Serving God's People in Africa since 1868

Opportunities and Challenges of Justice Ministry in Africa Today

In our ministry, we meet people of different faiths (African Traditional religion, Christianity and Islam). These encounters take different forms [1]: Dialogue of life; dialogue of social action, dialogue of theological reflection, dialogue of spiritual exchange. Whatever the form might be, these encounters with people in the different pastoral circumstances open our eyes to their needs and challenge us to search together with them, how to make the Good News really Good news for them in their situation. In our approach, we have learnt that it is not always helpful to take the lead. Charitable works have their place (Mt 25) in times of disasters but the work of raising the awareness, is what we believe will, at the end of the day, bear fruit. It is good to provide food for the displaced of tribal conflicts as we do in many places, but the lasting work of reconciliation and examining the causes of the conflict can be done through the way in which we carry out our ministry. As ordained ministers, we often have easy access to people at different occasions and especially in and through the celebration of the sacraments, visits, social work, etc. Such occasions can be used to bring across a different message, namely that we are meant to live together and to share the goods of this earth in an equitable manner.

Pope Francis’ insight about leadership expresses this practice in a good way. A good leader is not always in front. At times he is in front in order to show the way. It is the light tower (Mt 5) towards which sailors and other people can look up to for direction. The goal to which God calls each one is thus reflected. At other times the leader is just among the people like salt in food or yeast in a dough. This presence is invisible and yet it gives force and taste to the action and preserves it. Such presence helps the leader to discover what is already happening that can be life giving and that should be fostered. At other times the leader is at the very back, the last in the line, in order to ensure that the weak and vulnerable ones are not left behind because we all belong together. This means challenging the unjust structures, or as Pope John Paul II said, the “structures of sin” that work against humanity. To work for justice is to lead in an authentic way, true to one’s character and the core values one upholds which are essentially Gospel values.

Opportunities for Justice Ministry

The centuries long Social Teaching of the Church is the basis of the commitment for all in the Justice and Peace Ministry and its backbone and the justification. The commitment to the human person as person created in the image and likeness of God takes a central role.  This factor, together with our closeness to the people have made us realise that we are not  alone in the commitment to Justice. I consider our experience and practice in Justice Ministry and some examples from the grassroots and external factors like the commitment of the civil society and how that helps us in our Justice Ministry.

Experience and Practice of the Lavigerie Family

We encounter Africans with the awareness that the Spirit of Jesus precedes us. The religious spirit which pervades African culture is the bedrock upon which much of the commitment as Missionaries has been built. People often jokingly say that the Missionaries did not bring God to Africa, they brought Jesus. It is true to some extent. Leaders of the different religions in Africa have realized that and are taking the contribution of religion seriously in the search for Justice and Peace[2]. This relation to God has an impact on life even if it is sometimes seen in terms of reward and punishment. God’s desire for humanity is only what is good. Thus any form of injustice is contrary to what it means to be in relationship with God. When people welcome Jesus Christ, we build on this religious spirit and show how that is what Jesus’ Good news is already about and how traditional values of love, sharing, respect for life, etc. can be brought to completion in and through Jesus Christ.

The fact that, as Missionaries we are often foreigners in the country in which we live and work gives some credibility to our message. When people see that we have learnt the language and the customs, they know that we love them and that we are really concerned about what is happening to them. We are perceived objective since we do not have tribal link with one or the other group.  Thus our word can carry weight.

The Church structures such as Parishes, Small Christian Communities, Deaneries, etc. do provide an effective networking if we tap the resources together. Many religious (men and women) certainly make a difference in his ministry. It is a fact that in many parts of Africa, at the beginning and still today, many Missionary Institutes often step in to supplement what the Government structures do not and cannot offer when it comes to humanitarian work, care for orphans, rural education, HIV projects, etc. Being involved in these is not considered something foreign to the Gospel but rather as constituent of the Gospel.

In the Provinces, in order to ensure that issues of Justice and Peace are not lost, a Commission headed by the Provincial JPIC-ED Coordinator, is made of representatives from the different areas of the Province follows things up and reports for the appropriate reflection and action to be taken. Our Provinces these days cover several countries. This means that the members are always from different countries and bring the issues of these countries for reflection to the Commission for the appropriate plans of action to be proposed to the members through the Provincial Superior and his Council. In some cases, where the Diocesan JPIC Commission is working, we collaborate with this instead of setting up something parallel.

The JPIC Commissions in the Provinces have been encouraged to work together with the Encounter and Dialogue Commissions. In some cases, it is the same person who is in charge of the two aspects of our Charism, in other cases, it is separate person. Whatever the configuration might be, we deem it important that the JPIC and Encounter and Dialogue are promoted together. This requires an on-going vigilance which is maintained through online and paper publication of material that inform and form the consciences about what is happening.

1] Cf. also Stephen B. Bevans & Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context , pp. 383-384; Michael L. Fitzgerald & John Borelli, Interfaith Dialogue A Catholic View, London, SPCK, 2006, pp. 28-35 ; S.B. Bevans & R.P. Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue, pp. 68-69.

[2] Cf. The Leaders of Religion meeting in Uganda

This is an excerpt from “Opportunities and Challenges of Justice Ministry in Africa Today” by Rev. Richard Kuuia Baawobr, m.afr. now Bishop of the diocese of Wa, in Ghana since 2016