We must listen to Africa - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Pope Francis meets with internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan (Photo by Vatican Media)

During the past week, I tried to seek out news of Pope Francis’ long-awaited historic trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The relative dearth of news — at least in the United States — felt very much indicative of a general global apathy and disregard toward this extraordinary continent.

Of course, there were notable exceptions, such as an enlightening article in the National Catholic Reporter, which featured quotes by Maryknoll lay missioner Gabe Hurrish, who is currently serving in South Sudan.

Pope Francis met with presidents, political and civil society leaders, diplomatic corps, bishops, members of religious orders, catechists, young people and elderly. He also met with victims of violence and war, mine workers, urban dwellers and rural community members, internally displaced persons and representatives from a host of charities.

Combing through the Vatican website, I was able to follow the Holy Father’s journey and did so with much intrigue.

As I read through the interviews, stories, talks, homilies and speeches, a few themes emerged that seemed very relevant to our understanding of mission. I humbly admit that I am no expert on Africa, but Pope Francis’ wisdom and challenges resonated with my limited experience in the birthplace of humanity.

Here are some of the themes I noticed:

God’s mission of love welcomes (and even needs) everyone, but it must especially include all who live in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. 

We need to find room in our hearts for everyone; to believe that ethnic, regional, social, religious and cultural differences are secondary and not obstacles; that others are our brothers and sisters, members of the same human community; and that the peace brought into the world by Jesus is meant for everyone. (Feb. 1 Homily, Kinshasa, DRC)

I have been thinking of you for a long time … to see you face to face, to shake your hands and to embrace you … to express to you all my closeness, all my affection. I am here with you, and I suffer for you and with you. (Feb. 4 Meeting with Internally Displaced Persons, Juba, South Sudan)

 God is already present wherever God’s mission takes us!

I am happy to be here in this beautiful, vast and luxuriant land …. (Jan. 31 Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, Kinshasa)

Dear women and men of the Congo, your country is truly a diamond of creation. At the same time, you, all of you, are infinitely more precious than any treasure found in this fruitful soil! I am here to embrace you and to remind you that you yourselves are of inestimable worth, that … the future that is in your hands and for which you deserve to devote all your gifts of intelligence, wisdom and industry. (Feb. 3 Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, Juba)

God’s mission invites us into relationship … by listening, being, seeing, learning and falling in love.

I see your eyes, weary but bright, eyes that have not lost hope. I see your mouths, which have not lost the strength to pray and to sing. I see you with empty hands but hearts full of faith. You bear the burden of a painful past, yet you never stop dreaming of a better future …. You are the seed of a new South Sudan, a seed for the fertile and lush growth of this country. (Feb. 4 Meeting with Internally Displaced Persons, Juba)

Through mission, we offer hope in our mutual accompaniment!

I stand with you, and I accompany with my prayers and closeness every effort made to achieve a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous future for this great country …. Overcome evil with good. May you be the ones who transform society, the ones who turn evil into good, hatred into love, war into peace. (Feb. 2 Meeting with Young People and Catechists, Kinshasa)

Because of mission, we are compelled to speak the truth!

Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny! May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent. May Africa, the smile and hope of the world, count for more. May it be spoken of more frequently, and have greater weight and prestige among the nations! (Feb. 3 Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, Juba)

God’s mission dispels individualism and consumerism and fosters community and justice!

You are called to keep making your prophetic voice heard, so that consciences can feel challenged and each person can take an active and responsible role in building a different future. We are called, then, to pluck up the poisonous plants of hatred and selfishness, anger, resentment and violence; to break down the altars erected to money and corruption; to build a coexistence based on justice, truth and peace; and finally, to plant the seeds of rebirth. (Feb. 3 Meeting with Bishops of Congo, Kinshasa)

The Holy Father’s visit is meant for all of us. The world must listen to Africa, absorb her stories, and feel her joy and pain. We must embrace her people with a mission of love rather than a colonialist or exploitive mindset.

Consider the complexity, richness, diversity and differences of life on the African continent. The continent is home to 54 countries and 17% of the worlds’ population. Africa embodies so much more than the often demeaning and limiting images of hunger, poverty, crime, violence, war, floods and life-threatening diseases.

Africa’s gift to the world lies in her abundance of hope, wisdom, knowledge, resilience, perseverance and resourcefulness. Maryknoll lay missioners can attest to the deep spirituality and community of her people, which enable them to overcome hardship and celebrate life. Read the reflections of our missioners in South Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, as they write of the individuals and communities who welcome us with open arms!

This picture is not to minimize the magnitude of suffering in Africa. However, power imbalances often stereotype Africa on the world stage. Pope Francis exposes these contrasts, shatters the misconceptions, and challenges the rest of the world to see differently, to consider the development and distribution of their resources, and to cease the exploitation of Africa. We must seek to expose and address the root causes of suffering and poverty by examining our call to mission and civic responsibility.

As the world shrinks, African countries increasingly offer new insights and wonders. The Holy Father’s witness in this trip reminds me of the life and witness of a great African religious leader, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Those who care to listen and learn will hear the call of Africa’s traditional value system called ubuntu. May this vision be our prayer today:

I am because we are. Ubuntu is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go that extra mile for the sake of others.

We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore, you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging. (No Future Without Forgiveness).

Ted Miles
Ted Miles is the former executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners.