Another Pentecost, and I am back atop the massif, back at the monastery, Mokoto, back in the kitchen, cooking.
I arrived, and Brother G. knocked on the door to my room, and asked if I would make sauce. In times past, sauce has meant many things: salsa and guacamole and ketchup and baba ghanouj.
Sauce became this time tomato sauce, something Brother G. wanted to serve with the frites. It would be with garlic and onions and pili pili and tomatoes and paste and herbs and salt and white pepper. And to make the sauce, one would begin by negotiating tomatoes from the man guarding the pantry. And one would challenge monks for counter space and for fire. The meal would be serving a hundred more.
To begin by peeling and seeding tomatoes over an open charcoal fire…
This Pentecost, Brother R. was to take his final vows, and hundreds were coming. Those with invitations would stay for diner. This Pentecost there was to be no quiet, no room, no privacy, no time. The library was transformed into a sacred-space-cum-social-hall. An office was transformed into my bedroom. Guests, gossip, noise: no retreat from the world and its happenings.
This time, the transit from Goma to Masisi was a Landcruiser filled with eleven persons, plus luggage, plus tomatoes, plus salted fish, plus fresh fish (no refrigeration), plus electronics and glassware and baskets of bottles of homemade wine. Bags on laps, four hours: up an escarpment, in the mud and in the rain. Passengers bunched up like Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury: nuns, monks, a monk-on-a-year-leave-just-to-see, a blanc (me), family members to Brother R., and other family to other monks. And the blanc sat half out an open window, in the rain, to make extra room for a phobic nun, and in the back of the vehicle constant conversation, Congo style. Life defined once more in the scrapings of a serendipitous wandering.
After Vespers, the night before Pentecost, I was informed that the community wanted me to become their photographer for the Sunday, during the events: more to do.
After that Vespers, at dinner, I finally began to meet my fellow travellers. The first I would meet would be the ones who knew some English: the med student and the law student. Young men: upwardly mobile, families not without money, connections; not without big plans.
The med student had eight months before he would receive his second certificate, and be able to practice general medicine.
The law student was studying law.
The med student wanted a laptop: could I help? The law student wanted books – law, politics, sociology – in French. The med student wanted help securing funds for continued study in South Africa, in a specialized field: could I help? He needed a benefactor. He mentioned surgery.
I said I was poor and entering graduate studies in Theology on scholarship.
The med student said he had heard of me, and of my success at helping others, from Sister A. at the Lycée down in the city. Sister A. had told him to come to Mokoto to meet me. She had said to ask me.
I said that I had helped in the past those who had no other recourse. The poor. The truly poor: but those also who explicitly chose an education so as to turn around and to dedicate their work for the marginalized. And that the help I had been able to provide was help that came with the help of others, back home, who had given specifically to those with specific needs. They didn’t seem to care.
I said I was not a bank. I said people think all wazungu are. I said I once had much money. But that those days were long gone, and that my life was someplace far from those days. They didn’t seem to care.
They challenged my assertion. Americans were rich, they declared. I said that was not true. I said that some Americans were rich, and many who were rich did little to help the many more who were poor and struggling. I said America, in that sense, was not unlike Congo, where the rich still believed in Article 15 from the days gone by, from the old regime, from the days of Zaire. When Mobutu proclaimed an article in the Constitution that never ever existed: and told those complaining for compensation: “Débrouillez-vous!” (Take for yourselves!) There are the rich. There are more and more poor. There is a divide where there shouldn’t be, the world over.
We exchanged contact information in the typical expected fashion, and I said I would help the med student research scholarships and to find job openings in positions that would in turn appeal to those issuing scholarships. But no promises beyond that willingness to give advice, and that he himself would have make the effort and do the work.
The law student was easier. We talked about books from Verso, and books by Malmoud Mamdani.
For the moment all was in check. Days later, after several meals, the law student would turn to me, in French, and want to discuss American politics.
He wanted to know how I thought Congo could solve its current political problems. He was fishing.
How to begin? Should one begin in such circumstances?
