The School of Community in Lagos, Nigeria

Just to Live

A small trip through Schools of Community worldwide, among tables at a cafe near Parma, on the internet, during an afternoon of study in Burgundy, or at a parking lot in a Muslim neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria.
A. Leonardi, P. Perego, P. Ronconi and A. Stoppa


Friendship at the Rasty Bar

It wasn’t in their plans; “We would have never done it.” But Angela and Matteo were married. They had lived together for ten years, and had one child. Then they met Francesco and his wife, Federica, a couple that lives by them. “Very quickly we noticed the way they lived. They were really happy. The way they raised their kids, were together as a family, faced difficulties every day: something great had made them different,” recalls Angela. “We were falling in love with their life. And our way of living was no longer enough.”

The story of the friendship at the Rasty Bar, a little place on the outskirts of Fidenza, was born from these two. Angela and Matteo are regular customers. And Francesco started going every evening after work to get a drink with Matteo. The appetizer on Friday with their wives became a fixed appointment, among the elderly men immersed in their eternal game of cards, drinking, making a ruckus, never skimping on the swearing, while the younger people were always at the slot machines. And those four would tell each other about their week, their life, their work, what they learned, the things that weren’t going well. “We met up like this, and without realizing it, started a School of Community.”

Today, two years later, they are 30, every Friday evening at 7 p.m., “we are joined by new and old friends that keep us on our toes,” Francesco says. “And this always reminds me that I am loved and have done nothing to deserve it.” They have different backgrounds, ages and characters. “Very different,” they stress, because it is a diversity that they love, that illuminates something else present among them.

There are some who are 20 years old, like Leonardo, and some more than twice that age, like Fabio. From Trento, but Emiliano by adoption, he had set the Movement aside for years. “It asked me to be true. And I did not want to change,” he says without mincing words or looking for alibis. “Until I was 50 years old, I continued to work, to have a wife and a son, but avoiding love. And without recognizing my need for love.” Then, in time, breathing in the enthusiasm of his wife who was involved with the GS kids, he felt the need to go out of his life, where he was closed in on himself. “Even my work at the company was made up of problems, not people.” He started to throw himself into relationships, into things, “but my logic always tried to prevail, to overtake my heart. And so, I didn’t really enter into relationship with others. The more I tried, the less those bonds would grow.” There was a question that he couldn’t wrap his mind around: “What is the difference between what I do and what happens?’

Then the friends at the Rasty Bar responded: “I see something happening that I do not determine;” A friendship and an intensity that cannot be calculated. “Then you have to ask yourself why. Is something happening here? It does not depend on a discourse or on effort. But it is the presence of Christ, and only that, which attracts us.” And the more one gets involved with life, the more unity there is. “School of Community is profoundly personal. It is always happening, not only during this one hour,” he says. “Most of all, it happens outside of here.”

The phone call. While they were meeting, their kids played at the cafe. The first time Valentina came, she brought six-year-old Gioele with her. When they went home, he said to her: “Mamma, these people are my friends and I want to be with them.” She is a nurse and came here thanks to Carla, whom she has known forever. She was quiet the whole night, and only at the end was able to say: “I waited 20 years for that phone call from Carla.”

Then there is Antonella, who passed by the CLU kids every day when she studied Architecture. “I still remember their faces after 15 years.” She didn’t pay attention to what they proposed, it didn’t interest her, but she tried to understand the look on their faces: “I challenged them. They were always so united and calm. And I wanted to see if they were still as happy as the day before. I said to myself: Don’t they also have problems, things that make them sad?!” Today she is here at the Rasty Bar, after her sister invited her last year to a prayer vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks. “Outside the church I found the same look on the faces of these people as I saw back in college.” From that day, she has not missed a meeting.

Sometimes they come worn out or with little desire on a Friday night, but Sara says that she always leaves with questions that stay with her the whole week: “They change my way of looking at everything I live.” The things they read or talk about “are alarms that ring during the day,” Chiara adds, who after the birth of her children neglected the School of Community: “Here I am forced to make a journey. To work on myself. Now I have more of a hold on myself, I see what happens in my life if I give space to the words of Giussani and Carrón. And I see that one thing always keeps me interested: that this You makes himself known.” Another girl puts her heart on the table: “I was a drug addict for six years. With you, I found that I don’t have to spend one penny to be happy.”

