Nicolas Stebbing CR on the work of Tariro
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink… (Matt 25.35)
Our Lord’s words here in many ways sum up the Gospel. The “I” is Jesus, yet He tells us that He is present in every poor person, everyone who needs help. The compassion and practical help that Jesus asks of us is just one aspect of the compassion and practical help that brought Him to die on the Cross to bring us into the life of the Resurrection. The fact that Jesus identifies Himself with every one of the little ones who believe in him is a foundation stone in our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ. You cannot be a Catholic Christian without taking seriously the poor, the weak, and the suffering who are part of that same Body. Most of us do something to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. I suspect all of us know in our hearts that we could do more.
In Zimbabwe, as in most of Africa, there are thousands and thousands of orphans and children who are so poor that they cannot go to school and find the one route that may lift them out of poverty. Some of us in England and Zimbabwe run a charity called Tariro to bring hope to these young people. “Tariro” means “hope” in Shona. Without hope, children die. Many contract AIDS, or commit suicide, or die of neglect. With hope they can overcome astonishing difficulties.
Tariro works within the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and so is a way of promoting the mission of the Church in that land. In this way it also is the most practical way of opposing a wicked Government that is impoverishing the people and destroying the country. We can’t fight them on a political level, but we can prepare the next generation for a new Zimbabwe free of self-centred politics; a Zimbabwe with a Christian vision of helping the people.
Take a boy called Tinotenda. Abandoned by his parents, he arrived hungry at a priest’s house and asked not for food, but for education. He was only 11. Two years later he is in a very good Anglican boarding school, which he loves, and is doing well. Or think of Eunice, a girl who came to us at 14 with no education. She has now learned to make non-precious jewellery, which she sells to make a small living.
Then there is Anna, who inherited HIV from her parents (now dead) and at 15 has an uncertain future. But she is on medication and goes to school. We make sure she eats well and is well cared for at home, and she is an enthusiastic member of the mission youth club. She helps at Mass when I celebrate there. Meanwhile Maphosa, a boy from an Anglican children’s home who finished school with no qualifications at all, has learned to rear chickens. We have just started him off with 500 chickens to see if he can become a successful small farmer and teach others of our children to do the same.
There are 50 youngsters like these in Harare and in centres around the country. Some are still in primary school. Some have reached university and are looking for jobs. The Bishop of Tonbridge recently described our Harare house as “one of the most inspirational communities I have ever encountered.” We Catholic Anglicans are proud of our history of working with the poor, in the slums of Victorian England and in the mission fields of Africa, India, and the Pacific Islands. Even today it seems a large number of our parishes in England are in urban priority areas. It’s good to do this work as the people need it; but none of us who do the work feel heroic about it, because actually it is also fun. Our lives are made richer by the work, and we find our understanding of the Catholic faith expanded by it.
Sacraments really are sacraments of healing and salvation for the poor in Zimbabwe, who have no access to a National Health Service. Vestments, rosaries, and incense are deeply prized and valued: not as badges of catholicity or evidence of ‘soundness’, but because they give us a larger, richer picture of the God whom we worship. Life under a repressive, brutal government can be grim, but seeing ourselves as “fellow citizens with the Saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2.19) gives us hope and joy which defeat the harsh powers of the Government.
If we give, we receive. That is a well tried Christian principle. Giving money away mysteriously ends up with our having more money to spend on the Kingdom of God. Helping the poor ends up with them helping us. At the moment it is easy to feel that we Catholics are small, weak, persecuted and isolated in the Church of England. Maybe we are, but it is precisely the poor, weak, and persecuted whom Jesus said would be blessed (Matt 5.3ff). The answer to our feeling that we are small and weak is not to put up defences, or even develop strategies for “growing the Church”; it is to look outside ourselves, look for the people whom Christ wants us to serve, look to see where Christ is already working and go and work with Him, bringing with us the riches of Catholic life. Maybe Tariro and Zimbabwe can be a gift from God teaching us to be fellow citizens in the household of God.
The Revd Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community of the Resurrection. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.