Encounter Evelina

“This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings.”

—St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, # 219 (Mother and Teacher, on Christianity and social progress)

It’s a pretty radical thing to say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. That’s what we’re talking about when we reflect on the sacredness and dignity of the human person—each one of us, every human on the planet, reflects the Divine, the Creator, God. Each of us shines forth that which is holy. None of us is left out; God is present in a unique and irreplaceable way in every human being.

What, then, happens when that unique expression of God is silenced, when that holy light is dimmed? What does our world lose? As we look out upon our global community, it’s not hard to see that some of us have access to more opportunities than others. It’s not hard to see that some of us would rather pretend that human dignity is not universal, that there are people in whom God does not dwell.

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, Petauke District, eastern Zambia. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, Petauke District, eastern Zambia. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

Let’s reflect on Evelina and her son, Stephen, both of whom live in Zambia. Growing up, Evelina, like generations of Zambians before her, used to survive on meals made from corn flour, usually a porridge called ‘nshima.’ “I’d eat porridge in the morning, at lunchtime and again in the evening,” she says. After all, it was cheap and easy to make.

Unfortunately, nshima has very little nutritional value—and relying too heavily on it has led to high rates of malnutrition. Many in Zambia have full bellies, but little nourishment. And this is particularly dangerous for children under the age of two, who need high levels of vitamins and minerals to grow up healthy and strong. That means mothers who are nursing—as well as their children—need nutritious meals.

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, with her son, Steven, 16 months old, in Ndombi Village, Zambia. Photo by Jim Stipe/Catholic Relief Services

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, with her son, Steven, 16 months old, in Ndombi Village, Zambia. Photo by Jim Stipe/Catholic Relief Services

So, CRS is teaching women like Evelina how to prepare healthier meals and grow new, vitamin-rich crops like peanuts, pumpkins and sugar cane. In many cases, these crops were already being grown in the village. Now, Evelina and others are adding more nutritious food to their children’s nshima: ground peanuts or eggs, for example. And, what the women learn, they share with their community—especially expectant mothers.

“We sing and dance during the cooking lessons because we are happy to learn how to cook different types of food,” says Evelina. Evelina is healthier, and so is her son, Steven. “I know I am taking good care of him, because he’s full of energy, he’s strong and never sick,” she says, with a smile.

We see in this story an opportunity to protect and promote the dignity of the human person. Our care for and commitment to individuals and communities—even those far away—is vital. We need only look to Jesus who stood with those on the margins, affirming their dignity, their right to an abundant life even if it meant his own death.

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.

Democracy and the Peaceful Transfer of Power in The Gambia

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

The United States just completed a long election season. It was at times divisive, unsettling and frustrating.  In the end, our institutions prevailed and delivered a peaceful transfer of power.

Four thousand miles away another transfer of power just took place in The Gambia in West Africa. This one almost ended in disaster.  A political unknown, Adama Barrow, a former real estate agent, took on President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for 22 years.  No one thought Mr. Barrow would win, but he won.  People were even more shocked when President Jammeh, known for his human and civil rights violations, conceded defeat.

On a continent where personality politics has yet to give way to strong democratic institutions, President Jammeh subsequently withdrew his concession. He claimed the election, run by his own government, had been fraudulent.  The President also called a meeting with the Islamic leaders and the Christian Council of Churches to demand their support.  For a President who always appears in public with a Koran in hand, this endorsement was symbolically crucial.  Instead, the religious leaders told the President to bow to the will of the people and step down.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Bishop Robert Ellison of Banjul to share appreciation for the courage that he and his brother religious leaders had shown. He expressed solidarity with the people of The Gambia.

When the head of the national army pledged his troops’ allegiance to President Jammeh, it looked like democracy for and by the people would fall.   But the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to resolve the crisis.  Four West African Presidents met with President Jammeh to convince him to step down.  Jammeh refused.  ECOWAS then announced that they were prepared to use military means to force President Jammeh from power.

President-Elect Barrow fled to Senegal and was sworn in as President in The Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. The Senegalese army with support from Ghana and Nigeria crossed into The Gambia with a final ultimatum.  Mediation trips by two other West African leaders convinced Jammeh to leave the country.  Reports say that he left with a transport plane full of luxury cars and $11.4 million in government funds.

