Monday, November 4, 2013

Mate, community, and how the Church cares for people in need [by Erin B.]

One of the very first things we learned about Argentina, even before we set foot here, was the importance of mate (pronounced MAH-tay). In our time in Grand Bourg, we have continued to learn more about the traditions and sentiments that surround this drink, which is by law the “national infusion.”

Mate is like a loose-leaf tea that you drink in a special gourd (also called a mate) with a special straw called a bombilla that filters out most of the leaves. You can drink mate alone, but the vast majority of the time it is drunk in community. One person is the cebador, and s/he pours hot water over the dry yerba mate leaves. First s/he drinks the mate until the water is mostly gone and the straw makes a sucking sound, then pours more water and passes the mate to the next person. That person drinks until the water is gone, and then passes it back to the cebador, and so on.

Mate is drunk at social gatherings, at official meetings, at parties… really, anytime several people are gathered, mate is there (insert sarcastic reference to Matthew 18:20 here). Even when it is impractical to drink mate, in choir practice for example, where both our hands and our mouths are otherwise occupied, mate is drunk anyway.

Mate is a beautiful way to practice sharing in community. Everyone drinks out of the same mate gourd and uses the same bombilla. Depending on the number of people sharing the mate, several minutes might pass before it’s your turn to drink again. So if you’re looking simply to satisfy your thirst or benefit from the caffeine, it would be better to drink a bottle of Coke all by yourself. Mate is not primarily about thirst or caffeine, but about togetherness and friendship.

There are a few individuals and families that pass by our church every so often to ask for a small bag of food to help them get by. These bags usually include rice, lentils, sugar, flour, and… mate. Josh noted that at first glance, mate seems to be the odd thing out in these bags. The other items are staples; basic things that help the person survive. Mate, on the other hand, doesn’t provide any physical nourishment, yet it is always included in these basic food kits. Why?

We have come to realize that mate doesn’t satisfy a physical need, but rather satisfies a social, emotional, spiritual need for community and identity. Mate is part of being an Argentinean, just like eating is part of being human. In providing mate for these families, the church is helping not only to sustain them physically, but also to sustain their dignity as Argentinean people.

How have we as the wider Church succeeded and failed to sustain the dignity of the people with whom we are in ministry? How can we begin to care for our neighbors as whole people, with needs that are physical, emotional, social, spiritual?

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