Following the Cross over and around the rubbish dump.
There was a heavy tropical downpour early on Good Friday morning in Jinja. I had planned to follow the stations of cross at the parish of Mbikko (Uganda), just a few miles away across the Nile river. This was going to be a joint Catholic – Anglican way of the cross. But years of missionary experience in rural Congo had taught me that when it rains on a Sunday morning only a small trickle of people living close by come to Mass, for understandable reasons. So was this going to be a failed rendez-vous? Mercifully the rain stopped towards 10 a.m.
I decided to try my luck and made my way to the agreed starting point at Njeru Town Council. To my surprise I found a number of people already gathered there waiting expectantly for what ws to come. We did not have to wait long. At about 11 a.m. the opening ceremony got on the way with a prayer and a melodious hymn. And then… It suddenly dawned on everyone that an essential item was missing: the wooden cross which different groups were to carry from one station to the other had not yet arrived! So we waited some more. It had been raining after all. Our patience was not put to the test for long. After a few minutes a battered pick-up pulled up carrying not only the expected cross but also additional powerful sound equipment.
Then we were on our way. As we would be walking along the busy highway linking Jinja to Kampala a police escort had wisely been arranged by the organisers. Such protection proved essential to guarantee the safety of the participants. All along the way huge trailers and oiltankers trundled past our steadily growing group of way-of-the-cross-farers, not to mention the steady stream of 'kamunye' taxibuses. Now that the rain had stopped the sun was blazing again at full force. Young mothers carrying babies on their backs delicately covered the heads of their charges with whatever piece of cloth came to hand.
The first group to carry the cross were the priests. I too was kindly invited to give a symbolic helping hand – the cross after all was not heavy. At each station a different group would be invited to carry the cross to the following station. Thus the professionals, the women's guild, politicians, religious, students and even the children each got their turn to lead the pilgrims to the next stage.
We passed along market stalls, in front of umpteen shops and bars, and even made one of our stops at a petrol station! Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle around us and the constant din of the traffic everyone listened attentively as well chosen gospel texts were read out in Luganda at each station. Many clutched a rosary for quiet prayer and meditation during the fairly long walks between the different stations. Others held up their own small home made crosses when we paused for prayer.
" Why are you not kneeling?", a policewoman of our escort asked me with a smile as she saw me taking a photograph of the many devout pilgrims who would kneel, even in de the mud, upon arrival at each station. I was lost for an answer.
This was really a people's way of the cross. It placed the cross smack in the middle of the daily lives and ordinary goings on of the inhabitants of Mbikko. At one station we halted close to a huge rubbish dump and passed over and around it on our way to the next station. So we got our taste of what, if my memory serves me right, is the equivalent of the biblical Gehenna. It made me think of what Mother Teresa of Calcutta once told a fellow Mill Hill missionary in India when he asked her how he could meet God.
" It will happen to you a few times a year", she told him, " that you meet someone who puts you with both feet on the ground, smack in the middle of the messiness of human existence. And you will know instinctively: I have to drop everything to attend to this person. That is a divine invitation….Does that happen to you?"
I returned humbled and somewhat the worse for wear – we walked in the blazing sun for a solid three hours and it showed on my overexposed skin – from this amazing and hugely inspiring experience. Maybe this is what Pope Francis has in mind when he speaks of the 'smell of the sheep
Fons Eppink mhm