This Holy Week, a letter from the heart of darkness in Africa
Dear friends of Aid to the Church in Need,
For Christians, Holy Week is the foundational event of our faith, and for this reason we should meditate on the meaning of the example of Jesus Christ for our own lives. I have been living for 12 years now in the Central African Republic, the poorest country in the world, according to the UN. Since 2012 this country has been suffering from an internal war between “pseudo-religious” groups—on the one hand, the supposedly Christian non-Muslim groups known as the anti-Balaka, and, on the other, the Muslim groups, known as the Seleka, who are indeed Muslims; although they are not all practicing their faith and they have been manipulated politically. All these groups are sowing terror, grief and suffering in this country. For me, contemplating the Via Crucis—the Way of the Cross—includes meditating on what the people of this country are living through.
This crisis did not begin in 2012, for this is a country that has been suffering for a long time. People live at a level of extreme poverty and have a life expectancy of just 40 years. 70 percent or more of the population are illiterate, 80 percent need humanitarian aid in order to be able to live, and the percentage of refugees and displaced is extremely high. This country reminds me of Jesus carrying His Cross. I imagine his ascent of Mount Calvary was for him the culmination of years and years of suffering, longing for it to end finally, once and for all.
This is similar to the way in which we too are living. We journey onwards, we do what we can to carry the Church forward, and above all we pray constantly that this journey will end, once and for all. This is how the majority of the inhabitants of this country are living. And we priests are living it together with the people; when the people suffer, we suffer with them. This is how we are living, this Calvary, this Way of the Cross, here in the Central African Republic.
It is a passion endured with every fall of Jesus—every moment of suffering, the encounter with his Mother is like the life of ordinary Central African citizens when they have to hide from the bullets, when they have to gather together their few belongings and run to safety from their homes, to cross the river and arrive in Congo and then watch from the other side as their houses are burned down, reduced to nothing. But in their prayers they still say, “Thanks be to God I am still alive, I still have my arms, my legs, I still have my family and my children…”
We are still alive. And such a simple thing as opening our eyes in the morning and being able to say, “I have one more day” is something that gives us courage: “We will get there, this will come to an end, let us keep going!”
This country is walking a Way of the Cross which sometimes looks as though it can only end in death. But death has to be lived through. The death of Jesus was an unjust death. The death of Jesus, according to Christian theology, is not merely the natural death that all of us have to experience at some point. In the Bible, death is frequently spoken of as the result of sin. And I would like to talk of those moments of death that we also encounter in the reality of life in the Central African Republic – the refusal to accept the other, the curse of indifference and small-mindedness.
One of the roots of the crisis in the Central African Republic between Muslims and non-Muslims is the incapacity to live together, as one people. The tribalism that reaches such an extent that someone can refuse to accept others or love what is different. This too is a sign of death for our poor Central African people.
The other root cause is the curse of indifference. The indifference of the heart that refuses to be moved in being confronted with another person’s suffering. Faced with the sufferings of Christ, dying on the cross, the people looked on with indifferent eyes. The crisis in the Central African Republic flashes up for five minutes on some news report in your countries and concludes, as though the crisis was now done with. The number of deaths is reported in their thousands, and the viewer says, “How terrible!” and then it’s all over. Watching the tragedy of an entire people, we say, “How terrible!” Then we close our eyes and carry on with our lives. As Christians we cannot remain indifferent; if we are indifferent, we are dead. But when someone asks, “What can I do?”—then there is hope.
The same thing is happening here. The people have grown accustomed to death, to the shooting, to the weapons. Now they are no longer moved, no longer even frightened. People say “we’ve got used to this music now,” the everyday music of the shooting. Here it is rare to see an old person. We see the churches full of young people in Africa—how many young people, how many people! And why are there no old people at Mass? Because they are already dead. Half of the children you see in a photo today will not be there tomorrow.
The third sign of death is the misery of meanness. I will not say poverty, because poverty is a virtue. I say misery, which means meanness of spirit, closing in on ourselves, thinking only of our own good, our own little home, our own pot of food. We are no longer capable of reaching out to others, no longer capable of offering shelter and a hiding place to our brother who belongs to a different religion. And so we have to overcome our selfishness. Let us be generous, and in this way we will also be defeating this sin, this evil.
One day I saw with my own eyes how a Muslim saved the lives of his people. It was one day in the marketplace; another man, also a Muslim, had a bomb strapped to himself and was about to blow himself up in the midst of all the people. The first man, who was an elderly gentleman, said, “I won’t let you hurt these people,” and threw himself upon him, grappled with him fiercely, trapping the grenade between him and his own body. Both of them died, but he saved a great many people.
I have also seen a young Christian man save the life of a Muslim girl by pretending she was a Christian and guiding her to shelter in the Catholic cathedral. He pretended she was his girlfriend, took her by the arm and walked with her, laughing and telling jokes, so that the girl, who was petrified with fear, could walk through all the places where the anti-Balaka were waiting, ready to kill any Muslims they found in the streets. The girl thought she had lost all her family, but eventually they were reunited. This young man’s was no mean and miserable heart, but a heart that is open to others.
To speak of the resurrection, to speak of the Risen Christ, is to speak of our Christian hope, to speak of life after death. Here in the Central African Republic, seeing this war, seeing this suffering, there are still signs of hope and life nevertheless. Today as I was starting to send these messages, it began to rain. For the past four days or so there had been no rain and the thermometer had soared to more than 110 degrees, which is typical of this country in the heart of Africa. So the falling of this rain was like a signal, now that so many hearts have been scorched by so much violence in recent days, hearts that have dried up from hearing so much shooting, from seeing so much death… God is opening our hearts to see this rain as a sign from him. In the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:10-11): “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…”
It is still raining, and I feel like singing these words of life. Jesus is the Word that has come down from heaven, the seed which fell to earth with the outpouring of his blood and which sprang forth from the earth with new life—and this is the life that we carry within us as Christians. This hope that everything will not end in death and that life is still worth living. This is what Jesus shows us, who overcame death and who is alive for ever.
I am about to board a plane to travel to another place about 60 miles from here, so that I will be able to work, because here we can scarcely go out of our homes. But this does not make me lose hope in this people; I don’t find myself thinking that everything has been useless, but simply that God is continuing his work in the hearts of these people.
The heart feels the joy of the Resurrection, of knowing that our life has meaning and that doing good to others also has meaning. Here is the work of Christ, here is the work of the Redemption, here is the resurrection and the hope that we bear within us as Christians. Not because of our own merits, not because we are better than the others—I do not think that—but because of the hope we carry within us as Christians, that holds within it the joy of living a new life in Christ Jesus.
Please pray for us! And may God bless you!
Padre Yovane Cox
Bangassou, Central African Republic
March 22, 2018