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An African Story of Lent

By Dr. David Wesley
Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies; Director of 365M

This post is taken from Dr. Wesley’s personal blog, which can be found at: actsoneeight.blogspot.com

I am (was) in Africa during most of the season of Lent-somehow this seems fitting and unfitting at the same time. It is unfitting because the landscape as well as the people around me are beautiful. I am not suffering, I am able to stay in a comfortable place, and I am getting to do exciting research. It is fitting, not because I am having to give up things (other than my family) in order to be here. It is fitting, however, because I have been able to witness a very Christian tradition of bearing another’s burden.

Last night I had dinner with some friends here in Swaziland. Over dinner, one of the North American friends said, “I have a theological question: why would God give me such a spirit of compassion for suffering and yet not give me the ability to fix the suffering that I see around me?” She made this comment after she had spent the day working in the hospital where she had seen many challenging situations, including children who had been abandoned. This is probably a question that nearly every North American asks when coming to places with overwhelming challenges, such as where I am now in  Africa, hat has the highest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world.

This past week I spent some time with the Swaziland HIV/AIDS Task Force with the founders, Mary Magagula and Evelyn Shongwe, who work with a team of almost 200 volunteer caregivers providing home-based care to those primarily dying of AIDS. The Task Force encourages communities to form co-ops for gardens and they have 95 children supported through child sponsorship.

Upon arriving at the office, there were seven large (and very heavy) nylon bags which were part of what we were going to take to each home. Each bag contained large bags of meale, peanuts, beans, rice and cooking oil. These are staple products which can be easily prepared, can go a long way, and according to Evelyn, have high nutritional value. I helped load the bags into the back of the 4X4 truck and we headed toward the area where we would make home visits. Along the way, I interviewed Mary and Evelyn.

After a 30 minute drive on pavement, we arrived at a marginalized community on the mountainside of Manzini. We left the paved road and found ourselves on a deeply rutted dirt road for a ride that was similar to a bucking bronco. At points, the ruts were extremely deep and the heavy vegetation made the roads very narrow. Evelyn and Mary pointed out that these communities are extremely difficult even by vehicle, but for people who are struggling with severe illnesses, it is impossible for them to find medical help.

The first home that we visited was a cement structure with a tin roof. A 2-3 year old girl with a frilly red dress that was torn in several places and with a very runny nose was standing in the doorway to greet us. It is difficult to describe, but there was the same dynamic in every home we visited. These were all homes where people are in the process of dying under difficult circumstances. In every case, Evelyn was like a light coming into a dark room. She has a jovial spirit in which she brought a sincere and appropriate laughter to these situations. As we entered the house, I noticed the cement walls had paint peeling off, and that nearly all of the electric outlets had wires hanging loose. The house was, however, incredibly clean and well kept. Near the door of the house was the woman that we came to visit who was HIV positive and also had TB (which was the case in nearly all visits that we made). She was lying on the floor on top of cushions that had been taken from the couch and placed on the cement floor. The woman was skeletal and could hardly move or speak. Her grandmother, who had brought her to her house along with her daughter, greeted us and was grateful to have visitors. Evelyn and Mary gave the family blankets and hats which people use although it is around 90 degrees. They also gave them food which is helpful for people who are limited by finances as well as by mobility. Mary and Evelyn also have a sub-nursing level of training which is recognized by the government – in every visit they went through a chart that was kept at the house related to the medications that the people took and when they were taking them. The medication was very basic pain relief with medications for stomach issues, skin care for drying skin, etc. In every one of these home visits, Evelyn and Mary would hold people’s hands, hug them and demonstrate a sense of solidarity with people who were going through a very difficult process.

As we drove along, I asked the women if they had fear of contracting sickness or diseases through such contact with people. Evelyn laughed at me and just said, “and what would that matter?  We still have to do what Christ told us to do.”

I cannot help but think that the attitude of Evelyn and Mary is not really abnormal for Christians. The attitude to preserve ourselves and hoard resources is what is abnormal. Evelyn and Mary are simply living out their Christian identity. This identity can also be seen in an interesting piece from the second century:

Martyrs, Who Died in the Great Pestilence in Alexandria
From Eusebius, Hist. l. 7, c. 21, 22, p. 266.
A. D. 261, 262, 263.

