It is a common saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Which means that for one to go as far as one thousand miles away, the start is always a step. Here in Good Shepherd mission, the beginnings never cease. For the last sixty years and counting, the missionaries have been developing the mission both spiritually and physically. From just one mission station in the entire district, now there are more than five missions. The Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) have two missions in the vast Maasai South plains. The Good Shepherd parish began with the main station and a handful of other small outstations. Today the parish has 28 stations where the faithful meet to worship on Sundays.
Since the coming of the SVDs eighteen years ago, there have been many beginnings also. Apart from opening up of new stations, there have been many other openings especially in matters of faith. When the first missionaries came, their main focus was to bring as many people as possible into the Church and make them believers (Mt 28:19-20). The place was very remote and people lived simple lives. There were no schools, health centres, potable water and other basic amenities. The government services were few and far between. Though the people survived in their traditional setup, the life expectancy was very low due to lack of basic health care and the knowledge to seek the same. They depended mostly on their traditional wits. The missionaries tried to bridge these gaps by building schools, dispensaries, water points and technical training centres.
Due to these basic preoccupations, the missionaries did not focus so much on verse 20 which says, “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. They did not think that strict catholic regulations on matters of faith and Sacraments were very urgent at that time. All they wanted to do is to bring people to Christ. Many people joined the Church because it gave them new hope in many aspects. Many were baptized without being instructed on the fundamental details of Baptism as a sacrament. Many received the Holy Communion though married to many wives, and having not blessed their marriage in the Church. In short, the Church here was built on what we can call ‘popular belief’ and general conversion without the important details.
However much that could be judged as fitting for the elementary Church as it were that time, I am afraid to observe that this elementary situation and attitude went on for too long. This because sixty years afterwards, the Church here is still stuck in that elementary level, though some gains have been made. You can compare it to a grown up man of sixty years, who is still holding his mother’s breast suckling.
With the new dispensation in the Archdiocese of Arusha, the spirit of “Mwondoko”, which means ‘coming out’, ‘Starting the Journey’, championed by the new Archbishop the dawn of a new beginning, which is founded building up of proper catholic faith, especially in the pastoralist communities who form majority part of the Archdiocese, has come.
Our SVD confreres who have worked here for the past eighteen years have been part of the drastic transformation which has already taken place. One of the biggest challenges as far as the Catholic Faith is concerned is the idea of the Sacraments especially the Sacrament of the Holy Matrimony, which is strictly monogamous and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. As it were, many elderly people were baptized and allowed to receive the Eucharist while having many wives. Their understanding of the Eucharist was not sacramental but a kind ritual or a common meal that is deserved by those who are regular in the Church. we cannot blame the people for this because it is all they know.
The other big challenge we are facing at the moment is to tell these people that now they cannot continue to receive the Eucharist as they have been doing, because they have many wives. It is even more complicated when they are told that in order to receive again they need to get married in the Church to only one wife. Many are now confused and challenge this seemingly contradictory position by the Church, that has all over sudden changed the rules. The task of explaining to them this abrupt change of things is not an easy one at all.
On the Pentecost Sunday for example, I spent about two hours after Mass explaining to some elderly men why they were now being ‘denied’ to receive the Eucharist. I based my argument on the contrast between the past and the present. I asked them whether things are the same as they were fifty years ago. Why their children and grandchildren were now going to school whereas they did not go to school themselves during their childhood. Why they were now paying taxes to the government something that they did not do some years ago. They all unanimously responded that it is because the world had changed. Hardly did they know that I was trapping then in their own assertions.
I asked them what they would think of a grown up man of sixty years, who was still asking his mother to suckle. They all laughed shyly. It is then that I told them that their faith also ought to have grown from infancy to adulthood. Their claim that they did not understand why they were being denied to have many wives and receive the Eucharist at the same time got an answer from their own assertions to my questions. I told them also that the Eucharist is a sacrament and not a common meal for all as some Christian denominations in the area regard it. In the last ten years, many Churches have emerged and each one has claim to be the right way to heaven. This has caused more confusion to the people of this region, who, for many decades knew only one way. Some churches do not mind the traditions as far as one is baptized and contribute to the Church. This has made it even more difficult, the efforts to correct the past errors. People now have many options as far as worship is concern.
