(The Capuchin, Summer 1991, pp.8-9)
A few years ago I visited an area in the parish of Sioma in Zambia’s Western Province called Namalowa. It was one of a good number of centres I was visiting during a tour of churches in the parish adjoining the Angolan border.
It was my first time visiting Namalowa so I didn’t know what to expect. One arriving at the church I was met by a large crowd of people singing and dancing in welcome. I felt a bit like a politician on an election campaign going round shaking hands with everyone. It’s important here to shake hands all round: where there’s no greeting, there’s no meeting.
They built their Church
After the preliminaries were over, I sat down with the leaders of the church council and asked them to tell me about the affairs of the church. They told me that they had begun to gather together for prayer in the shade of a tree a few years previously. Some people from a distant church had come to visit them and to encourage them to start a church of their own. And so, after some years of praying together, they decided to build a church. They gathered poles in the forest, together with grass for a thatched roof and then plastered a light framework of wattle with clay. They had a church.
They also had a church council chosen by themselves. Some of these led a bible service in the church on Sundays because no priest was available. They also taught Christian doctrine. When I asked them what language they used, they said they used books in Lozi and then translated them into their own language, Mashi, as the elderly people and the small children did not know Lozi. I reflected that it was difficult to learn the catechism in another language; it called for a lot of effort and commitment.
Though not yet Baptized
My biggest surprise came when I asked how many of them were baptized. ‘None,’ was the answer. All the people, including the leaders, were catechumens, that is, they were preparing for baptism. It astonished me that people who had not had any visit from a priest, who had been left almost completely to their own devices, had succeeded in doing so much. Why, I asked them, had they wanted to become Catholics in the first place? They replied that, before they had come to live in Namalowa, their home had been across the border in Angola. There they had heard of the Catholic Church in the mission of Santa Cruz, run by Portuguese Benedictines. Their mission had been closed for many years because of the civil war raging in southern and eastern Angola, the same war that had made refugees of them. They had heard a little about the Catholic faith from people who had visited Santa Cruz, and decided that, since there was no one to teach them, they had better start by themselves.
Small Christian Communities
In less obvious and dramatic ways that same process is going on all over Zambia in groups which are called small Christian communities. These are groups of about 12 to 15 Catholics who meet weekly in a village or urban compound to share their faith and the problems and challenges of life in general. They pray together and share in bible reading and reflection. They discuss common problems and decide on practical ways of meeting local needs such as the care of the poor or the elderly in their own immediate area. Sometimes they invite people who have lapsed from the practice of the faith to come to a meeting, or invite people who are complete newcomers and know nothing about the faith at all. Occasionally they invite one or two people from other churches to join with them; this helps to diffuse some of the suspicion created by the anti-Catholic propaganda of some of the smaller sects. They might also discuss a local problem such as the lack of clean drinking water and decide to work with others on digging a well.
No small achievement
In a very simple informal structure they combine prayer, adult education, care of the poor, pastoral care, evangelization, ecumenism and development work. They don’t use such fancy titles, or think of what they’re doing in those academic terms, but it’s what they’re doing all the same.
Of course it’s perfectly true that not all of the small Christian communities work as smoothly as the above model suggests. All of them go through periods of strength and weakness, depending mostly on the quality of their leadership. They have their ups and downs, but mostly they keep going, they do good, and their members grow in faith through them. These communities bridge the gap between religion and life, between faith as an idea and as something to be lived. That’s no small achievement.
Could Ireland learn something from Africa in this regard?