Nairobi, Kenya. Creative Commons CC0

How the New Creature Is Born

The Movement in Africa gathers in Nairobi for three days of work and friendship, discovering, in facts and faces, that Christianity is a challenge–not to the culture, but to the heart.
Davide Perillo

On the taxi driver’s dashboard there is a sticker: “The best in life is to have Jesus.” Who knows if that is what he is thinking as he calmly negotiates the gridlock of the Outer Ring Road, leaving the airport. And who knows if such a thought flows through the river of life that runs along it, outside the window, on the sidewalks made of mud and makeshift stalls, sheds and broken bricks, lines of women who walk down trails of beaten earth, inches off the asphalt. Some are running; others are waiting to catch a matatu, the vans that serve as buses here. Every face is young, and every heart is expecting Him.
Karibuni, welcome to Nairobi, Kenya. Four and a half million souls; slums, skyscrapers, and bare feet; handcarts and pickups made in India. You look around and you think that for three days the heart of Africa will beat here. And you are not being presumptuous: if the best in life is to have Jesus, 110 people from all over the Continent gathering to touch the depths of the relationship with Him are something that brings hope to everyone. It is the ARA, African Responsibles Assembly of Communion and Liberation. The venue: the Dimesse Center in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, run by Italian nuns. We have arrived a little out of breath, thanks to a quick tour of the new Church of St. Joseph (entrusted to Fr. Alfonso Poppi and the St. Charles Borromeo Fraternity) and the schools that have sprung up around it: the St. Kizito, the Cardinal Otunga, the Urafiki-Caranova, and the Emanuela Mazzola nursery school–not to mention the Little Prince, further away in the Kibera slum. All of them are treasures too great to be dismissed in just a few lines. We will have to return to them.
So here we are, welcoming people from twelve countries. From Uganda they arrive by bus: 13 hours of pot-holed roads. From Rwanda, instead, no one could make it. An airport accident caused the cancellation of all flights. At the back of the meeting room, Matisse’s Icarus is on display. On the side, a huge tapestry: Jesus with the Samaritan woman, depicting the heart’s thirst and the only encounter that can quench it forever. It is impossible not to think of it, when you hear Carrón’s blunt attack: “This is not a gathering of an association. What we hold most dear is the person, the person who cries out, who begs. The goal is to help each other to understand the importance of the proposal that the Movement is making to all of us now.” Not an explanation, but a witness, “because it is in this type of friendship that we can be companions to our destiny.” It is a work, because if we stop at the “sentimental impact”–as he says in his Spanish-tinged English–everything seems to vanish, even the most obvious facts. “But I want to go back to Milan having taken a step forward. I want to see His victory.”

At Mireille’s house. So the gauntlet has been thrown down. And Carrón will repeat his challenge again and again, with his words–“Can Christianity really generate a new creature?”–or with those of Nicodemus: “Can a man be born again even if he is old?” And on with the assembly… The theme: experience, explicated with simple examples and facts. Anne, from Uganda, tells the story of an automobile accident, and the rage, the discomfort, as well as the serenity that bursts forth only later, when a friend urges her to go beyond: “God saved you.” “Does that mean that the judgment on reality is not always simultaneous?” “No, it always is. Until that judgment, there is no experience.” And that judgment, which reaches the very depths of reality, changes everything. But do we need something external to help us judge? The answer blazes forth: “No! You have the capacity to judge within you, and the tool for doing that is the heart. We need to be educated in how to use it. This is fundamental, because it is where the dignity of your person lies.” A flurry of questions: from Nigeria, from Kenya… How can we do more for the Movement? “You do so if you live, if you are yourself. The Movement is for me. The problem is not doing the Movement, it is living it.”