President Adama Barrow hopes to seek the return of state resources. He has also called for a truth and reconciliation commission on past violations of human and civil rights.

This is not the first time West African leaders have intervened to avert a crisis. They ended a coup d’état in Mali in 2012 and supported the ouster of a recalcitrant coup leader in Burkina Faso in 2015.  In the 1990s they sent troops to end a long civil war in Liberia.  These efforts are strong indicators that African leaders are increasingly committed to democratic rule.  Other countries in West Africa like Ghana, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria are building stronger democratic institutions and a solid track record of democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power.

International support for African efforts to promote democracy, free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society and human rights are crucial. Africa has made slow and steady progress towards democratic rule and economic prosperity.  It has a long way to go and depends on continued support from the United States to meet these goals.  The United States can show positive leadership in the world by working with countries that strive to build democracy and peace.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Going Deeper!

Explore the work of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, which assists the bishops in advancing the social mission of the Church, especially in its advocacy for policies that advance justice, defend human dignity and protect poor and vulnerable communities around the world. Join USCCB and CRS in advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable around the world, through Catholics Confront Global Poverty.

Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana

kris-crs-nov-2015

Kris Ozar, Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana

In Pope Francis’ statement for the 2017 World Day of Peace, he notes that “the Church has been involved in nonviolent peacebuilding strategies in many countries, engaging even the most violent parts in efforts to build a just and lasting peace.”

At Catholic Relief Services (CRS), our peacebuilding work often tries to anticipate conflicts and to defuse them before they explode into violence. A good example is an ongoing project in Ghana leading up to this month’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

You might not think Ghana, known as a beacon on stability in West Africa, is a country that needs peacebuilding work, but its northern regions are particularly troubled where a significant number of recurring conflicts that have at times erupted into violent clashes with fatal consequences. The country’s stability can be threatened when elections exacerbate simmering political, religious, and ethnic tensions.

Ghana’s youth constitutes about a third of its 26 million people. For this reason, the CRS peacebuilding project, dubbed “Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana,” is focused on helping people between the ages of 15 and 25 understand and act out their role as agents of peace. Working with partners, including three dioceses in Northern Ghana, during the several months leading up the election, CRS trained approximately 675 youth in peacebuilding and preventing electoral violence. In addition, 30 youth leaders, called Young Peace Ambassadors selected from communities particularly prone to violence have been implementing community-based peace advocacy activities to promote peaceful elections in December 2016.

For much of the next year, efforts will focus on further strengthening the role of youth as productive citizens and positive contributors to the Ghanaian economy by continuing to work with youth leaders and building up the peacebuilding capacity of diocesan units.

At CRS, we know from experience that violence can be contagious. But so can peace. Projects like this one in Ghana are like stones tossed in a pond, rippling far beyond those directly affected.

As Pope Francis said, “in 2017 may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. ‘Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.’”

Kris Ozar is Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana.


Going Deeper

Read Pope Francis’ message for the 2017 World Day of Peace. Join with Catholics Confront Global Poverty to advocate with others to change the conditions that prevent peace globally.

God Weeps

A carved wooden crucifix sits atop a green and white woven basket from RwandaLast night I dreamed of rows of machetes emerging from a farmer’s field, point first, like the tips of corn stalks. I saw many machetes during my recent trip to Rwanda – sharpened steel used to trim back vegetation and cut paths through the thick foliage of “the land of a thousand hills.”

Rwanda is also the land of a thousand views –the hills and mountains of the lush terrain provide endless scenic vistas of neatly-maintained crops. Rwanda’s equatorial location means that seasons are defined by rainfall. The rainy season is about to peak, and with it the annual April period of national mourning – the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. God weeps from the skies.

Rwanda’s complex history – prerecorded, colonial, political and institutional – setting the stage for tragedy, may be another window on the land of a thousand views, or perhaps, viewpoints. To visit some of the genocide memorial sites, many of them Catholic churches where men, women and children seeking sanctuary were shot and hacked to death by the thousands, is to encounter, in the mounds of faded, bloodstained clothing and stacks of skulls and bones, a lesson we have not yet grasped. The murder of up to a million people over several months by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, family members and leaders, cries out to heaven – and to us, wherever we live.

