A group of young people living in Nairobi who regularly meets at Shalom House has written a letter to Pope Francis on the occasion of the Synod to be held in Rome next October, during which hundreds of bishops will discuss on the theme “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”. The letter has been sent to the Synod Secretariat and wants to be a respectful contribution to the discussion from an African perspective.
Holy Father Francis,
We are a group of African youth, aged from 20 to 30 years. We would like to deepen the way we live our faith, and two years ago we have started sharing the Gospel together calling ourselves “Youth’s Missionaries”, maybe being too visionaries. Though we belong to different Christians Churches all of us recognize in you a servant leader, a shepherd who can lead us with example and wisdom. On the occasion of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to the youth we have decided to write to You directly on how we live our faith. We hope this Synod will give us more motivations and instruments to become missionaries to our fellow youth.
Jesus and the Churches
We feel that Jesus should be the most important person in our life. Instead, speaking for us African, we feel there are too many mediators between us and Jesus. We read the Gospel, feel inspired by the Beatitudes and wish to live a life of commitment to Jesus that would be fully African and fully Christian. Sometime it seems that to be Christian we have to shed our culture and follow traditions and rules laid down centuries ago, in another place and another culture. Traditions and rules that even the youth in the countries of their origin do not understand, as we know from our contact with them. We do not reject the Tradition of the Church, we would just like to remove the unnecessary stains so that the face of Jesus would shine with more splendour upon us. We are sure that a more direct dialogue between Jesus and us will bring an abundant harvest and fruits of holiness, expressed in an African way. We dream of an African Saint Francis!
Sometimes we are intimidated in front of the structures of the church, we feel that more than a community of followers of Jesus the church is an organization with a structure that rejects you if you do not conform. It looks like an international corporation with mission and vision expressed with Gospel term, but often the internal rules show a mundane spirit. The church should condemn our mistakes, but also comfort us in our failures and show us how to forgive our-selves and forgive the others.
We would like from time to time listen to our leaders (bishops and priests) face to face, and have them listening to us. We love what you do, celebrating Mass every morning with a small community. It would be so much easier for our bishops to do this, their flock is much smaller, yet we have the chance to see our bishops only during big celebrations.
The prevalent attitude of our faith leaders is that of instructing us, very rarely that of sharing the joy of the Gospel with us. In this way the leaders risk to become only teachers and judges. We would need strong and loving fathers instead! We need guidance on how to confront the continuously new challenges that the modern world sends to us. So much of the modern culture reaching us through the powerful mass and digital media undermines in a subtle way the Gospel values. Without the loving guidance and the example of our shepherds we cannot grow in the ability to discern what is good from what is bad.
An African expression for our faith
Our traditional cultures and religions were often too closed in themselves, unable of change and lacking a long term vision. They were wonderfully all-inclusive for the members of the same human group, but often excluding the others. The Gospel has opened up our horizons. Yet we cannot renounce our roots, they are part of us and the Spirit of Jesus wants us to grow from where we are. They connect us with the mystery of life and the mystery of God.
We sometime feel that we do not have a direct contact with the Gospel. Yes, we can read it, we can hear very learned explanations, but it seems to be a food already cooked by someone else’ mother! To be really nutritious for us it must be cultivated and harvested and cooked by our own mothers and fathers, our leaders. If they do so they will feed us with a faith with a deeper African flavor, and we shall carry on from their example and words.
We like to celebrate our faith in a community, with songs and dances, with all our being. We see the love of God around us, and every day is a joyful celebration of life. This is part of our African spirituality.
Now our faith is not sustained and fed with African models. We know of the Uganda Martyrs and of the “martyrs of brotherhood” of Buta, Burundi, who with their life and death have witnessed to Christ and overcome division and tribalism. They are an example of how the Gospel can assume and take at a higher level our African traditions. In every African town there should be a church dedicated to them! And in the history of African church other figures should be identified who can be inspiring for young African people, so that we can feel they are companions in our life journey.
We know that our Churches have come to Africa already divided, sometime in competition. This is another bitter heritage of the European history transferred to Africa. But we know also that some African Christians in time of danger were able to overcome the divisions, work together. and to witness Christ together, like in the case of the Uganda Martyrs. And we feel that we have to strengthen communion with all Christian Churches. With those who have come divided and also with the many that were born on our African soil mixing the Bible with our traditions. They have weaknesses, yet they provide answers to the quest for African spirituality.