Then there is the witness of Mireille, from Cameroon. She works at Edimar House with Fr. Maurizio Bezzi, helping street kids. “I have been married for ten years, but I have no children.” In her culture, it is more than a cross. It means bearing the pressure of the clan, of the tribe, of family members, of your husband whom they push to leave you and marry someone else. “Trials are a sign of the Mystery. But why does the Mystery draw so near to me?” It sends shivers up one’s spine. But it does not compare to what she then adds: “Ever since I began to live with this awareness, I look at the street children this way, as a sign of Christ’s presence. And my husband, instead of leaving me, is becoming more attached to me, because he is fascinated by my way of being with them.” And that is where the first change happens. “Is it possible for Christianity to generate a new person, a new culture? If we don’t experience this, if it doesn’t reach to the deepest depths of our self, what good is it? It would be nothing but a religious decoration that takes the place of others.” But instead: “Only the recognition of a Presence changes everything, not our mistakes or our efforts.” This happened to Samuele, stationed in Uganda with AVSI, who tells the story of a terrible day that melts away as he comes home to his daughter’s hug. A presence.

Lunch break comes in the meeting, with meals around a U-shaped table. It is a spectacle: from the colors of the Cameroon dresses and the white Ethiopian robes to the stories told by Fiorenza, one of the Memores Domini women who lives here and works at Nokia, and the remark by Vivian, who relates what suddenly struck her: “Man’s desire is the same everywhere.” Finally, we hear from “Rose’s kids,” a spectacle within a spectacle, and there is nothing sentimental about it.

Before the afternoon assembly, Rose tells their story. They are among the many children taken off the streets in Kampala, often orphans or children abandoned by their families and raised, literally, by the women of Meeting Point. A group of them, after Carrón’s trip to Uganda two years ago, asked to be baptized. “They came to ask for it one after the other. I asked them, ‘Why? You only saw him for a half hour. He did not say anything to you about Baptism. What happened there?’ And they said, ‘It is the way he looked at us.’” Then it is their turn to tell the story. Bimbo, who is now named Luigi and who speaks about “a life of death,” lost his parents, burned in a bus, and then his uncle, with whom he had gone to live. “I thought that I, too, was dead. Instead, I was alive–but I understood that only by meeting them [the people of Meeting Point]. There, I understood that my life has value.” He says so with words, but you can read it in his face, and you understand exactly what he means when he says that “my life now consists of the School of Community,” to the point that he left the school where they forbade him do it.

For Deo–short for Deogracious–the encounter with Rose was decisive: “She loved something in me that I hadn’t seen.” And thus began an adventure: the friendship with the others, Carrón’s trip… and the decision to bring the exhibit on the Benedictines to Kampala, “which helped me understand everything–that life can start from faith. And that is where the question came to me: How can I, too, be a monk outside the monastery?” You watch him speak and you catch your breath. He can’t be more than 20 years old. “Now I know that there is something greater than circumstances. There is something new in life. This is my experience.”

“Do you see? It is possible.” Carrón picks up where he left off before lunch. “They are the living example of how Christianity can succeed in Africa in a real way. All those who spoke have different cultures, but they are the first signs of a new culture. We have to quit speaking of culture as a problem. This is the point: is Christ a life experience that is so powerful that it corresponds more to my desire? This is the question. The Mystery dialogues with the heart, not with the culture. The challenge is to the heart. And no culture or power can stop it.” But it is impressive to see how Christ operates even beyond what we understand: “I, myself, when I met these young people, didn’t realize what was happening. And I didn’t plan it beforehand. I am learning it now, from them.”

God and the tribal chieftain. The meeting included time for questions and answers, of various themes, such as: the desire that the community grow (“Relax, it doesn’t depend on you–the problem of my happiness is whether you love Christ, not whether there are a lot of you”), fraternity (“The issue isn’t friendship, but whether we are moving toward the same destiny. If that is the case, as you go forward, you may also become friends…”). Then there is the challenge of the circumstances: “Why do I feel defeated so often?” asks Margaret. Carrón’s answer is an openhearted confession: “Since the moment I was entrusted with guiding the Movement, many things have happened to me. I came across objections, or people who didn’t understand. And I would go home saying, ‘How can I help them understand? What should I do to make myself clearer?’ Then I began to recognize that these circumstances were a challenge. And, little by little, I began to put myself to work. I began to talk about what I was learning from the circumstances. And they became an essential factor of my vocation. Each circumstance became a friend. Without them, I would never have grown so much in my awareness. But in order for it to be this way, we need to decide. We need to look at what happens as a way that the Mystery calls us. It does not depend on the circumstances. It depends on us.”

