WITNESS - NAIROBI
Under the African Sky
The steps taken by the CL community in Kenya, recounted by the Italian priest of the parish of Kahawa Sukari. A new beginning that lives, eager to embrace all of Africa
BY ALFONSO POPPI
This Easter month found us at home much more often, as it was school vacation time for both Father Valerio and Father Roberto. This allowed us to enjoy our companionship even more and thus also that of Jesus. Father Roberto threw himself into many large and small projects in our church, making the structure more welcoming and beautiful. We hung a copy of Rembrandt's painting, The Prodigal Son, in memory of the Year of the Father. Taking advantage also of the secondary school vacation, we launched the idea of a Sunday afternoon of recreation-shared by all the young people and all the families-in the church courtyard with a big treasure hunt. Father Valerio is getting involved in making up a "cinema tour" for us to propose as an alternative way of communicating what we care most about in human experience. He also suggests the selections of classical music to offer at the beginning of School of Christianity. We have in fact begun holding this moment of catechism once a month. At the first meeting, we listened to Beethoven's concerto for orchestra and violin, as an artistic description of the drama of life as liberty and belonging. There were some fifty people there... the next time only about ten. Few, but of high quality! Afterwards two people came up to tell us, "No one has ever before helped us to listen to music in this way!" I began by speaking of the religious sense and the fundamental questions of life by quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fides et ratio, Leopardi, Psalm 8, and as a truly unexpected treat, the discovery of an Acholi writer Okot p'Bitek, famous all over Africa above all for his anticlericalism, but in whose work I managed to find an unexpected demand for sense and meaning. At the end, one of those present said, "I had read this poetry many times, but never like this, and I am surprised that you, who are not African, have been able to bring out what is true and valuable in his poem. You have helped us discover the foundation in which the value of his human experience is hidden."
Lounge chair and stars
We invited all the small Christian communities to come to the next meeting, to be held soon. Since I will go to Meru for the Priests' Retreat, I asked Father Valerio and Father Roberto to hold the meeting, whose theme is, "Life, Christian Community as a Sign of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ." They will read and comment on the texts from the Acts of the Apostles regarding the life of the early Christian communities, highlighting the characteristics of their life founded on communion which flows along between the two safe banks of apostolic authority and the sacraments. To lend more importance to the meeting, we wrote a short letter of invitation explaining our joy at being here in Kahawa Sukari and the passion we feel for communicating to them what we ourselves continue to receive from the charism of Father Giussani.
These evenings, when Robi and Vale go to bed practically at dusk, I like to sit out on the balcony on the lounge chair and, admiring the African sky studded with stars, I think of this beginning that is so small yet living in eagerness to embrace all of Africa. It is truly a case of a disposition of the heart and one's gaze, born out of the charism of the Movement. How grateful I am for this decision to start from a very specific place, rooting ourselves in the human and ecclesial reality here-just as Father Giussani did from the steps of Berchet High School, from those classrooms, with those young students. That beginning is being repeated here at the equator. Kahawa Sukari is a place in which the entire Fraternity is beginning to live again through our poor faces and our sometimes miserable lives, but shining always with another light and another passion for human destiny, which the eyes of the pure in heart and poor in spirit are able to glimpse, and they rejoice because the promise dear to their hearts is starting to come true.
I think of Teresia, the mother of five daughters. She comes early for choir practice and stops to chat with me. She says, "You know, Father, since you have come to the parish, the way you teach us, your way of facing life and its inevitable problems, and the unity we see between all of you is truly a new teaching, and I have realized that I have changed a lot in this year. I discover myself to be different above all in the way I live in the family. Before, if something happened that bothered me, I was capable of not speaking to my husband even for a week. Now this doesn't happen any more; I have become able to pick up the relationship again almost immediately, without hard feelings. Life at home is much nicer, even if the problems we have had to face have never been as serious as now."
Giacinta, Mary, Areta, Matthew
I think of Giacinta, she too the mother of five children. Together we read the first chapter of The Religious Sense, and its definition of realism, with some examples, leaves her thunderstruck. We go to Mass and she says to me, "Now it seems to me that everything is new; I feel like I understand so many things that you have been saying to us."
I think of Mary, a young girl slightly mentally retarded, with very bad eyesight, who has been coming to pray since the beginning of the year and who has lately joined the choir. After going to Confession-she had left the Church for a few years and joined a Protestant sect at her employer's insistence-and Communion, at Easter she came to ask to be prepared for Confirmation. She shared with me all her gratitude for the sacrament she has received again and for the choir. I gave her a little image of the Blessed Virgin with the Act of Consecration to Christ through Mary and explained the prayer to her. I told her how she should never think she is useless in life, because now with Christ she is part of His mission for the salvation of the whole world. In particular I asked her to participate in a more personal way in our mission in Africa, acting together with us, simply and powerfully, in entrusting herself to the Virgin. She got up and hugged me.
I think of Areta, 22 years old, depressed and jobless, who had to run away from home because her father, barely a month after her mother's death, brought a young woman home who kicked Areta out of the house. I gave her the issue of Traces where the experience of that young girl in Turin whose father died is described. "Read it, there's something for you in this experience!" She read it, looked at me, reread it, and then her face lit up, because there is a new way of facing reality that transforms us from being the oppressed and downtrodden to being protagonists.
I think of Matthew, father of four children, who already last year said to me, "Father, maybe you don't realize it, but your teaching is having a strong impact. People listen to you; there's something they've never heard before. You love and support tradition, but you are not conservative. Rather, it is as though the tradition you are handing down to us were something never seen before, absolutely new." A week after he had bought The Religious Sense he told me clearly that if it had not been for one certain Sunday homily, he would have left the Catholic Church by now. Those words came to him like a fist coming down on a table and helped him to recover his reason. That day I had said something I had heard Tiboni say at Palabek in 1991: "Whoever goes away from the Catholic Church, stupidly leaves a family where there is a mother who nourishes her children with the truth of the teaching and the food of the Body of Christ."
One day I realized that Matthew was paying a monthly tithe to the Church worth the equivalent of $ 150. I was worried because I didn't know his financial situation. I went to see him at his house. He said, "Don't worry, Father. I don't deprive my family of anything. I learned to tithe from my mother. When I went back to the village she asked me, 'Do you pay your tithe to the Church? Because you see I only sell sugar cane. But nine pieces of sugar cane are for me, and the tenth is for the Lord!' So, Father, I came back and began doing the same thing myself."
Since I have returned I have decided to devote an afternoon to giving short lectures to the older professed nuns of Mother Theresa, who have a large house at Kariobangi. I decided to follow a theme by letting myself be guided by Guissani's book, Si può vivere così? [Can You Live Like This?] And I taught them O doux pays de Chanaan [Sweet Country of Canaan]. I do nothing more than repeat Father Giussani's words, supporting them with the grace of our common life in the Fraternity. The Mother Provincial of the Missionaries of Charity, who is responsible for all the houses in east Africa, asked me if next year I would preach the annual Fraternity Retreat to all the professed sisters. What surprised me is how what the Movement compels us to live is a responsibility toward the entire Church. I thus understand better what Giussani was telling us after May 30th of last year.