In this excerpt from Christianity Rediscovered, a Catholic priest describes his missionary experiences in Tanzania. Reprinted with permission of Orbis Books.

While I was evangelizing these first villages, I noticed from time to time a man on the outskirts of the different communities under instruction, the same man appearing in different places. He seemed poorer than the average Masai, and he did not seem to belong to any of the communities. One day in the midst of discussion, he asked a question. It was a simple question but it mystified me. He asked, "Can you people bring forgiveness of sin?"

I hadn’t gotten around to forgiveness yet (or confession). I was still trying to get across the consciousness and reality of sin. I thought the man was really not paying attention. I did not answer his question. I told him I would get to that some other day. Then, afterwards, I found out who he was. He was a man who had committed a great sin against the taboos of the Masai tribe. So he had become an outcast, belonging to no community. No community wanted him or was willing to have him live and work with them. A man with a sin on his head would bring nothing but evil on any community which he lived. The worst part of it was that the sin in question was unforgivable. There was no forgiveness possible from God or man. He was destined to live the rest of his life as a despicable outcast. No wonder he asked me if I and my people could bring forgiveness. By the time I had found out about all of this he was gone. I felt miserable.

That man and his people knew all about sin. What they did not know about was forgiveness of sin. They did not even know it was possible.

I found out more about sin and the Masai. Some sins were unforgivable, like that man’s sin. Other sins were not unforgivable, but nearly so. The difficulty involved in obtaining forgiveness for certain sins were so great that it bordered on impossibility. The Masai had to sweat and strain and suffer to reach forgiveness, even when it was possible.

If a son offended his father seriously, this was considered a sin of great magnitude. The sin not only brought a disruption in the relationship between the father and the son, but in the whole community and village where they lived. The son was banished from the community and was even shunned by his colleagues in the military encampments in which they were required to spend time as warriors. It was thought that a kind of curse followed a "sinful" person around, and brought misfortune on all who associated with him. This state of affairs could go on for months or years or even a lifetime.

Sometimes the peers of the father would encourage him to ask God for the "spittle of forgiveness" so that he could forgive his son and bring blessings once again on the village. Spittle, a very sacred element of a living, breathing human, was considered the sign of forgiveness. It was not just a sign, as we might be inclined to describe it, or an empty sign bereft of meaning. It was an African sign, which means it was a symbolism in which the sign is as real as the thing it signifies. (We might call it an effective sign, one in which the sign effects what it signifies. We could even call it a sacrament.) In other words, spittle was not just a sign of forgiveness. It was forgiveness. And so the father prayed to God for that spittle. Sometimes it was not granted him. He could spend the night on a mountainside praying for it. I once visited an old man doing just that. I sat with him in the middle of the night as he prayed in vain for the spittle of forgiveness.

Sometimes it is given him. Whenever it is, word is sent immediately out to the bush to the guilty son. During that same period that son might have been advised time and time again by his own peers to return and ask forgiveness of his father. But as with young people anywhere in the world, that can be a very onerous and distasteful task. But if word does come that the spittle of forgiveness has been granted his father, he will be earnestly entreated by his peers to take advantage of it. They will accompany him back to the village. And his father will be waiting with other elders. The two groups will cross from different sides of the village towards each other in the center. When they arrive there together, the son will ask his father’s forgiveness, and the father will spit on him, and forgiveness comes, and there is great rejoicing.

I came across another extraordinary custom of the Masai. Sometimes the sin occurs, not between individuals, but among groups in the same community. One family might offend another family, and disruption sets in on the whole community. This can be disastrous to a nomadic type community who must have unity above all else for the sake of their herding together and moving together for their common defense against enemies. A disruption like this can rupture the whole agreement or pact or covenant on which the community first came together and on which it remains together. If at all possible, both the offending and the offended family must be brought back together by an act of forgiveness sought and bestowed. So at the behest of the total community both families prepare food. The word for food in Masai is endaa. But this will be a special kind of food called the endaa sinyati, meaning holy food. This holy food is brought to the center of the village by the two families accompanied by the rest of the community, encouraging both families all along the way. There I the center of the village the food is exchanged between the two families, food is eaten by both families, and when it is, forgiveness comes, and the people say that a new osotua has begun. Osotua is the word for covenant or pact or testament.

A new testament of forgiveness is brought about by the exchange of holy food. What can one say?

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