No one knew why he was in Jerusalem. Perhaps he had come out of Africa to the Holy lands on business. Perhaps he came with hundreds of thousands of Jews and pilgrims to observe Passover. For whatever reason, on Good Friday, God touched Simon's life in a way that would change him forever.
Simon was from Cyrene, a major Roman coastal port in what is now Libya. He was standing along the pathway to Hill of Skulls when Jesus tumbled and fell before him. The Roman guard turned and chose Simon to carry Jesus' cross the rest of the way to Calvary. Simon's entering the drama of Christ's crucifixion, began a deep and mysterious relationship between Africa and Christ which has grown from one to more than 380 million believers by the dawn of the 21st Century. At a moment of great physical pain and mental stress, an African aided Jesus on the Via Delorosa. Now, Christ is there for Africa to bear the suffering of the poor, the marginalized, and the victims of injustice. He is there for those on the Way of the Cross who suffer for him.
Out of Africa, the church has brought forth saints and martyrs through the ages. Within the first 400 years of our faith, Africa gave some of the greatest minds and martyrs to our Christian story. In the tradition of Africans calling forth our ancestors, let us remember: St. Augustine, Monica (his mother), Tertullian, and Lactantius of North Africa, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Athanasius, St. Catherine, St. Clement, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, Sts Perpetua and Felicitas and St. Cyprian of Carthage. In this past century, John Chilembwe of Central Africa, Apolo Kivebulaya of East Africa, Festo Kivengere and Bishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, and Stephen Biko of South Africa stand out as witnesses of faith and cross bearers who have inspired and transformed entire tribes and nations of people through their witness for Christ and for justice.
Of all the saints and martyrs of Africa, Manche Masemola stands out for me as a witness for the modern Africa. London's Westminster Abbey is filled with statues of famous poets, prelates, and political leaders. Among them, since 1998 is the statue of a simple South African girl, Manche Masemola who died for her faith at the hands of her non-Christian parents. Born around 1913 in the Transvaal, Manche grew up in the barren and unproductive land left to the African people by their colonizers after the original settlers had been drive from their own farms and pastures. A member of the Pedi ethnic group, she lived with her parents, two other brothers, a sister, and a cousin, working at home and not exposed to a school education.
In 1919, an Anglican monk, Fr. Augustine Moeka of the Community of the Resurrection, established a mission in her part of Transvaal. Manche and her cousin Lucia attended services there. Soon they began to attend Christian instructional classes twice a week and their enthusiasm grew. This brought great tension into her home. Her parents had planned to follow tribal custom and select her husband in an arranged marriage. This would prove to be a great source of wealth for this poor family. As such, she could not become Christian. So, Manche's mother began to beat her each time she returned from church, hoping to force her out of her newfound faith. On February 4, 1928, the beatings ended when Manche's parents led their 15-year-old to an isolated place where they killed her, buried her, and placed a granite rock on the burial site. Soon after, her younger sister became ill and died. She was buried nearby.
Manche's story was told throughout Africa. Beginning in 1935, Christians began to visit her gravesite. In 1969 her mother was baptized and in 1975 the Church of the Province of Southern Africa added the name of Manche Masemola to its list of heroic Christians. Now each year, pilgrims come to the Transvaal to pray at the site where this illiterate but a faithful victim of parental ignorance and abuse is buried.
Over the door of Westminister Abbey, a building dating to at least the 15th Century, were ten empty niches, set among the many sculptures of saints and allegorical figures like Mercy, Truth, Righteousness, Justice, and Peace. The abbey clergy decided to honor martyrs of the 20th Century, one of the most violent centuries in human history by placing representative 20th Century Christians in this prominent place. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero of El Salvador are there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany and Maximillian Kolbe of Poland who opposed Hitler are there. From Africa, Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda and Manche Masemola represent the struggle of faith in this continent which has grown from 9 million Christians at the beginning of the 20th Century to 380 million by the Century's close. Thanks be to God for Manche Masemola of South Africa who said before her death, "I shall be baptized with my own blood" (This story and many others are found in Frederick Quinn's African Saints, The Crossroad Publishing Co., NY, NY, 2002, pp. 140-141).
Today, Africa now has more Christians than any other continent on earth. In his book on the rise of Africa Christianity, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, Yale University's Professor of History and World Christianity, writes that the faithful have reached far beyond the rational Enlightenment views that hit the continent 500 years ago. The new Christians have entered the gospel story in new ways and absorbed it with a spirituality of emotion and vitality and a faith filled with joy. They have unashamedly connected their roots in tribal and ancestral faiths to Jesus who stands with them, drives away the devil from the Spirit world, brings hope in every word, suffers with them in all the pain of their lives, and rises with them in a resurrection of the dead which brings them additional hope in troubled times. The freedom of which Paul speaks in Romans is a freedom in faith that African Christians are fully embracing. In times of oppression, the onslaught of AIDS, and the devastation of civil wars, freedom in faith fuels the dreams of the people. Of great significance, Sanneh points out, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has taken root in Africa in places like Ghana because the indigenous leaders and prophets read into it a power arising from religious tolerance and pluralism. (The Changing Face of Christianity, edited by Lamin Sanneh and Joel Carpenter, Oxford University Press, NY, NY, 2005, pp.7-10).
Last April, I was blessed to hear Dr. Lamin Sanneh in Buffalo, NY. Dr. Sanneh was born in the Gambia, West Africa. He was raised as a Muslim and his PhD is in Islamic Studies. He converted to Christianity and is a baptized Roman Catholic teaching at Yale - a University birthed by Congregationalists. Several things stick out in my mind from his lecture. First, he shared a study that done in West African tribes some years ago. He said, in tribes that have no name for God in their collective tribal experience and memory, Islam has taken root. Islam brings a name for God, "Allah," and a clear path to pray and access the holy. However, in tribes which have memory and names for God, Christianity has taken root. Christianity is, in Dr. Sanneh's words, "the most adaptable faith on earth." In Africa, Christianity is tolerant, open to other expressions, and welcoming of all. I celebrate this church and our theological tradition which, like the African church, remains open to learn from the expressive, adaptable, and tolerant faith of sisters and brothers.
Dr. Sanneh told a wonderful story from Gambia. He was working there with translators to bring the Bible to a tribe in Gambia (whose name escapes me). They came to him and said, John's Gospel needs a new translation. Where it says "the word became flesh and dwelt among us," translates, "the dead meat became flesh and dwelt among us." We have thought about this and talked with our tribal leaders. The word we have come up with is "somebody." The text now reads, The Word became Somebody and dwelt among us."
What power in this one word: The Word became Somebody and dwelt among us. What if you and I saw Christ as "Somebody?" What if we saw him in "Every Body?" If we did, I believe we would see an explosion in our Christian faith communities only matched by our African sisters and brothers. Remember Manche. Remember Stephen Biko. Remember our Savior Jesus Christ who is Somebody dwelling among us. This week, may you see Christ as "Somebody" dwelling in your home, your family, your workplace, this church. As you see him as "Somebody," I trust you will then see him in "Every" Body.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church