How could they do this? How could we do this, within the last century or so – to indigenous Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians and so many others? As Good Friday approaches we line the route to Golgotha once again, watching the innocent led to slaughter.

How can we do this? By using real or contrived differences of race, socio-economic class, religion, lifestyle, language, or ethnicity to create communities of scapegoats, onto whom we pour the verbal venom of our fears, our hatreds, our ignorance, our insecurities. Once dehumanized and separated from “us,” the “final solution” can seem logical, necessary, patriotic.

At one parish genocide site, the Eucharist in the tabernacle was destroyed by gunfire before the terrified members of the Body of Christ, crowded into the liturgical space, were murdered. The heroes of genocide in Rwanda are those who hid their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives; those, like Sister Felicitas Niyitegeka, who chose to die with the targeted rather than be separated from their brothers and sisters in Christ and live. Accompaniment and solidarity were expressed in the laying down of lives.

Healing and restoration linger on the horizon in Rwanda. Many of those who survived, scarred and traumatized, have not been able to speak their stories – it can be dangerous to do so. Counseling resources are inadequate. The broken church is trying to be a vehicle for healing and wholeness. Many significant tensions are unresolved, as seen in the most recent refugee situation involving neighboring Burundi.

How do we move forward with justice, mercy and love, learning enough about ourselves as human beings to ensure that such crimes never happen again – anywhere? Such a perspective includes hard work, and open hearts, minds and ears; solidarity in action. The way forward is to experience and to share God’s love – the love, as the Easter Vigil testifies each spring, that never dies. Love that sees each life as precious. Love that finds new, respectful relationships, not weapons, emerging from ground soaked with the blood of our scapegoats.

Headshot of Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Susan Stevenot Sullivan is director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


Go Deeper!

Pope Francis’ Messages to Africa

Pope Francis visited three African nations November 25-30 (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters, June 6, 2015)

Pope Francis visited three African nations November 25-30, 2015 (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters, June 6, 2015)

“Passing to the other side” – the theme of the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Visit to Africa – references the crossing of the sea when Jesus calms the storm and calls on his disciples to faith. This image is poignant for a continent that many see either poised for a leap ahead to a new “African Century,” or doomed to continued stagnation caused by conflict, bad governance, and environmental degradation. Pope Francis offered the people of Africa calm guidance in a stormy time.

1. “May you always be concerned for the needs of the poor…”

Throughout his three-country visit, he reminded political and religious leaders that the way of Jesus is to serve those who are poor and marginalized. Pope Francis made this point in the middle of the slum of Kangemi, a place where 150,000 people live in tin shacks with no access to clean water nor proper sewage facilities.  He quoted an African proverb, “there is always room for one more seat at the table” to illustrate the wisdom of the poor, but he condemned poverty and exclusion as “…wounds inflicted by minorities who cling to power and wealth, who selfishly squander while a growing majority is forced to flee to abandoned, filthy and run-down peripheries.”“A highlight of my visit will be my meetings with young people…”

Africa is the youngest continent in the world. In 2010, 70% of Africans were below the age of 30. The Holy Father reminded leaders that, “[t]o protect [youth], to invest in them and to offer them a helping hand, is the best way we can ensure a future worthy of the wisdom and spiritual values dear to their elders….” He called leaders to feed the aspiration of the youth for a more peaceful and just society.

2. “Corruption is something which creeps in. It’s like sugar: it’s sweet, we like it, it goes down easily. And then? We get sick!”

Pope Francis addressed the problem of corruption in Africa in response to a question from a Kenyan girl, “Can corruption be justified simply because everyone is involved in wrongdoing, everyone is corrupt?”

Pope Francis replied, “Corruption is not the way to life. It is a path which leads to death.” He added that it steals a person’s joy and harms those living in poverty. It also robs society of peace.

3. “There is a clear link between the protection of nature and the building of a just and equitable social order.”

In his first speech in Africa the Holy Father said, “We have a responsibility to pass on the beauty of nature in its integrity to future generations, and an obligation to exercise a just stewardship of the gifts we have received. These values are deeply rooted in the African soul.” The Pope cited an African proverb that says that we don’t inherit land from our ancestors, but rather borrow it from our children and are responsible for passing it on in better shape than we found it.

