Utrecht, The Netherlands
Each year in the weeks preceding Pentecost the Dutch missionary agency WNM (Week of the Dutch Missionary) organises a 'Day of Inspiration for Mission'. At this year's event which took place on Saturday 13th May in the Geertekerk at Utrecht, Fr Arnold Verhoeven mhm and Ms Ellen Schouten were the two principal speakers. Ms Ellen Schouten, a lay missionary, spoke about her intense involvement with the poor and marginalised in Venezuela whilst Fr Arnold Verhoeven shared his life-long experience of the lively faith and thriving church of Anglophone West Cameroon.
Below follows a slightly abridged version of the talk given by Fr Arnold Verhoeven mhm at this event:
Faith is a feast
Cameroon, a world of faith! It is a surprisingly different experience of Church, there is nothing western there. Let me just take you there for a moment. (Excuses for the poor quality of this video)
Clearly, the idea of a ‘western church’ in Africa can only belong in the archives. I shot this poor video in the past Holy Week at the Chrism Mass, a full five hour celebration. All the priests of the diocese come to confirm their allegiance to the bishop and they come along with the laity and religious of all deaneries, all parishes of the diocese, one large community of many, many communities. Here is a Spirit which bubbles and breezes mightily bringing power to each. It is the Spirit of Pentecost. That Spirit belongs to this Week for the ‘missionary’ who has worked for this already 50 to 80 and more years, leaving behind nothing western but a church sprung from its own soil, blood and soul. Look, this Spirit makes faith into a feast: it dances!… They and you and I.
Faith with depth
But that video shows in fact a Holy Week celebration; it is not at all ‘making fun’. These same Christians this week and all of Lent
get into the skin, the blood and pain of the suffering Jesus: every day of Lent, at 5.30 am, Stations of the Cross, full churches, you feel the emotion, they know all those prayers off head, front to back and back to front. Any newcomer sees this as typically Cameroonian.
This brings me back to an experience in my early Cameroon years. A formidable woman, over forty, came to complain about the situation in her compound. She was being pestered by a neighbour who was supposedly her friend, but there was not much friendship lost between them. My first reaction was: well, you do not need to accept all that comes. You can put things straight through traditional authority or through the law. But she was not in for that:
“Jesus has suffered horribly, accepted all that, in peace, and even forgave the wickedness on top of it all. I do the same, with him; that’s much better!”
I could not believe my ears. I was being initiated into a characteristically Cameroonian life of faith, which was above me. And I would meet it again, at a sickbed or with parents. Missionaries have brought a cool faith here, but Cameroonians have dug from deep within that faith the pure hard core of who Jesus was and how to understand and follow him. They understood him to great depth in their own way: practicing suffering, forbearance and patience is one of the outstanding powers the Cameroonian people have made their own.
Overwhelming power is powerless.
Paul says: “All I want is to know Jesus and his POWER to wake up again ánd to carry a share in his suffering.”
They go together. What that formidable woman said and did on her own, all Anglophone Cameroon (see attached map) does today as one man. In the actual struggle for their own identity they go against whatever brings on their unpalatable position: being pushed out of life. They have been asked to be ‘actively non-violent’ in that struggle. There are no provocations. During the days of their weekly general strikes, ‘Ghost towns’, they will surely not go and demonstrate, but they have and do fine things at home, peacefully. Provocations bring immediate repercussions, arrests if not killing. The trained anti-terrorist units of the army can only look on biting their teeth: this is not what they came for. Social media – and that is why ‘Internet’ was cut off – have shown the Anglophones for some time what in fact they did come for: the worst.
Mill Hill Missionary participants: Toos Beentjes, Martien van Leeuwen, Martin Koenders, Frans Baartmans
Their non-violent determination is admirable but it does not get them into the lenses of the world and its political leaders. For over three months there was no internet; it cost the business community hundreds of millions of francs CFA, stifling! Parents will not send their children to school out of protest against the present system or practice, if necessary ‘6 or 7 years!’: stifling. Several salaries have been stopped. There are arbitrary arrests, at times by 2 or 3 lorry-loads. How many deaths were there already?
Our video did not give the impression of showing a suffering people. But those people suffer and they are strong! They know it all: deception, lies, corruption and violence. But they suffer very consciously by their own choice. Their true identity must be respected and assured. Basta! The government has no more square foot of moral ground to stand on. Sadly, even the smallest mock their leaders. They are nasty; they work with traitors; they must know that after this crisis that label ‘traitor’ will remain and will have no expiry date. They are maiming this all the same Cameroonian community permanently. Clearly, money and power are more important than Cameroonians. Here is a population that suffers and knows how that must work. The church stands in the midst of them, straight and tall. The bishops have been summoned to court. Mission: one with their maltreated people, who every Friday mourn their dead, do fasting and adoration for a good solution.
First Generation local church.
Missionaries have put up a LOCAL church here; this is clearly no western church. That is what I came to Cameroon for. No doubt hindsight helps.
In my earlier days I walked where there were no roads, on foot, regularly a full month on end from village to village in the forest, across hills and rivers, ever with a message, the same message. A learning experience and a beginning. In Ojong-Arrey, a village a few days foot-trek from the road, I was fascinated by a traditional hospital. In the morning patients waited silently under the trees; at the end of the day they had all reappeared, smeared with a variety of coloured masks: beauty-masks? Health-masks? Would they be well?
In such an environment how will a missionary get a message across? Or did that come about only through our schools, our colleges? Or through our palm-oil plantations and cooperatives and a palm-oil industry?
