Reflections on a Solwezi retreat
By Sister Margie Hosch, OSF
“Have a banana. Have two bananas!”
These words of Bishop Charles Kasonde of the Solwezi Diocese in Zambia, were spoken from a heart so big that he would welcome us by extending to us the only food available in his humble four-room dwelling.
The whole month of July 2011 opened me to a new meaning of how we can be present to the Divine Presence beyond any words or actions, position or power, rich or poor, broken or healed, learned or unlearned, having all the answers to questions and having no answers at all. To do this I took in the spirit of the people shining through their faces and captured it on my digital camera — “For truly, the face is like an icon which expresses the spirit of the soul within” (Soulful Spirituality, David G. Brenner).
Presence has a depth that lives beneath the surface and ripples outward in the smallest and most unexpected ways. The ripples of welcome, respect, graciousness, along with a deep yearning to spend time in prayer and celebration, ushered me into a space of experiencing a people bent over by unimaginable poverty, disease and isolation, but with an energy that is vibrant with the drum beat of spirit that never seems to tire.
Their beauty of soul is transfigured in an African liturgy where the whole body becomes an expression of freely praising God with the created gifts of voice, dance, and movement, while hands and feet beat out the rhythm of heart and soul which is all guided by the drums and the beautiful harmonies of their songs.
Bishop Charles invited us to accompany him into several outposts where he presided over liturgy and confirmation. The wedding feast of Cana had nothing over these gatherings of people who walked miles to reach their tiny churches. Water wasn’t changed into wine but people’s drooping spirits were lifted in praise to their Divine Chief, the God of all people, who promised them never ending life and love forever and forever. Having few financial resources to give at the offertory, they all processed in dance down the dirt floor to the altar giving of their means which included such food items as maize, goats, chickens, vegetables, bananas and papayas. It is not surprising that these liturgies lasted over four hours because this experience is longed for by a people who can only be visited every three to four years and who sacrifice the long walk to get there and back. They give it their all.
There is no ‘processed welcome’ by a gentle shake of the hand. The gift of two bananas became a symbol for me of the graciousness of a people pouring out a welcome beyond my imagination — I will give you what I have. In each place the whole parish danced in procession to greet and welcome us to their community. Children, youth and adults came with tears in their eyes and their hearts in their hugs thanking us for coming to be with them. Their holiness of spontaneity sacramented for me the embrace of our God who made us all one body, one family in Christ. Loving one another lives in the embrace of all nations, all races and creeds, working and living together as one. For truly, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Father Richard Rohr points out in his writings that Jesus always invited the rich and powerful to come down and the poor to come up. What a privilege it would be to belong to each diocese, each parish, each educational institution, each organization, each family, each business, where each follower of Jesus heard the Gospel call to minister to the oppressed of the world and to say to Jesus, “Here I am, send me. I have what you need. What I have I give to you.
I have financial means and the talent to help YOU form the Body of Christ where no individual or nation is unduly hungry, without resources, without housing, without medicines, oppressed, and who have no place to call home.
Then places like the Diocese of Solwezi, Zambia would not be a depiction of the image I have for it in its extreme material poverty, namely, holes of the heart.
A hole is a treacherous reality when found in all but one of the ungraded roads throughout the diocese. This makes access to the diocese as a whole difficult and the churches and outstations very prohibitive. The roads leading to these places become impassable during the rainy season which lasts about four months.
Holes exist when 10 percent of the children who are fortunate to attend school often have to walk miles on dirty, muddy roads with the wind swirling the fine dust of sand in and out of those holes. The one uniform each child has must be worn for a year. During the rainy season they come to school wet and muddy and exhausted. Their little shoes never make it to the end of the school year. This hole was filled by St. Mary Magdalene Church of Simpsonville, S.C., by supplying 17 children with all that is needed to attend school this year. Hopefully, parishes, families, and individuals will sponsor a child in the years ahead so they can continue on to graduation.
Holes depict the empty bowls on the table where half the family eats their one and only meal one day and the other half of the family eats the next day. One full meal in two days after walking for miles, no lunch in school, and then walking back home is almost too much to take in. Two little girls came running over to us when we were visiting their outside classroom saying, “Sister, we are so hungry.” We witnessed the sisters taking care of children left at the school until a late hour. After being fed the parents came to pick up their children. One can only conclude that this was a way the parents could manage to have their children receive something to eat.
We saw holes of isolation where priests are missioned singly in order to minister to the little mission churches and each priest having up to 65 outstations. There are only trails for roads which are not passable during the four months during the rainy season. Often this isolation is exacerbated when food and water are rationed, and electricity is nonexistent. Dampness brings its own illnesses. No doctor is available if someone gets sick. Clinics are not present in most places throughout the diocese.
Holes exist when we witnessed the hunger for spiritual reading books. There is no book store in the whole diocese. We were able to bring a spiritual book for each priest and sister on retreat due to the generous gift of Father Richard Rohr from the Center of Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. This hole is being filled up by the South Carolina Franciscan Associates of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa, who have adopted the project, Spiritual Books for Solwezi Diocese, for this coming year. They are also committed to do fundraising to sponsor children of Solwezi who will not survive without education. Sister Connie Fahey’s parish in Wisconsin has already sent three boxes of books to Bishop Kasonde to give to his priests and sisters and lay catechists. Sister Krista Namio is waiting for the money to supply the 17 children with what is needed for the next year of education. I relayed some hope in my heart that we could possibly supply her with finances for more children than 17, especially a few of the 75 children we saw in the playgrounds of dirt at one of the outposts where we visited.