This message is so important to Africa, a continent that is rich in natural resources, but mired in poverty.

4. “Passing to the other side, in the civil sense, means leaving behind war, divisions and poverty, and choosing peace, reconciliation, development.”

The theme, ‘Passing to the other side’ was most prominent in the final leg of Pope Francis’ visit to CAR, a country that is desperately struggling to emerge from a bloody two-year conflict.  In a gesture that raised this peripheral country to the world’s attention, Pope Francis opened the Jubilee Year of Mercy doors to the Cathedral in Bangui and announced that, “Today Bangui becomes the spiritual capital of the world. The Holy Year of Mercy comes in advance to this land. A land that has suffered for many years as a result of war, hatred, misunderstanding, and the lack of peace. But in this suffering land there are also all the countries that are experiencing the Cross of war”.

5. “Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury”

Pope Francis stressed the need for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue throughout his visit. In Uganda, he along with Anglican and Catholic bishops prayed at the monument of the holy martyrs where in the late 1880’s 45 Catholic and Anglican men and women were killed for their faith.  He noted that “[e]cumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury. It is … essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”

The Holy Father spent even more time discussing interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, especially in Kenya and the CAR where violent conflict has been perpetrated in the name of faith. At the central mosque in Bangui, CAR he stated that, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters….”

 

On the plane home, the Holy Father told a team of journalists: “Africa is a martyr. She is a martyr to exploitation in history. Those who say that from Africa come all calamities and all wars do not understand well, perhaps, the damage that certain forms of development do to humanity. And it is for this reason that I love Africa….”

 

Hilbert headshotSteve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A look ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Africa

Pope Francis holds dove before his weekly audience at the Vatican

Pope Francis holds a dove before his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 15. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Later this week, Pope Francis will make his first pastoral visit to Africa. He will visit Kenya, Uganda, and if the security situation allows, the Central African Republic. Throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father has championed the cause of those living in poverty. On the world scene, Sub Saharan Africa is where the marginalized of the world are concentrated. According to the World Bank, in 1990 50% of the world’s poor lived in Southeast Asia while Africa accounted for only around 15%. The Bank projects that in 2015 those continents will change places with Africa holding about half of the world’s poor. Yet, Africa represents only around 15% of the world’s population.

Pope Francis very likely will make this disparity a key message to the world. He will probably call on the world’s developed countries to increase their investment in poverty eradication where the poor are concentrated – in Africa.

November 25-27, Pope Francis will be in Kenya. There, Pope Francis may address the long-term ethnic conflict that has been instigated and used by political leaders for decades. Conflict over land, especially in the fertile areas of the country, is closely linked to ethnic tensions. Ethnic groups tend to be concentrated in particular areas of the country, and some groups feel their land has been taken by the more powerful and politically connected ethnic groups. Church leaders have spoken out against ethnic-based politics and the resulting violent conflicts. The Holy Father may urge the Church and the government to defuse tensions through more systematic and sustained dialogue and reconciliation programs.

For decades, Muslims and Christians have lived side-by-side in relative peace in Kenya. When Somalia descended into conflict, refugees streamed into Kenya, but Muslim-Christian relations remained positive. When the Kenyan army intervened in Somalia, however, that changed. The Westgate Mall attack and more recent terrorist acts have created significant anti-Muslim sentiments, resulting in heavy-handed actions by government police and military against Muslims. This in turn has fostered grievances among peaceful people in the Muslim community. The Holy Father will perhaps stress the need for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Governance issues and corruption have been long standing problems in Kenya. They are some of the root causes of the worsening ethnic conflict. The Holy Father may call for greater inclusive, transparent, and responsive government in a pastoral way.

While South Sudan is not on the Pope’s visit schedule, the Holy See has followed the tragic civil war there closely. Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council on International Justice and Peace, visited South Sudan last year. Pope Francis may make a statement on the situation in South Sudan and encourage the Catholic Church and the South Sudan Council of Churches to persist in their efforts to promote reconciliation, dialogue between political leaders, and regional cooperation to help South Sudan achieve peace.