Because our message hás become THEIR message. They did that themselves, through THEIR mission. They had distilled THEIR Jesus from the missionary message, made him their own, and then passed their new Friend from friend to friend. So mission has turned something different, from within. Now my tasks were what the local church called for.
In successive parishes there was the care for the sick, the poor, the prisoners. And these were tasks where I tried to draw more and more Christians into this work: one of the novices who worked with me in Kumba Prison is today the Coordinator for the Prison Apostolate for Africa and has in that capacity addressed the Special Synod of Bishops for Africa in Rome. Youth work, children’s apostolate, catechesis in schools and colleges as well as Church Music received structures. Local Church Music thrives. In several towns I strongly promoted and helped an ecumenical organization: JACC, Joint Action for Christian Churches, joint prayer, joint social action. I tried to also make the Clergy and Religious come together and work more effectively. In every place I led and promoted the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, till this day. And almost like a diversion I built with technical assistance a big hall in Victoria (Limbe), two parish churches, a fair size outstation church and a wing for the novitiate in Kumba.
More animation, more administration
In 2001 I was parish priest of the Cathedral Parish in Mamfe and pioneer Vicar General of that new Diocese. There were ‘no priests’. We did what we could. There was lots of coordination with the other Dioceses of the Ecclesiastical Province. The bishops produced a Provincial Catechism; I was the Vice Chairman of the Committee and had 13 years with extra work. The Bishops set up a Provincial Radio Network: I tried to stimulate the Mamfe Station of it, preparing for personnel, programme-planning and equipment.
The province had a new Pastoral Plan, quite welcome for the new Diocese of Mamfe and I made sure it implemented it as far as possible.
For one, Mamfe got an annual Pastoral Week, which turned the diocese from loose sand into a community. I was happy also to help pull the cart for the bishops’ idea of a provincial Lenten Campaign. The bishops also launched a provincial Catholic University. I tried by all means to get the faculties of Agriculture and Forestry to Mamfe, a great asset for the region, and to get those started. I did convince MISEREOR that it was the highest priority for the medical coordination at provincial level that Mamfe would have a highly qualified medical doctor. They complied with a married couple, both doctors. Thus the clinic in Mamfe had some undertaking and visionary staff and the province had someone to put the new provincial mutual health insurance scheme, BEPHA, well on the road.
Obviously all this had absorbed me, yet in 2010, these programmes collapsed and I had to withdraw as did Mill Hill. The new bishop of Mamfe blames that collapse on the far too youthful clergy which came up, – less than three years ordained but they determined all the policy-making. Fortunately he has restored ALL of those programmes. And also Mill Hill is back for a missionary challenge in Kembong and the still ‘blank’ mission territory in the Obang Hills.
The power of the seed
In 2001 I was the sole priest with the pastoral responsibility of almost 150 places. Today, 16 years later, that parish is 15 parishes, all with a priest or priests, a parish church, a presbytery and transport. The church bursts out of its seams. It grows fast but because of the pastoral plan: solidly. Every Sunday is a feast. The church is a home to relish and enjoy. It starts in the family and then the SCC, Small Christian Community. The three year initiation programme, I am producing, makes this is the heart of church life. Church is Small Christian Community and Friendship and lives that from day one. Christians use all they have to build community, with faces and names and activities. That works with immediate effect. Vocations to the priestly and religious life are abundant. Lay people make Church life move on from friend to friend. Their amateur Church Music has great and ambitious aims and is pure joy, often overwhelmingly so: students’ choirs, youth and children’s choirs, massive and brilliant. And above all many lay persons, also the young, do indeed know their faith well.
And if you fall outside the boat?
Unfortunately it takes long before all realize that there are people who should also belong to their feast, but are left outside and there are also those who do lapse. They above all need us, and are our first aim.
We in Cameroon do have our “Radio Evangelium”. We hear it broadcasted every day and many times: “Radio Evangelium, Bearer of Good News, News that brings joy”. But the climax, the ‘MISSION COMMAND’ of that quotation from the Gospel of Luke is left out:
“A joy to be shared by all the people”!
That mission of joy, our mission, is not finished as long as it has not reached the last person. Joy that has not embraced all, digs a dagger into its own back. The world cannot get better by locking doors for others, because we cannot or will not believe in them. Once that begins to happen you feel the dagger already entering; this is a kill-joy. That understanding must be very much part of our understanding and message of mission today with its re-emerging hyper-nationalism.
Third generation mission: a great reunion.
Joy is mission. Overflowing joy is overflowing mission. I AM MISSION, says pope Francis.
Today I help form young Mill Hill Missionaries for the youngest generation: Cameroonians, Philippinos, Indians, Congolese, Ugandan, Kenyans. Young Mill Hillers continue a tough existence, hardened, persevering, working in the most difficult circumstances: South Sudan, the platina mine region of South Africa, the Karimajong in Uganda, the West Coast of Kenya under constant threat from Al Shabab. By comparison my treks through the forest were pure luxury and enjoyment.
For fifty years I have been welcome in Cameroon. Will these young missionaries be welcome? Where? The West? The West will be beautiful mission territory, as soon as it is integrated into ONE glorious mission-undertaking, true world-mission: each one in his/her own place, international, multi-cultural, global, feast, Church.
The world is our jobsite, here and everywhere; it is our terrain set aside for the celebration. Wherever we meet enthusiasm for mission it must become ours through direct infection: get near it, bring it near, we need the infectious drive of others in our local community.
Anything against that community is against mission; we must be alert and we must persistently and irresistibly promote the togetherness. Everyone who wants to join us is welcome and deserves our support, Mission Together, Our Mission. And a Better World, here and everywhere.
Fr Arnold Verhoeven mhm