Conversion, Struggle, New Creation | Abahlali baseMjondolo
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Conversion, Struggle, New Creation

articleFilippo Mondini

Filippo Mondini spent time over Christmas building and living in a shack in the Ash Road settlement in Pietermaritzburg. These are his thoughts:

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The experience that I had in Ash Road has been very deep. A lot of thoughts and feelings have been moving in me. The insertion was above all a gift that I keep in my heart and a challenge to move forward.
In order to present in a more systematic way my reflections I will divide this paper in three paragraphs, each one of them designated by a key word: Conversion, Struggle and New Creation.

Conversion

Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor…(Mc 10:22)

The experience in Ash Road was an invitation to Conversion. Conversion to Jesus Christ and conversion to the people.

It was a conversion to Jesus Christ, a radical invitation to sell everything and follow him and a recognition of his love for me.

First of all was a wonderful experience of love. Once more I have been given the possibility of realizing God’s love in my life. I really believe that this is the nub of my vocation and my praxis. It is a simple awareness: I am loved, I am important I am beautiful at God’s eyes. I have become more aware of an usual pattern in my life: when I do not allow God of loving through me, I feel unhappy and unsatisfied. When I remain the main protagonist of everything I experience bitterness and sadness.

The experience of God’s love is also an invitation to sell everything, to commit myself completely to the cause of the Kingdom: “Commit your destiny to the Lord, be confident in him, and he will act, making your uprightness clear as daylight, and the justice of your cause as the noon” (Psalm, 37:5-6).
I have discovered once againg that is not enough had left my own country…. selling everything means above all to commit the future, refusing to resist to God’s plan and assuming radically the values of the Kingdom.

It has been a conversion to the values of the Kingdom. Peace, justice, equality, respect, dignity….all these values must be assumed and lived out in the daily life. They have to become point of reference and discernment of every praxis: “I hate, I scorn your festivals, I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies. (…) Spare me the din of your chanting, let me hear none of your strumming on lyres, but let your justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-falling stream!” (Amos 5:21.23-24). Paradoxically now days, to live the values of the Kingdom is not an easy journey. It means above all to accept to live without a clear “religious” identity given by uniforms, liturgies, structures…

Furthermore, it is not a “personal” journey. Living the values of the Kingdom means to accept the gift of other people. You realize that you cannot live out justice, peace, equality…by yourself: you need other people. You need them in a way that your ‘personal’ journey becomes a people journey, a journey with others.

This particular experience of a people journey led me to discover the importance of a Liberation spirituality. The ‘Life in the Spirit’ is a fundamental element of every missionary. Living in Ash Road helped me to understand more deeply the importance of a strong relation with God. I needed to meet the Lord every day for my personal prayer…but that is not enough. Liberation spirituality helped me to understand that in every moment of my day, in every encounter I had, in every meeting, God was present. When I serve an oppressed community, when I am struggling for houses and a dignified life, when I am listening to a woman abused by her husband, in all of these moments I am present to the mystery of God’s action in history. Prayer in the Chapel is just one element of my spirituality.

To be converted to God’s love, Kingdom’s values and to a Spirituality of Liberation, cannot be split by the element of resistance. Conversion means to resist, to oppose oneself to all evil forces. Bearing one’s cross means also to assume the scandal of the cross, and what this instrument of death represents. The cross, as a matter of fact, was used by the Romans to kill rebels and criminals who opposed the politics of the empire. Thus, following Jesus means to assume his subversive and anti-imperial logic. Taking the cross means to resist, with the struggle, to a politics of exploitation.

Struggle

We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains…(Rom 8:22)

Father Teresino Serra wrote that ‘mission is a struggle’. I strongly agree with him…mission is a struggle in two ways: firstly, it is a struggle against “evil forces” and secondly, a struggle in the sense that it has to be identified with the struggles of the people. I believe that these two different ways of mission as struggle are sturdily related.

When I consider mission as struggle against evil forces I bear in mind the missionary discourses of Jesus. In Matthew the disciples are commended to ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those suffering from virulent skin-desease, drive out devils’ (Mt 10:8). Mark reports that Jesus gave his disciples ‘the power to drive out devils’ (Mk 3:15). Luke says that the disciples received ‘power and authority over all devils and to cure deseases’ Moreover, the disciples are sent out ‘to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal’ (Lk 9:1-2). Thus, mission seems to be described as a struggle against evil forces. Jesus sees the pain, oppression and suffering of the people and involves his companions in His ‘transforming mission’. One of the presumptions of the mission is that there is something wrong that need to be put right. Mission, from this point of view, is to collaborate in God’s new creation, an effort to restore God’s original plan, a plan of Love, Justice and Peace. Therefore, the missionary is called to struggle in order to overcome evil forces. The starting point for the struggle against evil forces is the reality of anti-kingdom values: inequality, injustice, war…Hence, mission is a struggle between kingdom and anti-kingdom values.

Nevertheless, the missionary cannot struggle alone or on behalf of other people. The struggle against evil forces has to be carried out WITH the people, WITHIN their situation of suffering and oppression. In one word, the struggle must be IDENTIFIED with the struggles of the people. The missionary should be clearly distinguished by NGOs. We are not ‘professionals’ of people’s suffering. On the contrary, we walk with the people with few answers and a lot of questions. The missionary ‘walks questioning’. The missionary is called to remain, to stay, to listen. He is just part of the complicate web produced by the dynamics of struggle. The impoverished people, and only them, are “the master and expert of their own poverty”. Giving dignity to the people means to accept this idea.

