Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Because of love!"

This was my favorite chapter from They Come Back Singing (reviewed here). I read it three times because the dynamics of the people's responses and the way the teaching built gripped me by the throat. I loved it. This is long but worth it.

Much thanks to Loyola Press for allowing me to excerpt this chapter. I typed this in myself so if you see typos let me know.
Kogwon Narju

Every day here takes me into new experiences, deeper experiences, yet linking me with the past. I am an old tree growing steadily but always with a new growth of leaves and blossoms. Grace and love move in my heart, and each place and event becomes a new sanctuary of the mystery of my faith.

Yesterday I traveled to the west side of the Nile with Ratib to do a one-day seminar in the settlement village of Cochi. When we arrived, after two hours of driving in the rain and ferry delays, I talked strategy and plans for the seminar with my lead catechists, Kenyi and Osura, as people were coming in to the chapel. Nearly a hundred people there.

It is Lent, so I focused on the theology of the season and how it fits into the church year. That led into a discussion of the life of Christ and why God even bothered to send his Son. What I asked, is the point of Jesus' suffering and dying for us? In these seminars, I use Scripture and lots of acting to engage the group as much as I can in a dialogue about our topic. I know that they have the truth within them. My job is to tease it out and help them claim it.

We were at it for more than three hours.

At the heart of the teaching was the fact that we sin and are forgiven and loved by the one who creates us, the one who sent his only Son as the promise of his love and forgiveness. We are loved sinners.

I asked everyone: "Well, what is sin?"

They gave a variety of answers: "murder," "adultery," "gossip," stealing," selfishness," "hate," "not being faithful to God."

"Are we all sinners?"

The congregation, in a convinced chorus: "Yes, all are sinners."

I pointed to a man in the front row. "Even this old man here?"

"Yes, all are sinners."

"Even this beautiful young mother and her child?"

"Yes, all."

"But surely not Kenyi, your good and holy catechist?"

Lots of nodding and laughs. "yes, all." (Kenyi cracked up as I shook my head at him in mock disapproval."

"But surely not me, the priest? A sinner?"

Now there were lots of snorts, and a chorus of "You, too!" I acted hurt. More laughing from the congregation.

Then I asked, "Did Jesus tell us any stories about how God forgives our sins and loves us in spite of our sin?

There was hesitation, and then a hand went up: "yes, the prodigal son."

"Could you tell us that story?"

The woman stood up and utterly nailed the parable; she was animated, capturing all the attendant emotions and convictions of the story. I asked her to come forward to play the role of the parent of the child who spends his inheritance and then returns to fall on his parent's mercy. She was a frail-looking woman, maybe forty-five, wearing a colorful green and black headpiece. Another person was chosen to be the wayward child, and they acted out the moment of the boy's return after blowing all his inheritance in Kampala. The son fell on his knees, begging forgiveness from his mother. She picked him up and embraced him, showing unconditional acceptance of her son.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. (Luke 15:20)
To the woman, I said: "Why did you forgive your boy?"

She responded, "Well, he is my son. I must welcome him and forgive him."

"But why must you forgive your son?"

From the back of the chapel, an old woman exclaimed, "Kogwon narju!" It is the Bari for "Because of love!" -- the ultimate explanation of the mother's act and of the Incarnation. The mother in the drama nodded her head in agreement. So did I.

To the boy, I asked: "Why did your mother forgive you?'

"Because I am her son."

"But you are a selfish and greedy son."

"But she loves me."

I kneaded this truth; Kenyi was pacing me now, figurative fingers on the pulse of my heart, seamlessly tying toegther in Bari my theology and rhetoric.

I instructed the actors to sit down' everyone present applauded. Then I asked a man and a woman in the chapel, Josephina and Mawa, both parents, to come up.

I asked Josephina: "Would you buy exercise books for your daughter who needs them for school?"



"I want her to have the right materials so she can finish school."


"Kogwon narju--because I love her."

I turned to Marwa and asked the same question.

"Yes," he said, for the same reason.

I said to everyone in the chapel: "Now remember, we are trying to understand how much God loves us."

Then I said to Mawa: "You daughter has to go to Kampala for a medical procedure. Will you raise the money so she can go, and so you can go with her?" Such a trip costs forty dollars in this land where one dollar is a fortune.

"Yes, if I can, I will do everything in my power."


"Because I love her."

When I asked Josephina the same question, she didn't miss a beat: "I will cut firewood and sell grain and borrow from friends so that she can go."


Before she could answer, I turned to the congregation, listening intently, and asked them for the answer.

In a single voice they responded: "Kogwon narju."

I turned to Josephina again: "And if the doctor says your child's kidneys are failing, but she can be saved by a transplant of one of your kidneys--a serious operation in which she will probably live and you might die--would you do it? Would you give one of your kidneys?" (Everyone in the chapel was gripped now, leaning forward, trying to answer the question for themselves.)

"Yes," Josephina answered firmly. "I have lived my life"--said this woman in her early thirties--"and my daughter deserves to live." Smiles, nods, and sighs from the people.

"Why would you do this?"

"I love her. Kogwon narju."

Now I asked Mawa what he would do.

He hesitated, then said, "I have two other girls; if I die, who would provide fo rthem? Perhaps it is best that my daughter die." In a flash I was thinking of all the families I have known in three different refugee settlements who have lost at least one child, some five or six or seven.

"And if the doctor says you will not die if you donate one of your kidneys?"

"Then I will gladly give one of my kidneys."


"Kogwon narju."

I asked them to sit down. The chapel was buzzing. It was a good drama, but it was not over.

The next question I posed to all. "Suppose a doctor comes to you and is trying to find a volunteer for a kidney transplant for a sick person in the village. You look like a possibility as a donor. The person will die without a transplant, and in giving your kideny you may die. Would you do it?

Someone in the back asked: "Who is it?"

I answered slowly: "It is your worst enemy."


Then lots of head shaking, nervous laughter, bewildered looks; an old man in the back walked out, waving his arms as if to say, "This is crazy talk." Kenyi laughed as he translated the gentleman; I think he softened it for me. But the old man returned, interested to know what people would say. A mother, nursing her baby directly in front of me, couldn't stop laughing. There were lots of puzzled looks as the people sunk their teeth into the question.

The hands started to go up.

"No way."

"Never for my enemy."

"I would give my kidney. Jesus died for his enemies; am I his follower or not?"

"Humanly, this is impossible. Perhaps with the grace of God, but who has that grace?"

"How is it possible to love this person if in our death our dependents will be without us?"

The chapel was abuzz; everyone was talking--to themselves, to me, to their neighbor, to God--a hundred people engaging their faith, engaging the spirit of God's heart. I reminded them of our question: How great is God's love?

After much discussion, we concluded the seminar. Kenyi and Osura took everyone through a recap of the day's teaching in Bari, with no English to obstruct things. Then they asked the people for an evaluation of the day. They were unanimous: this has been good teaching; we must do it again.

As we left, happiness moved across my heart like the Nile's morning breeze over my face, It was stiflingly hot, I was tired and hungry, the trip ahead would be long and bumpy, I was surrounded by so much poverty--yet I was filled with consolation. It can't be just joy at a job well done. Is it not the joy of the Spirit in me, the joy of God in me?

Ratib smiled reflectively as he downshifted over the last difficult terrain to the main road. He was happy that the day had gone well and that the people were appreciative. Ratib, a Muslim, is my biggest fan.

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