We dare to suggest that in the ordinary calendar of our local churches, at least once per year there is a special celebration for all Christians. It could be not only a time when we pray for the others, like what it is done during the celebration of the Week for the Unity of Christians, but a time when we pray with the others and with them we celebrate our common faith in Jesus our Saviour. We have in the Church a multiplications of celebration where we stress our own faith and our own tradition. Aren’t we strong and relevant enough to share our faith with the others, especially with our Christian brothers?
The relationship with our Muslim brothers needs to grow, so that we can work together at the service of humanity and of God in all secular matters. This is already happening in our daily lives and it should be assumed and promoted by the churches. To cultivate friendship and common action with our Muslim brother should be a daily concern for our Christian leaders.
Youth pastors should approach the issue of the divided churches without fear, the sooner they will face it, the stronger the faith and the aspiration to unity of their flock will be.
Sport properly practiced is a good preparation for cooperation, discipline and unity of intent. Many sports see Africans excel on the world stage, and most of them are sports that can be practiced with no or minimal equipment, like athletics, especially running, and football. Every parish should have a sport program accessible to all youth of every faith.
We love the world in which we were born. We look at it with awe, and we want to embrace it, to improve it. Respecting the wonderful nature around us and improving the bonds of communion in the human family.
We like your prodding the church to go out in the street, to meet the challenges of daily life and not to stay close in the safety of our homes and communities. Some of us have lived in the streets, we have experienced abandon and rejection and we know how difficult and cruel life in the street can be. We have also known war and refugee camps. The street, the most difficult places, are the places where life happens, you meet the others, you create bonds, you learn the dynamics of meeting and dialogue. In the street the unexpected comes to you and in it there is the voice of God.
Most of us are Kenyans and we have seen you in Nairobi. We remember what you said about corruption. Corruption is like diabetes, corruption is like craving for sugar, and wanting more and more of it. We are ready to accept and forgive the weaknesses of our political leaders, of some of our priests and bishops who are sick with this disease. We ask them to be servant leaders, powerless and poor, close to us. The church will be more credible and they would be able to speak with real authority at times of social and economic crisis.
In recent years the credibility of all Christian Churches in Kenya and South Sudan has been undermined precisely because some church leaders have been perceived as unable to distance themselves from corruption, party politics and tribalism. How can they promote peace, service, unity and love when trapped in nets of power and money?
We love peace. We want to build up a culture of peace and brotherhood. Blessed are the peacemakers! The Church of Jesus is there where people build bonds of community and peace. That is the heart of our mission at the service of the world. Could we suggest that for some time – let’s say the next ten year – our leaders would not worry building churches and institutions of stones but concentrate in building the church as a community of the follower of Jesus, the Teacher who opened to us the vision of the Beatitudes ?
Poor political leadership is one of our problem. In Africa we had the shining example of Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere, and a few others. The majority of African leaders have been blinded by power and greed. We who write this text are poor, and living a life rooted in the Gospel of Jesus is a difficult challenge for us, always stimulated and incited to become rich fast, and by any mean, by the bad example of our leaders.
Our corrupt politician and members of the ruling class have often looted our countries, and embarked on wars on behalf of the foreign interests to which they have sold themselves out. They are the main responsible for the miseries and death suffered by the youth who die in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe. We appreciate your calls for openness and justice.
Open to life, generating life
Modern imported models of life have made us more individualistic and selfish. Friendship, tolerance, hospitality, community living, reaching decisions by consensus are values that have become almost impossible to live in our modern competitive society. Exclusion is the norm. “Be first!” is the dehumanizing imperative.
We believe in life and in the God of life, and Jesus has come to teach us to live a full life. We are not discouraged by the difficulties. We see around us the good seeds and the new life that is growing. We want to care for it, and nourish its growth in us. We know that God loves us and he wants joy and happiness for us, and for everyone. We are not naives, we have experienced that suffering and death indeed play a big part in our human journey, but we have also experienced that love and life are stronger, and we can live a full life even in the midst of material wants.. We are heirs of the joy of the Resurrection and we need to communicate this joy to the people around us and to the next generation.
As we are getting ready to sign this letter, we become aware of one of our weaknesses. We are all males! It is now to0 late to remedy, but we assure you that we work to improve inclusiveness and respect for the genius and role of women in our society.
Holy Father, continue to guide us so that we can become the prophets of a better future.
(Nairobi, 18 July 2018)