By now, we were relatively congenial and familiar in terms of conversing freely.
I said the future of Congo belongs to the youth.
He said, but what about the Americans and their secret conspiracy to keep Congo suffering to take all of the minerals and gold and diamonds for themselves. I mentioned Congress passing bills to try to make more transparent the transactions of mineral purchases round the world, so as to prevent such activities. He was not buying.
But didn’t I know about the secret dealings? I said if they were secret, then I would not be in the know. But was I not an American citizen? Ah, I said, but I did not work for the government, the CIA, the military, the State Department. I was a poor graduate student (in Theology). Stalemate.
Change of tack: Whom was I going to vote for in the Presidential election? I said I most likely would vote again for Obama. How could I? Obama was for the homosexuals. (I stepped into that trap.) A pregnant pause: a wry smile: but didn’t Africans all like Obama? You all did last year. Obama was the first president to acknowledge Africa in a way that was not patronizing or far removed from a real sense of goings-on… But he now was for men marrying men and women marrying women. This is not how it is in the Bible. Another pause; then: America is a complex society, just as Congo is a complex society. You are looking at my country through the same optics (backwards), that Americans pick up and look through backwards at your country. We all look at each other through simplistic fictions that support rather than challenge us to think more deeply, more complexly. Your fictions of America are no more accurate than Americans’ fictions of Congo. Americans think Congo is nothing but rape and war and blood diamonds and a worthless excuse for “society.” Many Americans view Congo still through the lens of the Simba Rebellion of 1964. But here we are, at dinner, in a monastery, talking and enjoying conversation and company, and there is nothing but a beautiful sky, and birds and bats, and the soft colors of an incredible twilight. And Congo is full of life and food and music and culture and goodness and good people. The same way, you are looking at Obama and you are judging him on one singular issue, an issue that in my humble opinion is not going to be a defining issue in this Presidential election: joblessness, universal access to health care, assistance to the poor, assistance to schools and to students, care for the aged, a potential war with Iran – these are the concerns that weigh out in balancing all the issues… And I fear that the opposing side will not choose wisely on such matters. And Jesus Christ himself says to not judge, that judgment is reserved for God alone. And: to love all men and all women, as God sends out rain and sunshine. And to love those who I do not agree with and to do so with honesty and without compromise – such matters are enough for me to occupy my days. And personally I place my faith, as humble as it is, in God’s capable hands. American politics: no black and white: lots of grey and lots of error.
Flipping back again to solving Congo… What would I do? Pause: What would you do? It is your country: you are Congolese and you are young: and the future will be that which you and your peers choose it to be.
Check! Laughter. The med student appreciated the turn of play. Others listened in: the law student was at a loss for words. He smiled. I said again once more, softly: the future of Congo belongs to the youth. Smiles, with a question mark across the brow. Checkmate?
But that was days later: after Pentecost: after tongues of fire: after the Holy Ghost descending: after Brother R.’s final vows: after sauce: and food: and malt liquor from Uganda and homemade wine out of beets and papaya: and cake: and dancing avec le Saint-Esprit: and picture taking.
“… Everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity…” GAUDIUM ET SPES: 27; 1965
“… There are persons who do not need a closed world to maintain their consistency. When a doctrine is lived out in this way, it does not divide people, it enriches them.” – Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., 1968
“Knowing that Jesus Christ is God is something that will serve as an inspiration for all the decisions of the Christian, but it will not wholly determine anyone of them. There will always be an irreducible element that comes from his experience in history, which he shares with other human beings. In the concrete, the jump from the stated belief (‘Jesus Christ is God’) to a concrete decision may seem to be a short and quick one. It was so for the crusader, for example, who readily slew pagans in order to gain the reward of heaven. Even then, however, the concrete face of the man he was to slay must have raised some mute question about this seemingly fundamental duty.” – Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., 1968
“All the sons of the Church should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail, moreover, to respond to that grace in thought, word, and deed, not only will they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” LUMEN GENTIUM: 14; 1964
Where are we, all of us together, catholic and apostolic, Congolese and American, fifty years later?