John Allen was writing from Africa last week and spoke of how the extraordinary growth of Catholicism there will give Africa real influence in the Church of the 21st century. Often, in our debates around St. Blog's, we seem to lose track of how many millions of Catholics live profoundly different lives and how different their burning issues are.
This is a glimpse of life in St. John parish in Korogcho, an illegal squatter’s community in Nairobi, Kenya. Korogcho houses 120,000 people crammed with a single square kilometer. Korogcho is one of the 200 slums of Nairobi in which 2.5 million people live – 63% of the city’s population. St. John's is part of a network of 13 parishes that attempt to serve the slum dwellers of Nairobi.
70% of the population of Korogcho is under 30. There are no public services. Huge numbers of street children hide in Korogcho to escape police round-ups. The most relevant problems are: prostitution, unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism, rapes, criminality, domestic violence.
St. John’s parish cares for 3,000 practicing Catholics distributed in 26 small Christian communities about Korogcho. Two of the communities are made up of scavengers and Tanzanian lepers.
There are two priests, two women lay missioners and two pre-noviate Jesuit aspirants. An informal school serving 1000 children is beside the chapel. 16 lay run service groups focus on ministry in specific areas such as Justice and Peace, Liturgy, Catechists, the Poor, the Sick, Alcoholic Anonymous and Widows.
The two Masses on Sunday use the Zaire rite, which was approved by the Vatican in 1988.
(A modified version of the Zaire rite was used in the Opening Mass of the African Synod at St. Peter’s in 1994. Tthe entrance rite took 30 minutes as the celebrant and male and female dancers danced up the aisle and around the altar. The reading of the responsorial psalm drew from the ancient Ethiopian rite and had the three kings sheltered by a multi-colored umbrella. The Gospel was read according to the even older Coptic rite which featured clashing symbols.)
Every year, 80 – 100 catechumens, who have been prepared by 15 well-trained lay catechists, enter the parish of Korogcho at Easter. Two hour workshops are offered every week on specific topics for all the community. The topics reflect the broad needs of the community: Aids, the sacraments, alcohol/drugs, Bible, visit to the sick, counseling, etc.
Surprisingly, there is a Taize community in Korogcho but the service is very different. Here is a description of the Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
"Now the dormitory-cum-prayerroom is packed with children and about 20 adults. In one corner of the room there is the Blessed Sacrament. Above this is an icon from the Coptic Church: Christ as a brother to people. Brother Gregoire is also present. He sleeps here, but he works in town during the day. The few belongings the brothers have, their clothes, their blankets and their sleeping mats, hang on wires from the ceiling. In this way they escape the rats. The roof is supported by two poles in the middle of the room.
I have to step carefully over several children so as to reach the small altar-table. Many of the children demand attention; they even try to shake hands with me while I try to put on my vestments. Martin van Asseldonk comes in. The children know him and several want to sit on his lap, but he has only place for two. The wooden shutters are open. A young man, slightly drunk, leans in through one of the windows, still debating whether or not he will attend.
With an opening song we easily drown the noise of the radio next door. This radio is always on when we celebrate Mass here. This evening we celebrate the feast of the previous day, the feast of Peter and Paul, two pillars of the early Church. I try to find out who is called Peter, Paul, Paulina, Petronella, Petra or Paula. This is their feast day too. Hands go up and we applaud all of them. The face of a small Paul or Peter in front of me lights up in response.
They start singing again. No, they don't sing solemnly or beautifully as one might expect in a monastery of Taizé. These adults and children sing the way life is in Mathare Valley, raw and loud. They are not nice, sweet little children. They are restless, in some ways demanding, craving the care and attention they have a right to, but which they don't seem to get in the broken homes they grow up in.
At times, when I get here, I wish we could do something very beautiful, so that they would all look and listen in amazement. But they aren't easily amazed. A boy of 15 beats the drum vigorously, as if he is accompanying a group of traditional dancers.
We read about those disciples of Christ, Peter and Paul, whose lives are to be an inspiration to us today. At the same time people can listen to the news on the radio next door.
The two poles in the middle of the room have been dressed up today. With the help of blankets, faces drawn on old paper, cement sacks, and beards made of sisal, they have become contemporary statues of Peter and Paul.
Denis tries to explain this and what it might mean to us. At the same time somebody else is trying to sell us Blue Band margarine on the radio. I must admit that technically the man who is advertising Blue Band is much better than Denis. But we easily shut him up with a very loud version of the Creed. The advertiser can’t beat that one. Passers-by stop and look through the window. The half-drunk man, who seems to have decided to stay, scratches his head thoughtfully as we pray for people who are in distress. Now and again he joins in with the singing. Many others have gathered at the window and the Mass is now half in the street.
The wishing of peace to one another before Holy Communion is rather chaotic; everybody wants to shake hands and everybody, especially the children, climbs and falls over one another in an effort to do this. Together with Brother Denis, I give Communion. For some we have to reach very far over all these singing children. People hand the chalice to one another. During the last song, after the Blessing, some adults and Brother Gregoire start leading the children out. Some don't want to leave; they protest that the song isn't finished yet.
As I walk home I still think about the service in the 'monastery' of Taizé. 'Beautiful', 'devout', 'solemn', 'meditative' - all these words have nothing to do with it. Perhaps the words 'real' or 'true to life' describe it better. In any case this liturgy doesn’t stand apart from everyday life in Mathare Valley.