While most North American families were stuffing turkeys or glazing hams during the holidays, ours was serving up hot slabs of cumin-marinated pork and savory beans on a bed of fluffy white rice, smothered in mojo—a thin, tangy sauce with garlic, lime, and onions. Once every 3 to 5 years, our extended family would travel miles or cross oceans to reunite at my grandparents’ small apartment.
While my mom and my aunts cooked dinner, I would watch them weave in and out of each other’s path in the kitchen. I could hear the plantains sizzling in the oil pan, the beans bubbling in the pot as they boiled. Heat from the stove filled the room, and the tantalizing aroma made my stomach yearn. When the food was almost ready, the kids would lay the place settings on long folding tables and we’d all sit down together.
Our family began celebrating holidays and reunions with a traditional Cuban Noche Buena meal years ago. My Nana and Papa were missionaries in Cuba, until the revolution in 1959 caused them to relocate to Miami. There, they planted a Spanish-speaking church and continued their ministry. Now, two generations later, their missionary legacy continues. Our extended family spans six different countries—from cousins in the Middle East to an aunt who returned to Cuba.
Seated around the table, we would all reach out to clasp each other’s hands, and as soon as our eyes closed—sometimes a moment before—instead of praying, Papa would start singing. The rest of us followed suit, with the same melody, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” before breaking out into several different high and low harmonies, “Praise Him all creatures here below.” Every time we raised our voices into the Doxology’s undulating chorus, my skin crawled with goosebumps. And after the lingering resolve of a lengthy A(-a-a-a-a)-men!, there was a sweet, tingly silence that hung in the air until someone punctured it with a contented sigh.
Seated around the table, we would all reach out to clasp each other’s hands, and as soon as our eyes closed instead of praying, Papa would start singing.
At the table, conversation mostly centered on how God was at work in our lives and our ministries. Since over half of us lived abroad and the rest in Canada or the States, the tension some families encounter over differences of opinion on national politics or social issues was conspicuously absent. Our main point of connection was the shared sense of family belonging, both by blood and by Spirit. The most heated it got was when our Papa stood on his soapbox about the dormant and divided state of the church in North America. With a passionate longing to see a revival spring up, he would croak earnestly, “Wake up, O Sleeper!”—tapping his aged hand on the table for emphasis. After dinner, we’d stay at the table for flan and café con leche—dunking buttered toast into large mugs filled with strong espresso and steamed milk.
When I was a child, the earth always felt smaller because my family seemed to occupy so much of it. During one reunion, I remember my aunt Judy giving me a postcard from Ecuador with a little, wide-eyed Quechuan girl staring out at me through the photo. “She’s just about your age,” my aunt said. I kept staring at the girl’s round tan face, wondering where she might be and what she might be doing right now. To this day, whenever I watch international news reports, the people look strangely familiar. Just like that wool-wrapped, pink-cheeked figure on my postcard, they feel more like potential friends than faraway foreigners.
Growing up in a missionary family has shown me that allegiance to a particular nation is not nearly so important as belonging to God. Like most of us, Jesus grew up in a family bound by blood and location. But when He began His ministry, Jesus formed a new kind of family—one that would be on mission together unto the ends of the earth. And then He commissioned His new brothers and sisters to risk everything, including the approval of their earthly kin, to invite neighbors and nations into a spiritual kinship with Him. “Whoever does the will of My Father who is in Heaven,” He proclaimed, “He is My brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50).
I always imagine heaven to be somewhat like our family reunions: When people first walk in, they might not be able to guess where they are—except that it feels like home and the sea of faces are those of family. But instead of a few different countries represented, there will be a multitude of cultures and colors. It will be a family reunion of unimaginable proportions as we meet brothers and sisters from around the world for the very first time. Together we will sit down at the Lord’s Table and feast in joyful celebration, along with every tribe and tongue. And I don’t know about you, but I'm looking forward to the food.
Art by Jeff Gregory