This column appears in the March 14th edition of the Daily Journal.
The first time I met Fr. Gabriel Silonda of Zimbabwe, he was on a four-month sabbatical in D.C. On a Saturday afternoon he was sorting through melons, in a neighborhood farmer’s market, in the late D.C. summer.
“I must find one of the proper ripeness,” he said, slapping the back of his head just as he slapped the melons, a tribal tick that made people wonder if he was a little slow.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Gabriel said slapping the back of his head, his long fingers curling around the base of his neck. “And you, my good friend, will help me discover the melon.” He slapped my neck, a little too hard for American taste.
“My good, good friend,” Gabriel said. He hardly knew me.
Evenings after class I’d find Gabriel watching the evening news, entranced, his limbs hanging gangly on either side of the recliner, too long for his pudgy body.
“This is nonsense!” he’d exclaim every five minutes. “I cannot abide such as this!” He’d fling the remote into the couch and stomp out of the room.
One Sunday afternoon I skipped a student-led town hall discussion and watched a movie. My friend, Katie, burst into the common room in a fluster.
“Gabriel just shouted me down,” she said, half laughing, half crying.
“My lord,” I said. “What happened?”
“He shouted me down, that’s what happened,” she said.
“He just got louder and louder until I and everybody that disagreed with him stopped talking,” she said.
Once we were celebrating a classmate’s birthday by singing Karaoke. I sang “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis.
My female classmates rushed the stage waving cocktail napkins and I wiped my forehead and handed them back. Two of the girls got on stage and danced with me as I sliced the air with Karate chops.
As we were walking home, Gabriel was effusive with praise. “Women love you,” he said. “They throw themselves into your arms!” I slapped him on the back of the neck.
“My dark brother, I pictured the angel of the Annunciation differently,” I yelled to him, laughing.
“Yes,” he said. “I bring glad tidings to the poor – of spirit! You!” His laugh filled the universe.
“You’re mixing Bible passages,” I told him and slapped him again.
On the day we departed graduate school I sat with Fr. Gabriel before he got into his cab. He was going to Reagan Airport, then to New York, then to Africa. We sat on the curb and talked about time, and religion, and the thousands of things that fill up everyday life.
When his cab arrived, Fr. Gabriel wrapped me in one his crushing hugs.
“I will see you again, my friend,” he said. His large hand held the back of my skull like a coconut. “You will come to Africa, and I will show you how life is for the rest of the world, outside this place you know.” He smiled, slapped the back of my neck – too hard – and kissed me on the cheek.
Last week I learned Fr. Gabriel died. I hadn’t spoken with him or seen him again since his cab pulled away in D.C. When I got the message from Katie, I went outside, sat on the edge of my porch, and cried.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/Daily Journal