And the people at the bar? “In the beginning, we were in a corner and they paid no attention to us,” says Fabio. “Then they started to leave some tables free for us, to pay attention. The ones who were more curious looked over, listened in. Everyone knows what we are doing and that our meeting always begins with a prayer.” In the meantime, the management of the bar has changed. And the story continues. “In one of the most unthinkable places. A bar,” Angela says. “But I can say that in this bar the Lord has changed my life.”


A lightning strike—love at first sight.

In Dijon, central France, among the vineyards and abbeys, there had never been a School of Community. Until two years ago, when Olivier, professor of Economics, met the figure of Father Luigi Giussani by accident. “It was June 2014 and I was preparing for a course in Business Ethics. When I was doing research online about people connected to Italian Catholicism, I discovered the existence of this priest and of the movement of CL.” He put his course to the side and spent the whole day reading whatever he could find in French. It was a true coup de foudre (lightning strike—love at first sight). In the following days, he wrote to the secretary of the community to request information: “For me it was like throwing out a message in a bottle, onto the great ocean of the internet. Instead, Isabel and Silvio from Paris wrote me back and recommended a few texts to me: The Risk of Education and the three volumes of the PerCorso.” Maybe the School of Community was born at that moment, in the exchange of texts between Olivier and Silvio, who throughout the whole Summer were messaging each other questions and reflections.

A few months later, the two met up in Paris, in an Indian restaurant: “In an instant, I saw what I had been reading in those books,” Olivier recalls. “And I understood that I could not have less than a friendship like this.” As soon as he got on the train back to Dijon, he felt a nostalgia: “Silvio had told me about School of Community, but Lyon and Paris were too far away from me. I wrote them right away and asked for help. And Silvio said to me: ‘Why don’t you start one, in Dijon?’” It was just before Christmas, when Olivier sent an email to a few of his friends and colleagues. He also sent a link to the Beginning Day text by Julián Carrón. “If you are interested, I would love to tell you what I discovered a few months ago.” Five people showed up at the meeting. They watched the video about the Movement, La Strada Bella and Olivier spoke about his new friends in Paris, about Father Giussani, and proposed a regular meeting to read one of Giussani’s texts together. Of the five present, three were actually interested. They were Philippe, Pierre and Eric. From then on, every Friday evening, they met in a room that the Bishop of the city put at their disposal.

On a path. “Olivier made me curious,” says Philippe, 42 years old. “But above all, there was a certain phrase I read that didn’t leave my head: ‘I do not exist when You are not there.’ I returned because I wanted to understand what those words said to me.” Philippe, in that time, was in the midst of a separation from his wife, after 20 years of matrimony. He was facing great pain, and carrying that of his four children, the youngest of which was only a year old. “The School of Community did not provide a specific help in their regard. But I started to get better. And it was strange: the will to live even if these friends didn’t do anything particular for me. They were simply there. And I felt that something was growing in me: the ability to love myself through the eyes of Father Giussani.”

His travel companions, Pierre and Eric, to whom Sarah was soon added, were facing difficult times: “Not one of us had our lives in order: getting fired, unemployment, loneliness, problems with children. We were a School of Community full of unfortunates, but we never felt like victims. Finally, we were on a path.”

The whole of 2015 was marked by faithfulness to that gesture. Some of them were able to attend the Spiritual Exercises and the Summer Vacation. And when Olivier, at the end of the year, was transferred and left Burgundy, none of them felt that the School of Community would end. “I took the responsibility of leading the group, which Catherine had recently joined,” says Philippe. “I said, ‘yes,’ even if I am not capable and notwithstanding a family life with lots of problems. Because the School of Community is the only way that I have to keep all these pieces of myself together. Something that is impossible on our own.”