A voilent pestilence laid waste the greatest part of the Roman empire during twelve years, from 249 to 263. Five thousand persons died of it if one day in Rome, in 262. St. Dionysius of Alexandria relates, that a cruel sedition and civil war had filled that city with murders and tumults; so that it was safer to travel from the eastern to the western parts of the then known world, than to go from one street of Alexandria to another. The pestilence succeeded this first scourge, and with such violence, that there was not a single house in that great city which entirely escaped it, or which had not some dead to mourn for. All places were filled with groans, and the living appeared almost dead with fear. The noisome exhalations of carcasses, and the very winds, which should have purified the air, loaded with infection and pestilential vapors from the Nile, increased the evil. The fear of death rendered the heathens cruel towards their nearest relations. As soon as any of them had caught the contagion, though their dearest friends, they avoided and fled from them as their greatest enemies. They threw them half dead into the streets, and abandoned them without succor; they left their bodies without burial, so fearful were they of catching that mortal distemper, which, however, it was very difficult to avoid, notwithstanding all their precautions. This sickness, which was the greatest of calamities to the pagans, was but an exercise and trial to the Christians, who showed, on that occasion, how contrary the spirit of charity is to the interestedness of self-love. During the persecutions of Decius, Gallus, and Valerian, they durst not appear, but were obliged to keep their assemblies in solitudes, or in ships tossed on the waves, or in infected prisons, or the like places, which the sanctity of our mysteries made venerable. Yet in the time of this public calamity, most of them, regardless of the danger of their own lives in assisting others, visited, relieved, and attended the sick, and comforted the dying. They closed their eyes, carried them on their shoulders, laid them out, washed their bodies, and decently interred them, and soon after shared the same fate themselves; but those who survived still succeeded to their charitable office, which they paid to the very pagans their persecutors. “Thus,” adds St. Dionysius, “the best of our brethren have departed this life; some of the most valuable, both of priests, deacons, and laics; and it is thought that this kind of death is in nothing different from martyrdom.” And the Roman Martyrology says, the religious faith of pious Christians honors them as martyrs.

In these happy victims of holy charity we admire how powerfully perfect virtue, and the assured expectation of eternal bliss, raises the true Christian above all earthly views. He who has always before his eyes the incomprehensible happiness of enjoying God in his glory, and seriously considers the infinite advantage, peace, and honor annexed to his divine service; he who is inflamed with an ardent love of God, and zeal for his honor, sets no value on any thing but in proportion as it affords him a means of improving his spiritual stock, advancing the divine honor, and more perfectly uniting his soul to God by every heroic virtue: disgraces, dangers, labor, pain, death, loss of goods or friends, and every other sacrifice here become his gain and his greatest joy. That by which he most perfectly devotes himself to God, and most speedily and securely attains to the bliss of possessing him, he regards as his greatest happiness.

A part of our true Christian identity is not necessarily the ability to fix all of the problems around us by helicoptering in as I have done this month. The true Christian identity, is an identity of lent as I have seen it in many African Christian brothers and sisters such as Evelyn and Mary and many others. It is the incarnational presence of Christ which chooses to actually bear one another’s burden.

That identity leaves me and other North Americans who come in for a short time in a difficult position. John 1:14 says, the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Phil. 2 says that we should have the same mind in us which was in Christ Jesus who although he was God, he humbled himself and became obedient even unto death on the cross. At best, I cannot really fix all of the suffering around me and perhaps that really isn’t my calling. I can, however, open my eyes while I am here and learn from some amazing saints; and I can come along side them as together we live into the mission of God for us all. More importantly, I have to ask myself some difficult questions about how I bear the burdens of those who live in my own home town, even at my own risk, and in doing so, live into my Christian identity.

I am finding that there are so many things to learn from the amazing Africans. The picture above is a picture that someone sent to me yesterday of an African brother who asked if he could pray for me. I have been prayed for many times in my life, but never quite like this. The picture looks like I am praying for him, but he is definitely the one praying for me. I am thankful today that a brother from whom I have so much to learn walked together with me to the presence of God. In the words of the umbuntu philosophy, “I am because of who we are”. Our identity is found in who we are together and as we bear one another’s burdens.

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