No strain in the quality of mercy at African mission
By Margaret D'Huyvetter
Special to The Catholic Key
I went to Zimbabwe on a lark, free as a bird. Little did I know I would be snared.
Margaret d/Huyvetter photo
From left, Brother Tendai, Brother Joel, Sister Sheila and Brother Benjamin.
Outside Harare, near the township of Tafara, I was visiting Redemptorist Father Ronald McAinsh, missioned in Zimbabwe for nine years. Father Ronnie, regional superior of the Redemptorists in Africa, is director of Alphonsus House, a Redemptorist House of Formation where 29 young African men are enrolled in training.
A practiced companion, I tagged along for some of the daily or weekly activities: visiting the sick and dying, picking up the mail, doing errands, going into the townships for a weekday or Sunday Mass. There were festive occasions too, the celebration of a wedding in church, or the lovely rite of "tea and scones" with the Dominican or Little Company of Mary sisters.
In Zimbabwe, given the pandemic of HIV and AIDS, visiting the sick, the dying and the bereaved was a powerful experience. Sister Therese of the Little Company of Mary, drove me to see a drop-in care center for AIDS patients. We met with Sister Noreen and Sister Anna. Sister Noreen is the foundress of Mashambanzou Care Trust. The name denotes the dawning of a new day, literally, "when the elephants go down to wash." The name was chosen to offer inspiration to those on the threshold of a new life with HIV or AIDS.
Mashambanzou has five projects: the crisis center, three home-based care teams; a care unit for the terminally ill; and orphan outreach program, and an extensive AIDS awareness program.
The program now feeds 248 families and 804 orphans. Still, Sister Noreen says, their home-based care is only a drop in the ocean.
"The pain of poverty is worse than the pain of carrying the virus," she said. "One can live with the virus for 10 years, maybe."
Sister Noreen said it is important to nourish the children so they can go to school.
"After 10 years, I realize we must mobilize a community and women in the community," she said. "They are the backbone of community. We need an ecumenical basis in Churches to educate women to go beyond Churches and sects to tend to the orphans."
These are the words of a woman herself very near death from cancer, but very much alive for Mashambanzou with a vision for education.
One evening I accompanied Father Ronnie to the home of a newly-widowed woman in Mabvuku township. Her 37-year-old husband had just died that day - of AIDS. Within the past month, she had lost two children to AIDS. And the woman herself was in poor health due to AIDS.
Women crowded together on the floor of a small room, sang and prayed aloud; men sat outside, circled around a fire. The next morning, outside the home, Father Ronnie presided at the funeral Mass. With so many people seated on the ground all around, it felt like we were amidst a biblical scene where Jesus was feeding the multitude.
Afterwards, we went down the road to visit and pray with a dying man. He was in bed, atop a plastic cover. Earlier, the body of Jesus was broken atop a plastic-covered table. As Father Ronnie said, "That's solidarity with the poor."
Since the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed in Zimbabwe about 13 years ago, 200,000 people have died of AIDS. Of the country's 12.5 million population, nearly 1.5 million are infected with HIV, an astounding 12 percent of the population, 300,000 of them with full-blown AIDS. By the year 2000, the country expects 600,000 children to be orphaned by AIDS.
But another dimension of my experience there spoke aloud to me the mystery that "life is stronger than death." That life force was the community life I experienced at the Alphonsus House of Formation. The community life there was deeply rooted in daily common prayer - both morning and evening.
I observed that the works of mercy form the daily fare of the lives of these future Redemptorist priests, and I found myself changed in the process. I began to see mercy as integral to our just and right relationships with others.
On my first Sunday there, Father Ronnie was told of a young woman wanting to break away from a bad situation. As a girl, she had left her rural home to take a job in the city with a family. She was sexually exploited there and bore a child. Somehow the child was taken from her. Now, she was asking for help to return home.
That evening, Father Ronnie investigated and found a man still seemed to be taking advantage of the woman. The next morning we went back to visit her. We found her few belongings tied together on the bare dirt floor of the one-room hut. The young woman was not there. On our return to Alphonsus House, we found her waiting at the door.
I was around long enough to hear a litany of concern: "Have you had something to eat?" "Let us get you something to eat and drink." And then the aside remarks: "Before she goes home, she'll need shoes. Be sure she gets some shoes and a change of clothes."
A short time later, as I walked toward the retreat house, I saw Sister Sheila carrying a pair of sandals.
"Aren't they lovely?" Sister Sheila said. "They are Ronnie's. I'm going to get a skirt of mine." As shoes, clothes and food were readied for the woman, the words of the Sunday Gospel came alive for me from the parable of the lost son: "Quickly, bring out a robe - the best one -and put it on him."
The next day, Brothers William and Tendai, both seminarians, took the woman to an early bus and bought her ticket to Mozambique. To be sure she did not return home destitute, they gave her money. Brother William wrote a letter to the woman's father asking him to receive his daughter well and pleading with him not to be harsh with her for her misfortune in the city, in effect asking him to imitate the father of the lost son.
The effect of this trip on me is that I want to see how I can do some fund-raising for the expansion of Alphonsus House. Plans are drawn up for a new wing for 30 additional students.
I want to promote this African formation program. With a better appreciation of the Church in Africa and with respect for the fine men in this Redemptorist program, I have a renewed hope for the future of the Church. This makes me want to support this effort in Tafara, and to tell others of the life it presents.
Margaret D'Huyvetter, a retired pharmacist, is a member of St. Patrick Parish, St. Joseph. She has a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University, and is studying toward a master's degree in Christian spirituality and spiritual direction. Donations may be sent to Alphonsus House, c/o Margaret D'Huyvetter, 1606 N. 43rd St., St. Joseph, Mo. 64506.