Today, Sabine and Régis have joined the small group in Dijon. Silvio, from Paris, visits them as much as possible. “We read that passage from the Exercises where Giussani recalls the ‘yes’ of Peter. After only a few lines, Régis, 70 years old, with a failed business and five heart attacks in the last year, says: ‘Even to us, with our broken lives, Jesus speaks like this.’”


Nyemike’s notebook

Sunday, early afternoon, 42° Celsius, in the parking lot of the clinic which is in the Muslim neighborhood of Idi Araba, in Lagos, Nigeria. With the sounds of the city, between minarets and traffic, Godfrey, 32 years old, is in a corner with a book in his hand. In front of him is Steve, three years younger with two kids and a good job in a big company, but which keeps him locked up with shifts and strange schedules seven days a week. So, they have found this tiny window to do School of Community and, if it they can’t, they organize an evening in a bar over a beer. Steve was the one who asked to see his friend, because he could no longer go at the “official” community time. “I die without the School of Community. Here I recover myself," said Steve, emotionally, at an assembly.

“The Movement has been here in Nigeria since the end of the 1980s. We are a small community, a little less than fifty people, university students, young workers, and some ‘older’ people, in a city with more than 20 million people,” says Barbara, an Italian Memor Domini in Lagos for over ten years and leader of the CL community. “Close to three years ago, our friend Rose came from Uganda to do an assembly with us. Everyone was amazed at how she spoke about the School of Community, of how important it was for life.” The effect was that some small groups were born among the university students, for example, but also Steve and Godfrey’s group, or the group that works at the NGO Loving Gaze, with fifteen people.

“I, too, started a new group with a few people that year,” Barbara recalls. “I was with Roland, a young worker, at the International Assembly of CL in Italy. He was a little ‘down.’ Talking with Rose, she told me: ‘Do School of Community with him, and you’ll see that he’ll get better.’” Back in Lagos, the group takes off, with Charles and David joining: “I realized that what was started to help Roland, who meanwhile was doing better, was becoming vital for me. One the head of a building site, another a real estate agent, the third responsible for the purchasing department at a company … They came up with concrete questions that touched on the details they lived every day, putting everything we read to the test.”

They were a close-knit group. “Yes, but still that is not enough. The heart is something else,” Barbara explains. “Over time the group changed. Roland moved to Abuja, even Charles managed to be sent to another place. But I needed to continue that experience. So, I asked Godfrey to come. And then I asked Ruben, a friend that had moved to Port Harcourt a long time ago and then had returned to Lagos.”

“School of Community helps me breathe,” Godfrey says, especially in a historical moment like the one Nigeria is living, with an economic crisis that bites, linked to the oil industry, uncertainty about work and Boko Haram. People are leaving. And the dominant mentality says that what matters is the success you can achieve. Godfrey was going to marry; he had everything ready, even the house. But then his girlfriend left him. “I found out that she was getting married as a way to be settled in life. I really loved her; she didn’t, or at least not like my friends in the Movement, from whom I learned what it means to be loved totally. Could I live for less than this?” Nyemike also has difficulties. His employer has not paid him for months. They were speaking a lot at the School of Community about mercy. So, he started to carry around a notebook, to make note of “all the times Jesus is at work, when I see mercy in action, when I see how he loves me.” And he lists the entries for his friends: the first day, two times; the second, three, then a day with no notes--because there is also humanity, distraction. “But what He does overcomes everything.”

Either the bus or lunch. At the last meeting, there was also a woman with a newborn in her arms. “[It’s] Christopher’s wife. They are farmers. They were away a few months, in her town, because she went to her family’s house to give birth,” Barbara says. Once they were back, he wanted to start School of Community again at the first opportunity. They needed to get there on time. “We can’t,” his wife says. “I said that we would take the little one to my aunt. You have to go.” “No, let’s go to School. And you come too. Because all this, our marriage, our life, would not exist without the School of Community. Even the baby, in the end, would be only a mouth to feed and the cause of a thousand worries. And instead, we can recognize him as a gift.”

