Fr. Berton among his young people

Bepi Berton: The mango seed

The Xaverian missionary in Sierra Leone died ten years ago. Caring for local Christian communities, welcoming the youngest, child soldiers... The memory of one of those young people "embraced by him".
Ernest Sesay

Bumbuna, the place where Fr. Giuseppe Berton spent more than 25 years and where he founded the organization "Family Homes Movement - FHM," has experienced unique but simple stories that paved the way for evangelization through the practical things this great missionary launched in Sierra Leone. The village of Bumbuna was one of the outer areas of St. Joseph's parish in Magburaka, in the Diocese of Makeni, where Fr. Berton had a small chapel built to easily reach neighboring communities.

Fr. Berton himself had told us one of his unique stories about the discussion he had with the Bumbuna chief. While he was clearing some areas for the construction of houses, he had decided to burn the trees and grass that the young people had cut, but the fire had flared up to such an extent that it had engulfed several acres of land. This had greatly worried the local tribal leader, "Father, why this huge fire?" He said, "Do not worry, it will help light the village." And the chief replied, "All right Father, but this light is too much!" That meeting and that fire, in a way, really brought the light of Christ to Bumbuna, and thousands of people met the light of Hope, Love and Charity through the works of this humble missionary.

I am proud to remember this priest today, and I am grateful that an entire generation in Sierra Leone and abroad is celebrating the life of Bepi Berton today 10 years after his call to the Father's house. I was raised by my mother, abandoned by my father when she was pregnant. After years of uncertainty and hardship, my going to church as an altar boy every Sunday led me to meet Fr. Berton when I was only 10 years old, and I was embraced by him. Today I am the person I am because of him. But this is also the story of thousands of young people who crossed his path and experienced, felt his love in his missionary work in Sierra Leone.

Xaverian missionaries in the north of the country have built schools and started educational programs, and Fr. Berton has been instrumental in this, including establishing new parishes and communities. I used to say to him, "Father, do you not think it will be difficult to raise funds for such a program?" He would simply respond with a smile saying, "Do not worry. Just believe in Divine Providence."

He told us about building Christ the King Parish in Bumbuna with leftover materials from an Italian construction company that had built a dam nearby. He collected scrap metal, cement, sand, and stones that they were not using day by day, and recycled them to build the church and the small parish house at first, and then continued with the secondary school and the houses that would house vulnerable children and orphaned children. This is where the idea of creating an association-movement with Catholic lay families willing to dedicate their lives to the care of children was born. It was 1986. When war broke out and Bumbuna was destroyed by rebels, all the guests and some heads of families were taken to Freetown, the capital.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Life was so hard that people traveled miles in search of food, but Berton stayed close to them protecting and giving hope to their children. In the mid-1990s, he called me one evening to discuss his intentions regarding the name, legal form and future plans for our reality that was growing so rapidly: "I do not want to create an association or an NGO. I want it to be a movement for Christian families who will dedicate their lives and commit themselves to living out their Christian faith in the care of children and be involved in various humanitarian works. I will call what we are doing already now 'The Family Homes Movement.'" Thus was born what is now a legacy left to the lay faithful under the spiritual supervision and guidance of the Archbishop and any Bishop of the locality where FHM is operating.

There are two key aspects of Fr. Berton's mission in Sierra Leone. The first is his relationship with traditional local cultures, and the second is his attempt to rescue child soldiers during the 11 years of civil war.

In 1989, the missionary's activities became the subject of discussion because, with prudence and fatherly care, he stood by the children he cared for even as they participated in traditional rituals in their villages. Some people then criticized him for compromising the Christian faith by allowing traditional beliefs and practices. Years later, everyone realized that he had used that opportunity to bring out the values at the root of those same practices and make them a tool for encountering Christ and for community growth.

In 1997, however, when the rebels entered the capital Freetown, the story of the child soldiers became a sad reality for the Sierra Leoneans and the international community. Fr. Berton had begun to approach military commanders asking them if he could ransom those children to take them to the rehabilitation center in Lakka, a risky and really difficult task. I remember one night, a child soldier nicknamed "Killer" approached me with a black plastic bag. He wanted to hand it over to Fr. Berton because that he was tired of dragging it around with him in the jungle where he lived. We took the bag to Fr. Bepi Berton and opened it: it contained a human skull. "Killer" had killed a person and kept the skull as a ritual spell. And now he was distressed. Fr. Berton spent the whole night with him praying and counseling him. This was Fr. Bepi. His love and dedication to the rehabilitation of more than three thousand child soldiers also reached the ears of the United Nations over time, which began inviting him to tell them what he was doing, even leading the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to visit the center in Lakka.

In 2002, peace arrived in Sierra Leone and reconstruction began, while Fr. Berton returned to the work of "his" movement for the care of abandoned children in Christian families, also with the construction of schools and other initiatives that have involved, over the years, many friends and realities. I am thinking of AVSI, with Arturo Alberti, Alberto Piatti and Gianpaolo Silvestri, Franco Nembrini and his family, Attilio Rimoldi, the friends and parents of the school "La Traccia" in Calcinate, near Bergamo, Carlo Fedrizzi and friends from Trentino, Cesena and Reggio Emilia. And all those who made the sacrifice to stay and live in Sierra Leone to carry on Fr. Berton's projects such as Gabriella Bigi, Viviana Magoni and many others.

Once, during an interview about the Family House Movement, Fr. Berton explained the birth of each work or project with the example of someone who on a trip eats a mango and throws the seed inside it on the ground, not paying attention. Returning to the same place five years later he finds a large mango tree that is producing fruit that so many others can eat. This is the FHM, a seed that has become a big tree today, a place of hope for many.