Upon visiting the women and children living in extreme poverty we met a little girl who just lost her sister who died of malaria. The day before returning to America we grieved with those who knew a family whose 9 month old baby brother had just died of starvation. Our hearts were aching when we discovered there are no resources or established infrastructures to keep the people from dying. The life span for an average person is 35 years. What do these facts ask of us? What do we do with our plenty? What do we do with the hillside full of orphans who have nothing to eat? It is up to us to multiply the loaves and fishes. Our foundress, Mother Xavier Temehr, knew what to do in Herford, Germany during the war in 1864. She gathered the orphans off the streets, gave them a home, washed, clothed and fed them and loved them into life.
The living saints of Solwezi, the bishop, priests, sisters and serving laity, respond daily with brave and courageous words when they say, “Here I am, Jesus. What I have I give to you this day.” The holes within their hearts are diminished as they expand all heart space with the Infinite. Their ministry is providing an echo of God’s love for all creation that is in their view. And hopefully, we who are blessed to be sent from the United States can be transfigured into a whole new way of being in the world. I see the sisters as a bridge between those who have and those who have not. In the spirit of making nothing permanent here, we can go lightly and be a voice for the voiceless. “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”.
Hildegard von Bingen described herself as being a feather on the breath of God. To make the most of our God given gifts, we realize that to store them brings them to ruin, to use them and to share them is to give them permanence here which lives on beyond us. We really never get God. God just gets us. And then we just get God in those given to us to love and serve.
My life of love could be contained in the tiniest of thimbles compared to the lakes of love filling up the never ending holes of those who are falling by the wayside and are in need of a good Samaritan to stop and offer help. “They will know you are following me by your love.”
The Solwezi diocese covers the entire political-geographical Northwestern province of Zambia. There are less than 50 priests and sisters serving 80,000 Catholics thinly scattered over an extensive undeveloped area in the Northwestern province of Zambia.
Most clergy serve a mission church with as many as 65 outstations. What makes service even more difficult is the existence of three major tribes with each having their own language and other minor tribes with additional languages. Isolation is devastating on the clergy who are missioned singly and are often not in communication with others over an extended period of time. Sisters live in community which helps them manage the isolation better.
Since over 90 percent of the parishes cannot contribute financially to the diocese or to the local church the Bishop is responsible for the financial needs of the priests, some of the local communities of sisters, and the development of church buildings. Sisters belonging to international community’s all work without salary and are dependent upon their communities for their housing and daily living expenses. With only $45,000.dollars being sent to the Solwezi diocese from the international collections for the global needs of the church, Bishop Kasonde must find resources in first world countries. With a sigh in his heart he shared how difficult it is to financially support those who are studying for the priesthood.
We attended liturgy in one parish administered by Sister Lucy. When it came time to distribute the Eucharist, Father Chris gave the ciborium to Sister to distribute to her people. I was spiritually lifted when I witnessed the many signs of priests and sisters working in harmony and deep respect for one another in service to the people. In one of the missions an elderly woman asked the Bishop permission to speak to the people. The Bishop listened with his supportive presence as she gave a deeply spiritual witness of what the Gospel was saying to her.
I was saddened by a situation in one of the places where the support of the sisters was not present and what effect that had on the people.
Due to political disturbances and civil war in neighboring countries, the diocese is home to a large number of refugees from Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The refugees are ministered to by a religious community of sisters and a priest. I just received a letter today that came from Sister John Mary Mulenga, Sc.J who works with the refugees.
I must admit that our invitation by Bishop Charles Kasonde to give the Wholeness Holiness Retreat to the sisters and priests of the diocese was unnerving. I’m ok with women but what will I do with the men. No Bishop or priest has ever called me to this walk with our God with men as the retreatants. Only because I did a trust walk with my doubtful self did I agree to this walk of faith. We proceeded with our theme: Our journey into God.
We revisited our initial calling of Jesus to come and follow in his footsteps of service. We spent time exploring our images of God whose desire is to become one in us. We opened to one another the spiritual journeys that kept us on this pathway. We spent time in experiencing a variety of ways we could deepen our life of prayer. Blocks to our spiritual journey were identified and publicly discarded. This activity will become a daily part of how we strengthen our call to follow Jesus. Each person publically renewed their vocation by deepening their promise to follow and what that will look like in the year ahead. Each person was supported by the others in their promise to support them through the year. The life journey of growth stages as described by Richard Rohr, were described and examined by Bishop Kasonde and the priests together and by the Sisters and the Bishop.
Mass was celebrated by Bishop Kasonde with the priests and by the Bishop with the sisters. With hope in their hearts that they can and will endure what lies ahead for each of them they responded YES to God’s call to follow. In the land where the Spirit moves freely and in a land which resembles the poverty of a Bethlehem manger where Jesus came to be born among us, they go onward down the path created for them by God. Their hope holds on in the God who calls, in the God who sends them forth, and in the God who is one with all creation.