Some people travel for two hours on rickety buses to be at the assembly. “We also made the pilgrimage for the jubilee year. I thought that we could organize a bus, but the cost was high. Because of that, the CLU kids, 17 of them, didn’t have enough money for lunch. They bought a baguette and divided it up,” recalls Barbara. “You see them growing, but this happens only in front of something that can truly change life. For this reason, I told them the other day, at the meeting for university students, what had changed mine.”

Barbara noticed a new guy. “Gloomy, with a lost look. ‘What do I have to communicate to him?’ I asked myself.” Barbara told those kids about her encounter, the time she heard Father Giussani speak and the words that summarized the whole speech: “So that you may be happy!” “I wanted this for him,” she goes on. A few days later, Abraham, leader of the university students, calls her: “I spoke with Tony. He says he wants to come to the Fraternity assembly. I noted his name: Tony Abdullah … Ah, he’s a Muslim.”


For whom do we live?

“Essential? More than that. The School of Community is vital.” Rosaria’s whole story, more than her words alone, give flesh to this sentence. She moved from Italy to Larissa, in the heart of Greece, in 1997, 24 hours after marrying Nicola, a Greek doctor she met at the University of Naples. She is now a house wife with two kids and today their family is dealing with the increasingly difficult economic crisis: “So many have left, businesses have closed, unemployment is growing. There are also thousands of refugees. [It’s] a black tunnel and we cannot see the light,” just more taxes to come.
A dozen of them meet at the parish every week to do School of Community; a few of them Greek Orthodox and others, Romanians, Albanians. “We have to make a constant comparison with what we are living,” Rosaria explains. Just like at the beginning, when she came to Larissa.

“I met the movement at the end of the 1980s in Naples. It was a difficult time, like a desert, and I was really thirsty. I was restless, but at least there was a place, a path.” With Nicola, she started to hang out with those new friends, “I was always with someone, always on the front lines. When it was time to sell magazines, I was the first one, even if I hadn’t read it.”

The letter from Teresa. When she arrived in Greece, everything changed: “I was alone. There were weeks in which the only face I saw was my husband’s. And very little at that, because he worked so much. I, who always needed to be with people…”

The children came and those days became even harder. “I was depressed and I couldn’t sleep at night; all day with the house, with diapers, with baby food…” Even the phone calls to the friends she left behind in Italy, whom she promised to call often, diminished. “I didn’t go out, didn’t take care of myself. And what did people think of me? The wife of a doctor…”

Her only companion was Traces. “I waited for it, I devoured it. My friends were those people who wrote the letters. And then there were a few stories and the words of Father Giussani.” Rosaria remembers a letter: “It was written by Teresa, a Memor Domini living in the United States. She spoke about her life, being excluded from a project that really knocked her down. ‘But what are you living for?’ Giussani had asked her.” It was a spark: “I started to do School of Community every day. For example, the world ‘freedom’ was for me the idea of being able to do something different, to get out of that prison. Instead, because of Father Giussani, I could be free even there. And then, the way he spoke about sadness…” She tried to suppress it, spending hours on the phone with someone. And then she read in Is It Possible to Live This Way? that sadness was “good:” “It was the lack of something loved! It was the possibility to recognize Jesus. It became a privileged occasion.”

The School of Community was “a face, a hand, not just a book. A lens that put everything in focus, freeing me from my thoughts and ideas about reality.” It was not imagination. And new friends started to come, from the neighborhood and from the parish. There is a NATO base in Larissa. A group of Italian officials went to Mass at the parish and started to sing in the choir with Rosaria. One evening, during dinner at a pizzeria, these military people were speaking about home. “I told them that I also missed Italy. That I had left many friends behind, but that what I had met in Naples I was able to live also in Greece.” A few days later, a small group of soldiers met up in Rosaria’s living room to read The Religious Sense. “When their mission was over, they left. But then others came, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I had suffered when those first ones had left. But they had given my address to the new people. In the end, I surrendered.”

A little later, friends from the neighborhood and from the parish were added to “the NATO guys”. “The Lord has never left me alone. They are like ships that arrive in the port, that stop for a while and then move on. Lately, a great friendship has been created with them, but because of the economic crisis, these ones also left.”

