Church in Africa models value of human encounter

By Tom Ryan

A recent trip to visit students in Tanzania reminded me of a powerful image I once saw in the chapel of the Jesuit novitiate in Benin City, Nigeria (see image below).

My first reaction was to notice that it portrayed Jesus as African and so it spoke to me of inculturation.

In the Incarnation, God became human in Jesus in a particular culture, at a particular time and so needed, fundamentally, to fit in so that the eloquence of his life and words would make sense to that audience then.

Following that example, those who announce the Good News now of God’s unfailing love need to do so in ways that their audiences can grasp.  They, no, we need to inculturate the Gospel message so that it can be understood by people today.

Indeed, the Good News as we receive it now was not how Jesus initially delivered it. His was not the music of New Orleans’ black Catholic churches, nor of the Dameans, nor of praise and worship music, nor of Gregorian chant. All these can convey the Gospel; none is the final word on its musical representation.

One could argue that picturing Jesus as African is idolatrous in that it creates God in Africans’ image (analogous to how Jesus is often pictured as European, even in Africa!). Yet, danger lurks in its opposite, iconoclasm – the refusal to depict Jesus or God or any human figure – which suggests the incapacity of the created order to point to its creator, a lie that the Incarnation rejects. And so portraying Jesus as African (or American or Asian) conveys some, though not the whole, truth about God’s salvific will.

Yet, the more I’ve reflected on this image, the more I realize that something more is at play. It’s not just that Jesus is African; he’s also addressing St. Ignatius Loyola.

The crucified one, mapped onto Africa, suffers, yet he also acts. And St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, receives from, learns from this African Christ.

And that is the second insight, that we like St. Ignatius have much to learn from the Body of Christ, the Church, in Africa.

I have been privileged to travel to Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. I have done so to visit our African students, some of whom are Catholic religious sisters who study online with classmates from the United States and Asia as part of a project whose purpose is to build social media and leadership capacity in communities of women religious (see gps.loyno.edu/lim/communicating-charism).

And I have visited Africa to learn. From the constant greeting of “Welcome” in Nigeria and “Karibu sana!” (You are most welcome) in East Africa, I have learned about hospitality.

I have learned that liturgy need not be simply the recitation of prescribed words and the enactment of sober body movements (stand, sit, kneel, repeat).

If our God is a God of wonder whom all creation, in its exuberance, rightly gives praise, why wouldn’t we be enthusiastic in our praise not only with our words but also with our bodies?  African liturgy, in my experience, sets a powerful example of such.

Finally, I have learned about time, which, in my North American experience, often trumps relationships. My schedule often dictates my human interactions.

I noticed the opposite on my most recent trip to Tanzania. Chance encounters interrupted our schedules, but they also allowed us to meet and interact with people we otherwise might not have met. My hosts took time and directed it to strengthening bonds with people they knew and to drawing me into those relationships.

Similarly, on the final day, the superior of the community I visited accompanied me on the two-hour roundtrip to the airport. She could have relegated this task to the other sister traveling with me.  Or she could have tackled the pile of work on her desk, but she did not and said that it would still be there upon her return; I would not be.

This image suggests a third insight, namely, about encounter. This is a favorite theme of Pope Francis who says that through encounter with others, particularly the most vulnerable, we encounter Jesus and through him the Trinity.  As Moses and others have learned, encounter with the living God is life changing.

So, this image does not simply depict Jesus as African and suggest that the Body of Christ in Africa has much to teach us. It also invites us into relationship, into solidarity, with all people and with all creation in a way that can transform how we live so that they like we can flourish.

Dr. Tom Ryan is the director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at tfryan@loyno.edu.

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