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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Minister's Letter

Brother Damian SSF, Minister Provincial of the First Order Brothers of the European Province, writes:

Leaning on a sturdy, mahogany table in the backwaters of the Warden’s House at Saint Cyprian’s College, Rondo (Masasi diocese in Tanzania), with windows wide open to catch any hint of breeze, I strain for connections between East Africa and Central London. The subtle harmonies of this morning’s hymns mingle in my head with the rhythms of the George Formby classic ‘I’m leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street in case a certain little lady comes by’. Meanwhile, a muscovy duck waddles past my window, but I dismiss her. Disappointed, she looks at me and, as if reminding me of yesterday’s egg, pronounces ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’. Her accusation pricks my European conscience and releases a muddled mix of pride and guilt about us and them, about white and black, about Britain and Africa, about the ambiguous lady, Poverty.

Yes, I am deeply grateful we have sent brothers and sisters of quality and talent to Tanzania and Zimbabwe and Zambia over the last several years. Our contribution to the African Church as Franciscans has humble echoings of the love of our little lady, Poverty. Roger Alexander, who, when you read this, will be just back in the UK from a six-year stint as a pastor in the Manicaland Diocese of Zimbabwe; James Anthony, with whom I am staying (in February and early March) is Warden to five theological students and acting head to eleven secondary school pupils. His gently-measured management skills, his keeping the money straight and the show-on-the-road are acceptable Franciscan employments.

Yet the odds are stacked high against them. The Church is chronically poor and under-funded. Educational material is scarce. The location is remote beyond words. And in this rainy season there is no rain: the careful tending of the shamba (farm) produce of maize, beans, and pumpkin is useless when ‘there is no water’. The main water-tank here serves about a hundred people; it is at rock bottom. A little rain from the gutters supplements the water stocks but these too are probably all gone. Yesterday, a decision was made to buy in from the reserves from the river 1000 feet below Rondo at a price of forty litres of diesel for two weeks’ supply. Temporary relief, certainly, but things are always tight, basic supplies are continually running out. There is an obvious tension around and relationships suffer.

As I walked to chapel, suddenly from behind came the thud of something live falling from a tree. Momentarily frightened, I saw a large, thick, speckled lizard staring at me, with a face set like a bull-dog ready to attack my ankles. I soon realised that the poor creature was winded, not having intended to fall out of the tree at all! In his dilemma, he looked angry.

There is cause, too, for the voices from the continent of Africa to sound angry. The evidence would suggest that they take it out on themselves. The efforts that go into growing food, into education, into maintaining Church structures, are enormous. From the European end, it looks as if we have done our bit. Times have changed. Independence has come. We can even be right in pointing out that corruption in high places makes Aid programmes suspect and ineffective. We need to resist the temptation to give yet more. It doesn’t help, we are advised. But with all due respect . . .

It is in the northern hemisphere where increasing volumes of the world’s resources are taken. It is ourselves, in blatant disregard of the warnings, who are destroying the ozone layer, which affects the weather extremes. It is our booming stock markets, rising to record peaks, that have the effect of the world’s poor becoming poorer. The merging of large companies in the name of efficiency and profit margins exclude far more than they create.

When we hear the words of Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’, let us first acknowledge that it is nearly always we who are receiving while millions are given no choice in the matter. And we can afford to embrace the lady, Poverty.

One evening on my Africa tour, I spoke with an Anglican group in a teacher training college in Kampala. The chaplain said apologetically, ‘I’m afraid our students expect to receive more than they give.’ At first, I was saddened to hear this. Later, I had to withdraw to my room, and I cried. The following day I resolved in the way of Francis’ deep love of the lady Poverty, I must press with all my influence and energy – and hopefully in the company of all my brothers and sisters – to work for the fairer distribution of wealth in our world. SSF should be blazing the trail as ‘lesser’ brothers and sisters, that others may have a little more, not less, as time goes by. With the encouragement received from the election to life profession of two brothers, and of three to first profession, and the admission of five new novices at Glasshampton, we are in a strong position to be a sign in the world that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive. §


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