One of the delightful sights in Africa is the myriad of brightly-colored fabrics that both men and women wear. The clothseller’s stall in the open market dazzles the eyes and challenges passersby to choose a length of cloth. In every town tailors and seamstresses stand ready to whip up the latest fashion on their treadle machines. Show them a picture of what you want and they work their magic.
But that’s for those who can afford it. Others go to the market and inspect used clothes bought at a port city in bales, then transported to towns by bus. These are your clothes, clothes you tired of that even the Salvation Army could not sell. Merchants lay them out on tarpaulins on the ground in stacks of similar items. These open-air shops are sometimes called the Dead White Men’s Market—the items are considered so nice that only a dead man would not want to keep them.
While living in Africa, I too, on many occasions, availed myself of this “garage sale.” Kneeling on the tarp to inspect the offerings, I would smile at comments made by the people around me. As Bible translators, my husband and I had learned the local language. My fellow shoppers did not realize I understood what they said. “Wow, look at that white woman. She must have found a good deal.” Then they would all gravitate to my corner.
Some items my friends chose to wear surprised me: furred hats with ear flaps worn in sweltering heat, lacy slips donned as blouses, and what I considered clashing patterns.
Romans 13:14 tells me I am to clothe myself with the Lord Jesus. Galatians 3:26 says “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We have taken off our rotten old grave clothes, as Jesus told Lazarus to do; Christ has bought us shiny, new white ones to wear. Now we can really live it up! Now we are all wearing the same outfit; we are one in Him, male and female, slave and free, black and white.
What did that mean for me as a missionary—to “wear” Christ, to be one with my African friends? For one thing, I never wore slacks, and certainly not shorts, so as not to shock and offend. I kept only four or five outfits in my closet, mostly blouses and calf-length skirts, hoping I was, in a small way, identifying with their poverty.
Then one Sunday, a pastor, also our colleague in Bible translation, preached about being content. For African women, to wear several layers of wrap-around skirts is a sign of wealth. Some ladies had been hounding their husbands, he said, because they could not afford high-priced fabric for their clothing.
“Be satisfied with the medium-priced fabrics. At least,” he said, “you do not have to shop in the used clothing piles and wear those things that contain so little fabric...those, what do you call them—skirts? The ones...” he went on pressing his point as his eyes searched the congregation, “the ones...there, the ones like Madame Brinneman wears!” Our eyes met in approval. A rush of joy filled my heart. I was wearing the Lord Jesus and identifying with the very poor in a way I didn’t even realize.