There is also another reason that explains why the missionary’s struggle must be identified with the struggles of the people. When we say that first of all mission is a struggle against evil forces, the logical consequence is that the missionary’s goal is to overcome such evil forces. Therefore, the ordinary struggles of ordinary people, become sacrament of God’s presence and proclamation of resurrection. When the struggles of oppressed people are understood as part of salvation history, they become way to overcome the sin of the world, instrument of God’s restoration and practical way of understanding resurrection. This is why Marcelo Barros says that in situation of oppression ‘resurrection means insurrection’.

Struggling with the people require the acquisition of several attitudes. I want to point out only two of them, those who seem to me the most important… Firstly, the missionary is called to live a strong spirituality. Secondly, the missionary has to acquire the ‘good’ habit of dialogue. Freire affirms that dialogue cannot exist without:

• Love for the world and for the people. (love avoid domination)
• Humility. (…avoid arrogance…)
• A real faith in the people (…avoid paternalistic manipulation…)
• Hope. It is important to believe in the possibility that the world can be changed. (…avoid bureaucratism…)

Others attitudes are: contextual reading of the bible, missionary animation as challenge to change unjust behaviours and challenge to involve more people for the cause of the kingdom, tolerance to frustrations, acceptance of solitude, remember that the struggle is carried out by people…people come ALWAYS first (I am not ‘struggling for houses’…I am struggling for the house of Noluthando, Nomfundo, Philani…)

New creation

Look I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you see it? Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in wastelands… (Is 43:19)

But in which way the mission, and especially the mission in Ash Road, can be identified with the struggles of the people?

In order to answer this question there is a preliminary observation to highlight. In Ash Road we are in a phase of pre-struggle. Things are moving, there are meetings, ideas, probably also willingness to struggle, but nevertheless the status quo is not yet been openly challenged. There are several reasons for this, but I do not want attempt an analysis of the situation. On the other hand, I would like to analyze my presence, my mistakes, limitations and resources.

When I think about my mistakes and limitations I cannot do without looking at Masizenzele. In managing the project we have not taken into consideration the ideas of the women. We have done everything. We have thought, we have prepared and done on their behalf. We have not made the effort of listening and questioning. We have thought that they could not think that they did not have ideas. We have reproduced the relation oppressed-oppressor. I really think that we need a conversion in the relationship with them. We have to question and find together answers.

Another limitation is my involvement with the youth committee. I realize that I am too drawn in with them. I run the risk of remaining trapped with them in the infinite discussions with no conclusions and, above all, I run the risk of being identified only as one of them. On the one hand there are meetings and discussions and, on the other hand, there is the risk of pushing my own agenda, my ideas and my vision in order to unblock the situation.

It seems to me that in the language used by those who struggle (ezln, mst, ceb, abm…) there is a strong awareness of their dignity. Within the process of struggle, perhaps somewhere at the beginning of this process, umpoverished people come to the recognition of their dignity. The humiliation which thay had forced to undergo is seen in all its cruelty and injustice. It is this recognition that move them to cry Ya basta! Sekwanele! Reforma Ja!…. (That is why … “at the beginning was the cry!”)

There is a sort of insight about their ontological goodness. They discover that they are not supposed to suffer and being humiliated the way they are. When they discover that they are intrinsecally and ontologically good and worthy of respect, they realize that their dignity has been crushed and suddenly questions come forward. It is at this moment that the languages of possibilities prevail over the “yes but! Language”.

This is not a personal recognition. People come to this understanding with others in spaces where there is a real possibility of democratic and respectful dialogue.

If this is true I need to re-think my role and my praxis.

Probably, I have to create spaces of dialogue where people have the possibility of recognizing their goodness.

“God created human being in the image of Godself, in the image of God created human being, male and female S/he created them…God saw all S/he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen 1:27.31). It is urgent to recuperate this dimension of goodness, to re-enter in the Sabbath and proclaim again the Jubilee of the Lord where the original justice is restored and the new creation is carried out by God. When Israel occupied the Land, God dreamt an economy of sharing where nobody was the owner of the land. Unfortunately, Israel forgot God’s dream and begun to behave as other nations with a King who ruled over the people and with and economy of exploitation. The prophets came to restore and rekindle the dream of God. They proclaimed God’s favour for the poor and the oppressed. They proclaim that only through a radical conversion Israel could return God’s people. Jesus came proclaiming that the year of the Lord has come, a year of favourable time, an occasion for restoring the original justice: “He has sent me…to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord” (Lk 4:19).

It is the light of the Gospel that unmasks oppression, reveals God’s plan to humanity and restores crushed dignity. That is why I believe that it is urgent to start a Bible study group.

In the process of discovering dignity, it is also important to highlight the fact that people have rights, especially the rights granted by the Constitution. Therefore, I think that could be very helpful to organize a series of workshops centred on constitutional rights (house, water, education…). We have to go back to the ideals that moved milions of South Africans to fight against Apartheid: “the people shall govern”, “the people shall share in the country wealth”, “the land shall be shared”, “there shall be houses”, “there shall be work and security” …

Practically the workshop can be structured as follow:

1. Presentation of a particular right
2. What differences with our reality? Is this right granted in our context?
3. Can we take some actions?

Working with Ash Road is sometimes difficult. You have to learn to live with complexity. There are not clear and sure solutions. Only the walk opens the path… “Camminando si apre il cammino”.