
Paying attention is hard work. I had no energy left for the little boys on the other side of the wall. I was here for the women. Besides, I knew that a few rows behind me was my friend Edho Mukendi, who heads an organization for street kids. Edho is paying attention to the children.