FOR THE SAKE OF THE GOSPEL
We—a tribe of six—had finally shuffled ourselves into our own rented castle among almost ten million humans in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At the time we were still dazed by the multitude of different crunched cultures in an endless city that spread over the horizon. And most intriguing of all, the smog of the big city was eye-watering. Afternoons were as if a horror movie were in production and this brownish monster was hovering over the unfortunate inhabitants of Gotham City. Nevertheless, we felt somewhat reassured by shuffling our apprehensive clan into our first residence in this jungle of mixed humanity.
Suppressing every feeling to isolate ourselves into an unnatural lockdown, our first selection on the menu of neighborhood was to meet the neighbors. On one side of our settlement were Brazilian nationals. No problem there. Since we had four siblings from six years to six months, Brazilian hospitality had already poured out on us since our arrival overwhelming warmth … or maybe unspoken sympathy.
Camped on the other side of our encampment, however, was a German couple and their thirteen year old daughter. Since we had signed a peace accord with Germany after the great war, a United Nations conference was initiated. Being themselves foreigners in a strange land, they initiated a gracious move to invite Martha and I over for evening dining.
Martha and I were still just out of small-town America, myself being a small-town farm boy, and Martha was the city girl … well … town girl. Fortunately, we had lived for two years in Dallas, but that was only a sprint through big-city culture, and besides, in Texas there are no strangers. We then ended up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In our trivial introduction to life outside the Kansas cultural cocoon, we knew little about being drafted into the human coffee grinder of Brazil … and indeed, the coffee was terrific. It was simply a luscious experience to have one’s culture ground down into an expresso.
But knowing nothing of German culture, we eagerly accepted the invitation for an evening meal with our newly acquired neighbors. It was all so new to us. Our German friends knew a little English and Portuguese. We knew a lot of English, but little Portuguese, and certainly no German. Martha and I were still at the stage of moving into a new land, but a move to a land where we knew not the language of the land. We would often go shopping in a food store for tinned foods. If there were no art work or pictures on the labels of the tins on which there was only writing in Portuguese, mealtime back at the house was always a surprise event as to what we had bought at the store. Everyday, therefore, was another exciting exploratory adventure of what we would eat for the day.
So we were somewhat prepared for another entree on our list of unusual foods. Fortunately, our neighbors’ thirteen year old daughter knew a smattering of English that she had learned at school. She was thus the official interpreter for the evening.
When the evening came, we arrived in our evening dress ware, knowing nothing about what to expect. As young foreigners ourselves, we just assumed that we were out on another adventure to learn the culture, and especially the cultural foods of another tribe.
Our hosts were certainly presidential in presenting an eloquent atmosphere for a meeting of the league of nations. All dress was formally casual. The table presentation could not have been arranged with more precision for some foreign diplomat. Our hosts surely used a measuring ruler to lay out all the dishes and silverware. Glasses where regimented in-line on the table better than a group of disciplined German soldiers. Throughout the dining room, candles illuminated the serenity of the moment as we were ushered to our proper seating.
Once positioned, the lady of the hour brought out the starters that teased our taste buds for the main course. While working laboriously through our interpreter, the conversation was somewhat strained as we all sought to communicate with some precision what we wanted to say. When there was something lost in translation, repetition was necessary, but always softened by warmth that all of us needed in order to settle ourselves in for the evening.
And then it was the moment of the hour. Our host politely excused herself from the table, made her way back into the inner sanctuary of the kitchen, and eventually came forth with two large bowls. As she neared the table, I first became somewhat anxious, not trusting my vision in the dim light. I glanced over to Martha who was closer for inspection. And now she too slightly stiffened at what she discovered in the two bowls.
Our host was so gracious, not knowing that she was dealing with two young Kansas small-town transplants who knew only meals of tatters and gravy, with well-done beef that was baked just this side of being crisp. But when we looked into those two bowls, I am sure our host sensed our hesitation, and possibly wider than usual eyes. It was a Kodak moment of surprised in slow motion.
When we were initially seated at the table, both Martha and I thought the center presentation of the table was certainly exquisite, if not quite unique. There in the middle of the table were these two large candles burning under two pots that were covered with lids. We thought these were unique table decorations, and so commented our host for the presidential table presentation. We had no idea that we were revealing our Kansas naivete.
But Martha could not take her eyes off what was in those two bowls that our host eagerly placed on the table. Neither could I. We both thought, “What will we do?” Our minds were swirling, wondering what and how these Germans must usually eat. Was this something left over from the war? How could we possibly turn away from something that our host had spent so much time in preparation to please her guests.
Our host sensed tension in the air when she asked Martha how much she wanted of the contents of the two bowls. I was glad that she had first asked Martha. I was trying to recover from shock as to what I should do. I know what the apostle Paul said in reference to all food, “Ask no questions.” But at this moment, I was about to go beyond Bible instructions. I was about to blurt out a catalog of objections and questions concerning the contents of those two bowls.
So Martha sheepishly responded to our gracious host, “I’ll just take two small pieces.” I thought she was so brave. So following her lead, I too bravely said, “Give me the same,” though I could have settled for none. For the entire meal, I felt that I could just as well fill myself with the starters.
It was then that the understanding German mind of our host finally kicked in. The dots of the surprised expressions on the faces of the two foreigners, and the small blocks of chopped raw beef in the bowls, finally made our host realize that she was dealing with two uncultured locals who knew little about international cuisine. It was then that her Emily Vanderbilt etiquette went to work.
She very graciously explained, “This is a fondue meal. You can take the little forks on each of your plates, stick them into the squares of the raw meat in the bowls, and then cook them in the two pots of oil that are heating over the two candle flames. When they are cooked according to your liking, don’t worry, we have more raw meat in the kitchen.”
Her daughter was also graciously smiling as she translated these words for the two new natives.
Oh, did we all laugh … and relax. We two foreigners had just become international. So the evening went into the late hours. The food was just out of this world, at least out of our Kansas culture. I am sure our two new German friends have told this story a thousand times over about inviting over to their house the two naive Americans in Brazil who had never before experienced a fondue meal.
So Martha and I walked away from that educational experience with a reaffirmed principle of gospel living. And since I am writing these words almost fifty years later, a lot of different cuisine has passed through our teeth. In all this, we are thankful that God taught us early in our international ministry never to allow food to be an obstacle to friendship and preaching the gospel. An international Jew of the New Testament said it best: “I have become all things to all men so that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the sake of the gospel so that I might be partaker of it” (1 Co 9:22,23).