From November 27-29, Pope Francis will be in Uganda, a country that has been relatively peaceful. Tensions are rising due to worsening corruption and neglectful governance and increasing civil rights violations by President Museveni’s government, in power for almost 30 years. The Holy Father may address governance issues by evoking his themes of caring for the poor and the marginalized.

On November 29-30, Pope Francis is expected to visit the Central African Republic, which is struggling to recover from decades of bad governance and two years of violent conflict. The country is trying to organize elections and inaugurate the first legitimate government in its history. Violence between militia groups continues, and the fate of a peaceful transition hangs in the balance. The Church leads the Religious Leaders’ Platform that is calling for donor nations to give the transitional government the time and resources it needs to organize a credible election. The Pope’s visit could be the catalyst for real positive change if he can encourage the belligerents to reject their violent ways, empower religious leaders, and urge donors to fund peacebuilding efforts.

Throughout his journey, we expect to see Pope Francis bringing the hallmarks of his Papacy: preaching joy of the Gospel, being close to the poor and marginalized, and spreading message of mercy and reconciliation.

In advance of the Pope’s visit to Kenya, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a special prayer for the visit. We invite you to follow Pope Francis’ visit in the news and ask that you pray for him and for peace in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

See the full schedule for Pope Francis’ Visit to Africa, November 25-30.

 

Hilbert headshotSteve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Africa: A Tale of Two Elections

Hilbert headshotLast week the world witnessed two important elections that demonstrate Africa’s struggle to instate and protect the rule of law and accountable democratic governance. The recent elections in Nigeria and the upcoming process in Burundi are a study in contrasts.

On May 29 Nigeria inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the first time in Nigeria’s 55 year history that it had conducted a peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one ruling party to another. The 2015 elections were peaceful and relatively free of fraud despite the real fear of post-election violence. Throughout the election, the Church in Nigeria was a constant voice for the common good. Church leaders met with both Presidential candidates to urge them to conduct a free and fair election.

President Buhari faces a host of serious challenges. The terrorist-insurgent group Boko Haram continues to attack mosques, villages and towns in the northeast of the country despite some recent successful operations by the Nigerian military and neighboring countries. Oil revenue makes up 53% of Nigeria’s federal budget and the fall in the price of oil has forced the government to make drastic budget cuts. The country ranks an abysmal 136 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. And although Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, 62.6% of its population lives in poverty. Life expectancy is only 52 years. Despite these challenges, the election gives Nigerians renewed hopes for positive change.

The successful elections in Nigeria contrast sharply with recent events in Burundi. For ten years Burundi has lived in relative peace under a democratically elected government, a unified national military, and a new constitution that provides for majority rule (demanded by the majority Hutu population) with solid safeguards against repression of the minority Tutsi ethnic population.

Recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified repression of political opposition leaders, independent radio stations and the press. He has created and armed a political youth group that attacks political opposition members, resulting in about 100,000 people fleeing the country. In 2014 the Parliament foiled the President’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. This year the President announced his candidacy for a third term arguing that the parliament had elected him in 2005 for his first term and not the people. Demonstrations and riots broke out, leading to 20 deaths. Tensions led to a failed coup d’état against the President in May.

Throughout the past year Church leaders have spoken out repeatedly to oppose a third term an action that would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace accord that brought an end to the bloody civil war. After the coup attempt, the Church urged an end to the violence and the start of political negotiations to end the impasse. When the President launched his bid for a third term, the Church called for the elections to be postponed until peace was restored, radio and media outlets were reopened, and all civil and political rights were restored. The government has failed to reinstate the rule of law, prompting the Church to withdraw its clergy from the election monitoring teams and the local electoral committees.

In response, the government did not renew the tenure of a Catholic priest who was the head of the country’s national human rights commission. On May 31 the Archbishop of Bujumbura, the capital, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. The Church now seems under attack because of its opposition to the President’s actions.

In April, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Church in Burundi and another letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice to urge the United States to support the positions that the Church in Burundi had taken to restore stability to the country.

The tale of two elections in Nigeria and Burundi demonstrates the challenges of fostering unity among diverse ethnicities and religious communities, building stable democratic governments, and establishing the rule of law. In both cases, the Church played a prominent role in lifting up the common good. The Church can be proud of its work to ensure fair elections.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.