Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside letting the door thud shut
The opening lines of Philp Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ sum up a common interaction with churches for most British people. We like them better when they’re empty; at least then we can imagine what we’d like to be happening inside. Most of us now see churches, church-going and general matters of faith as a fringe concern. If the Church does take centre-stage, it’s usually because they are on the wrong side of the current social argument.
Take the example of the Roman Catholic Church in the West of Scotland, where one priest told me that he avoids walking through the town centre in clerical collar for fear of verbal abuse from passers-by. The Church is now viewed more often villain than hero.
Perhaps that is why – as a card-carrying Roman Catholic – it was so refreshing to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), to see the work the Church is supporting there.
You could try telling the 2,000 or so parishioners jammed into Mater De Dei’s sanctuary atop a hillside in Bukavu that the Church was irrelevant, but you might have difficulty being heard. We witnessed the first mass of the nine held every Sunday at 6 a.m. By the time we slipped into our pew the singing and dancing were in full flow – they didn’t stop until nearly two hours later.
For Father Justin, the man leading the service, this was just the start of a long week. Shortly after he’d shaken hands with nearly everyone, and spent time larking around with the children outside, he took me round the parish. ‘This place is run by the mafia,’ he told me, and looking around, it’s not hard to imagine. There’s no real sign of any official presence and as we stepped out of the parish house, down the mud strewn main street, I realised that any security I have is from the presence of the popular priest himself.
He’s popular with the people here because he speaks up for them, but it’s a dangerous business. Militias have tried to kill him twice for telling people they cannot believe in those who hold themselves up to be their leaders. He takes this seriously, as you can imagine. Two archbishops have already been assassinated for speaking up for the forgotten people of South Kivu province.
The week before we visited, rains caused two houses on a nearby hillside to collapse, with the ensuing landslide killing five people, including four children who were buried under the mud. Fr Justin looked pained as he showed us the site of the landslide and local youths described how they took part in the rescue. Here there is no fire or rescue service. It took locals five days to dig out the bodies with their bare hands.
One night during our visit we heard how one of SCIAF’s local partners awoke to find their offices and bakery on fire. No police, fire or ambulance services attended the scene. The buildings were simply left to burn down. It’s the Church and their charities who built the compound and will rebuild it too. In both cases it’s not too simple to say that the Church is doing the government’s business.
It’s a similar story at the Diocesan Olame Centre. It’s there that the women of South Kivu, many of whom have been sexually assaulted in the most brutal ways – during the ongoing territorial wars that have plagued the country for decades – take refuge. Through Olame the Church is offering psychological, social and economic support. Here too, through educating women, men, families, community leaders, the police, army and judiciary about women’s human rights, a quiet, but significant, sexual revolution is taking place. Men are having to face up to new responsibilities and ask themselves some hard questions.
We met one family who were so grateful for the help they received that they called their son Don SCIAF (Gift of SCIAF). It was incredible to hear about the journey of the father, Philippe, who told us how his own behaviour had been changed. ‘In my marriage, I used to act like a rapist,’ he told our group as he explained what the Church’s gender re-education training had meant to him. He then explained how, as a couple, they now talk through everything, manage their finances, plan their farm together and – with the help of SCIAF and its local partners – had started to see the social and economic benefits. It was a real success story.
Consider too the doctors working in Katana Hospital, a little north of Bukavu, where women who have never recovered from horrific sexual violence meted out by militias go. If the trauma of rape is not enough, the after-effects of fistula causes double incontinence, leaving many of these women isolated within their own communities. The fistula operations carried out at Katana are not provided by any public health service but are funded by the charitable work of SCIAF and their local Church partners. They even paid to train the doctors and bought the surgical equipment needed. It’s vital work, poorly rewarded and is only getting accomplished because of the role the Church plays in local lives.
Finally, let me leave you with this question: how would any of us recover from the trauma, breakdown of society and brutal violence of war? These are all factors at play over the last 26 years in DRC and neighbouring Rwanda. Consider the story of Claudette and Claude. In the genocide of 1994, Claudette survived the massacre of her fellow Tutsis in Nyamata Church – now a consecrated space – where 2,000 women and children were murdered. She was 13 years old, had lost all of her family and for a few months went through, what can only be described, as a living hell. Every degradation imaginable was visited upon her. She told us her story in her small house a few miles from the site of the original massacre. Listening to her was Claude, one of the men who had tried to kill her with a machete.
In the dead silence of the room we witnessed a deep forgiveness, virtually unimaginable to our Northern worldview. It was clear too that the forgiveness shown by Claudette to Claude, and the humility Claude expressed in looking for reconciliation, could only be understood in the context of a deep Christian faith. As he was immersed in the waters of baptism to symbolise his newfound faith, Claudette watched on. They have become the closest of friends. She supported him when his mother died. ‘She,’ he tells us ‘gave me a human heart.’
Faith is alive. The Church is doing some amazing things. However, we may need to look to Africa to experience them.
Ricky Ross is a BBC Radio Scotland presenter and lead singer of Deacon Blue whose latest album, City of Love, is released next week