October is Mission Month, and this year Mission Sunday falls on 24 October. The theme is ‘Together in Mission’ and across the world Christians will gather to remember and pray for the work of their Missionaries with the poor, the hungry, and the displaced in countries far from home. In his special message for Mission Sunday Pope Benedict XVI says, ” I would like with special affection to express my gratitude to missionaries who bear witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God in the most remote and challenging places, often with their lives. To them, who are in the vanguard of the Gospel’s proclamation, every believer offers friendship, closeness and support”. John Guiney SJ is Director of the Irish Jesuit Mission Office in Dublin and was for many years, a Missionary in Africa. Below read his reflection on some of his time spent there.
THE JOY OF MISSION
Fr. John K. Guiney, SJ is a member of the Eastern Africa Province of the Society of Jesus and is at present the Director of the Irish Jesuit Mission office in Dublin.
It was with joy I stepped on African soil in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1979. A childhood dream had been fulfilled. This dream was fuelled by the faith of my family and community in Ireland, inspired by the reading of missionary magazines, like Africa and the Far East and the ever present collection box for the black babies at home, in the parish church and in the local village shops.
However, my arrival in Africa in 1979 melted into the history of thousands of Irish men and women who, for over a century, had gone before me to serve. These men and women, lay volunteers and lay missionaries, sisters, priests and brothers made a profound and lasting connection and impact on the lives of thousands of Africans and had a huge influence on generations of volunteers and development workers in Ireland.
Many of these Irish men and women not only gave years of service on missions, they gave their whole lives. If one visits the cemeteries of St. Austin’s in Nairobi or St. Joseph’s in Mombassa, one can see the testimony of Irish men and women who gave everything and wished to be buried on African soil with the people they loved and served. Names like Edel Quinn, Bishop Shanahan, Larry Timmons and Gerry Roche echo in the ears and hearts of many as examples of heroic service on mission. They gave their lives, not in pursuit of fame or fortune, but for a dream of creating a better world through quiet and humble service.
They had a global vision of the world and a sense of the planet as belonging to one human family, where the dignity of each should be upheld and enhanced. Before words like globalisation, partnership and solidarity became meaningful and fashionable in development language they blazed a trail in modelling such a commitment.
When our President, Mary McAleese, visited Kenya in Oct. 2001 she noted that years before Irish Independence and scores of years before an Irish Aid policy existed, Irish missionaries were the unpaid ambassadors of our land to the people of Kenya. They brought Ireland to Kenya and they brought the story of Kenya to Ireland and because of their Gospel conviction of the need for a holistic view of development they themselves became examples of the best development practitioners.
In colonial Africa it was difficult for the local people to distinguish between the white colonialist and the white missionary and volunteer. However the commitment of the latter (often in some of the most isolated parts of the country) to building local capacity, fostering involvement in education and sport, establishing medical services, agriculture and enabling people to build sustainable livelihoods proved the missionary’s commitment to the people of the soil.
It is true to say that the Swahili proverb… Elimu in ufunguo wa uhuru na maendeleo (education is the key to freedom and development) was a lived mantra of the missionaries. Their commitment affirmed the gifts, rights and dignity of the people and so helped the liberation of many, especially women, and enabled them to run their own affairs. It is remarkable today how so many women and men, graduates of these institutions, continue to be leaders in major sectors of African life and in international settings.
It was a great joy for many of us working in Kenya in the 1990s to witness the opening of the democratic window which allowed all Kenyans to choose their own leaders. I still remember the first multiparty elections when working in the slum of Kangemi, just outside Nairobi, and how eagerly the people cast their vote. That was a period of great hope for them in their desire for new beginnings and a new Kenya. It was laudatory how new space was opened up for civil society groups, including the Churches, to speak openly and to promote civic education, voter registration and participation. It was also a time of sadness when Churches became safe havens for terrified people fleeing for their lives during cyclical post election violence.
In 1997 we mourned the death of Brother Larry Timmons – the Irish Franciscan missionary brother who worked in Nakuru Diocese. He was a wonderful educator in the Rift valley, a man who believed passionately in freedom and democracy and in enabling voter registration for all, irrespective of ethnic background. He gave his life for this cause; he was later assassinated.
In our continued relationships with the continent of Africa and a country like Kenya which is so dear to the minds and hearts of thousands of Irish men and women, it is important that we remain in solidarity with leaders of the different Churches, community and political leaders and all Africans and Kenyans of good will in promoting Gospel values of reconciliation, justice and peace. We need to be credible witnesses of these values and actions in our own institutions. The wisdom of the Swahili proverb is instructive to all: bila haki, hakuna amani na bila amani hakuna maendeleo (without justice there can be no peace and without peace there can be no development). If good people do not stand up and speak out for justice and peace for the people of Kenya, irrespective of tribe and religion, then meetings on development issues and aid budgets will be a wasted task. The history of Ireland teaches us that without peace there can be no development – only division, suffering and tears. The history of the Irish missionary effort in Africa shows that while it takes years to build the lives of people it can only take a day or a week to destroy them and their development through incitement to hatred and division.
Ireland and the Irish Church can be justifiably proud that in our world today – from Brazil to Benin and from China to Chad – over 2000 Irish men and women continue to serve as missionaries, lay and religious. They continue to join hands with their African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters in helping to bring about social change that uplifts the dignity of all. Their work covers areas like basic education, primary health care, rural and urban development, human rights, capacity building, water/sanitation and income generation. They help not only by their long service to bring the Gospel message to thousands but over the years they have poured millions of Euro into building the infrastructure of their pastoral, educational, medical, rural and urban development projects.
This has been done with the support, generosity and compassion of Irish people at home without whom missionaries cannot survive. Many missionary organizations have passed on the running of projects to their local members and they continue to need support and solidarity from Ireland.
It is indeed with joy and thanksgiving we celebrate mission month in our Church, acknowledging the many sacrifices Irish missionaries, their families and parish communities have made to bring the good news of God’s Kingdom to so many people.