All it takes is a “yes” every day, Rosaria says: “Sometimes, I think that if I went to Milan, closer to Carrón … Instead, the freedom that I began to live in these years has given me the chance to love everything, circumstances and faces. But you can love only when you are loved. School of Community helped me discover this. And that nothing is necessary except me.”
“At the end of Summer, one of those soldiers from fifteen years ago called me. He had become a general. ‘Am I happy? Certainly,’ he told me: ‘But I miss our meetings. What came out of them. I sacrificed everything for my career. But now…’”


God is faithful

She is from Korčula, the Southern-most island in Dalmatia, at the same latitude as Medjugorje. The other is from Dubrovnik but lives in Fribourg, Switzerland. One is a mother of five children; the other, a retired doctor and grandmother of three. Ivana and Marija have a regular Skype call in common: their School of Community. Their story begins in Albenga, where Ivana, whose mother is Italian, moved for high school and where the religion teacher, Carlo, and his wife Marisa had something more. “I came from a Christian tradition in my country, but I got tired of it pretty quickly. They told me that faith is not added on to life, but that it makes you live life fully.” Ivana began to go to GS. And even when she went back to Croatia for the Summer, she sought out that companionship. During a vacation with the Croatian community and Father Gaetano Tortella, from Verona, she met Marija. She was old enough to be her mother…

Another move was around the corner: Ivana enrolled in the university at Split to study Mathematics. The need for real friendships moved her, but in Split there was nobody else from the Movement. There was a small CLU community in Zagreb. To go from Split to Zagreb, it takes four and a half hours by car. Fifteen years ago, it took twice as long, “but every now and then I went to meet them. We spent time together, went on hikes, did School of Community,” without losing contact with Marija and her friends in Liguria. “Father Pino from Chiavari told me every time: ‘Be faithful to the place that helps you see the essential in things.’” Faithful…

Ivana returned to Korčula, got married and had her first baby, then the second. “Marija called me: ‘If you’d like, we can do School of Community on Skype.’ But with the children … too much to do.” Five years ago, something wasn’t right. A sadness, a sense of inadequacy made Ivana say, “I can’t do it.” Her depression exploded. There on her island, she did not have those friends who helped her live. Her mother was a great help, but many people could no longer be with her and her husband couldn’t understand his wife’s “moods.” Then there was Marija, who understood the gravity of the situation. The phone calls from Switzerland became more frequent: “I told her: ‘Marija, I am unable to be with my children, to wash the dishes, to pray,’” recalls Ivana: “And Marija: ‘Let’s face this sickness together, and if it helps, even get care at the hospital.’”

“Shall we begin?” Ivana fights. Little by little, life starts again. Marija does not tire of helping her, even if it’s from afar. That Summer, she is at La Thuile, for the International Assembly of the Movement. The phone rings. It’s Ivana. “Can we start doing School of Community?” “And so, we started,” recalls Marija. They talk every week. “We start from the text and always arrive at life,” she continues. “Someone who has five children doesn’t waste time on useless things: she helps me not to be in the clouds, to come down to my experience, to difficulties with my children and grandchildren.” The two women know it well: “We are brought together by the fact that God is faithful through the other person.” Today, Ivana looks back on those long months of depression. “I still don’t understand why it happened to me, but I can say that God never left me alone, that sickness helped me understand that there is One who can make all things new, that nothing is mine. I understood that I don’t have the right to expect my husband to understand me; who knows how many things he needs that I don’t see…” For years, “I got mad, I cried. We seemed to speak two different languages. Today, I am grateful that, through everything, he has remained at my side.” But Ivana knows well that “I couldn’t say any of these things without that phone call that we’ve been repeating for four years. It is the work of School of Community that allows me not to let my issues with the children crush me, but to love them still.” Every time, before the appointment with Marija, “I have to overcome my laziness.” But Ivana remembers those words of Father Gaetano, the time he came to see her on her island: “When the Lord takes ahold of you, he never leaves you again.”