Even with all this explanation, some were not satisfied as yet. This is because there is general lack of proper distinction between what is Catholic and what is not. For them, the only difference between the Christian Churches is the Church building. Some say we belong to that Church building and others the other. Their attendance to the church service is basically a social affair. Denying them the communion is like telling them that they lack something. In their traditions, which are still very strong, it is disrespectful to deny someone, especially the elderly, to participate in the common things in public.
When you explain to them about the need to change the attitude and embrace the proper Catholic faith now that they know, they tell you that they are special and the Church should treat them as such. This has been the case in this community in many areas. For example, the lifestyle of the community here is regarded by many as special and as such a major tourist attraction. The question is whether ‘special’ here is understood entirely as something positive, sustainable and worth of being embraced universally, or it is ‘special’ in terms of something weird and attractive for tourism purposes. I asked them why visitors want to take photos with them in their traditional dress.
There are many things in question here that need the efforts of all the stake holders. These include, the right to education for every child, prevention of FGM, curbing domestic violence towards women and children, education on matters health, etc. being special can be positive or negative.
There is a saying attributed to St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that says: “If you give someone a fish, he will come to you every day for another fish indefinitely, but if you teach the person how to fish, you have provided for him for the rest of his life”. In the beginning of the missions the missionaries built schools for the communities, paid the teachers, fed the children and clothed them. They built hospitals, provided drugs and paid the medical staff. This was fit during those days, but that was only intended to make the people realize the importance of education and modern medicine. After sometimes, community was supposed to start embracing education and health care on their own right and informed wisdom. It is true there can be a few exceptions in cases where someone is not able to do it by himself because of obvious and compelling reasons. But paying school fees for a child of a man with hundreds of cattle is tantamount to denying that person the right to be a good father. You may become his best friend for the time you will be present. Once you are gone, you will leave that person stranded and the education of that child may be disrupted.
All the projects from now going forward need to be those that serve to improve the lives of the community. We still need funding for such infrastructures as schools which are few and scattered, Health Facilities and equipment, boreholes since water is scarce, to run community based programs such as sporting activities for the young people, facilitating our catechists to reach as many families as possible, etc. This is what we have begun to do with the help of our mission collaborators.
I strongly believe that the time has come now to stop treating the pastoralist communities as “special” in all fronts, if we have to contribute to their integral development as a community. The days to lure the people into the Church in order to convert them are far gone. Now it is time to cement the foundation of true Christian faith and values for the sake generation to come. If you meet someone who is doing things the wrong way, it is common sense that the best thing to do is to bring to his or her attention that he or she is wrong. The rules do not change simply because someone is not aware of them or is unwilling to follow them. They say in legal circles that “Ignorance of law is not a defense”.
However, this kind of task is supposed to be carried with a lot of caution so as not to cause more damage to the very thing one want to amend. It is a very sensitive matter that need a lot of patience and understanding. First of all, one need to understand the background and look for proper ways to go about it. It cannot be a top-bottom approach but rather the opposite. The language of love is what can make the much needed change. St. Joseph Frienademetz once said, “the only language that everyone understands is the language of Love”. The people need education and then the freedom to make informed choices. Nevertheless, firmness, consistency and continuity need to be seen. If one does it and another opposes, then the people remain confused. True faith has to come as a result of the conviction of the believer.
From 1 Tim. 3:13-15, St. Paul cautions Timothy that “he should remain steadfast in those things which you have learned, and which have been entrusted to you, for you know from whom you have learned them”. In order to bring about true change through teaching, one need first to understand what he teaches, be convinced about it himself, live it as an example and be consistent every day. Exceptions in matters of faith is detrimental. If there must be exceptions, then they should be carried with a lot of wisdom and discretion. Exception cannot be generalized for an entire community. Exceptions are always few and far between.
Change is inevitable and if one does not embrace change the change will happen anyway. A faith that is based on shallow understanding of the beliefs and the teachings that build it, cannot be sustainable. Remaining stagnant in faith because we care about how people will feel about the change we ought to effect is not charity but violation of the basic right of those people. Likewise, unwillingness to tell someone the truth because you do not want them to hate you is a big disservice to that person.
A prophet speaks what he is instructed and what he knows to be the truth no matter how those who listen to him might react. A prophet is not a very popular person. We the missionaries are not called to be popular amongst the people but we are called to evangelize the people in the truth and lead them to integral development, so that they can depend on themselves.
Fr. Lawrence Muthee, SVD