A decision… You look around, as people crowd into the yard and many gather together in their groups to prepare an evening of songs. You meet the smiling gaze of Vicky. You hear the laugh of Carras, who has been coming to Africa for years in order to live this friendship, and who knows and loves everyone, one by one. You see Fr. Tiboni, a little stooped, but whose eyes are younger than ever, absorbed in observing the fruits of the encounter with Msgr. Giussani years ago. If CL in Africa has become what it is, it is in many ways thanks to Fr. Tiboni. Or you hear Fr. Giuseppe Panzeri, a Capuchin living in Cameroon, who relates what a friend told him: “I was the son of a tribal chieftain. Now I am a son of God.” A decision–and a preference.

Man’s heart has no race. The evening is one of those that wounds your heart. Nothing complicated, of course: each country brings something of its tradition. You await tribal chants and rhythmic dances. They will come, and they will be beautiful. But first, the Ugandans sing together the Italian song La montanara. We have a taste of the choir that the young people in Kampala put together in order to spread the songs that they have taken to heart, those of the Italian mountain troops included. Rose tells us how, at a certain point, she said, “Guys, we need to translate the words, otherwise people won’t understand.” “And they asked me, ‘Rose, when the Mystery speaks to you, what language does it speak?’” This is what it means to say that “man’s heart has no race,” in the words of Rose herself, spoken before the Pope at the Synod of Africa.

Sunday morning: breakfast, a chat in the courtyard... To the side, a group of children darts by. They are the children of Romana and Joakim, the leader of the Kenyan community. It was he who, as we walked through the classrooms of his recently inaugurated school, forced us to look beyond the freshly plastered walls: “I get here in the morning, I see this beauty, and I ask myself, ‘Who made it? Who is entrusting me with it?’”

We are drawn into the moment of the summary with a few clear points, ones that don’t spring from a discourse but from what we have lived during the last two days. “Christianity is happening here, not as a discourse, but as experience. And this is the starting point: it is an event. Christ is present, contemporary with us.” Second point: faced with the Fact, the heart needs to recognize it. “The heart is our dignity, because it is the instrument of awareness. The historical self is the juncture of the heart and the culture into which each person is born. If Christianity were not able to ‘puncture’ the culture in order to reach the heart, it would be useless.” Instead, that is what happens. “And there is no culture or power that can stop it, as we have seen in the last two days. We have been challenged by the beauty seen here. The problem is our response to this encounter.” When this Presence is recognized, what seemed impossible happens:“Everything changes. This is Christ’s victory. The first ones spoke about a ‘new creature.’ But we are seeing the same thing here, in our change. And this points to the fact that He is in the present.”

And so we arrive at the final step: mission. “It is not something tacked onto life. It is within our daily life, as with Mireille’s husband: by seeing her live, struck by this newness, rather than leave, he can’t avoid feeling an attraction greater than the pressures of his culture. We don’t need to create CL in Africa. The Movement is here if you live this way. It is simple, like saying ‘yes.’ Our problem is to belong to Christ, to say ‘yes’ to Him. What the Mystery does with this ‘yes’ is up to Him.”

Goodbyes… embraces… but it is not over yet. Before the flight home, there is still time for Carrón to meet with the Kenya community at the International Education Center. At least 400 people are there. Questions and answers dig to the same depths as the two preceding days. And we leave with those words of the Gospel ringing in our ears as never before: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Simplicity of heart.

We end with the last African dinner, and the first occasion to dig deeper into the treasure that we just saw before our eyes. What exactly did we see in these days? What happened? Matteo, a visitor of Sierra Leone, uses five words: “The exaltation of the ‘I.’” True. You think about it on your ride back to the airport–no taxi this time, but a couple of Jeeps filled with friends, Kenyans by birth or by adoption: Joakim, Leo, Antonio… No sticker on the dashboard. But the taxi driver was right: the best in life is to have Jesus.