Like most of my generation, I did not choose my faith but grew in it. In Nduoni, the village on the slopes of Kilimanjaro where I grew up, one was either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Actually, most of the villages were not even mixed; they were one or the other. While my parents were Lutheran, my aunts and cousins were Roman Catholic. My parents, especially my mother, played a major role in my faith.
Our church was about two miles from home and on Sundays we – kids – walked to Sunday school early. Halfway on the way home we met our parents on their way for their Sunday worship.
Children, and adults alike, called one another and waited for each other, going from house to house.. By the time we got to church we had called on everyone from our church who was on the same route. Nobody walked to or from church alone.
Christian celebrations like Baptism and Confirmation were similarly communal affairs. The confirmands or the children baptized went to one another’s home accompanied by their parents and godparents for prayers and celebration.
The Roman Catholic Church was almost three miles away and some from the village went to mass every day at six in the morning. That was an early hour in the village. I still remember meeting the same individuals every morning as they returned home from mass and I on my way to school.
Then there was the church bell, everyday – at 12 noon. At the first strike, everything came to a halt. Those weeding their gardens and the shopkeeper in his store, any bus or truck, all came to a standstill. The people came together in convenient groups and a leader emerged from each group and led the rest in reciting the Hail Mary. Everything seemed to be well synchronized, functioning like clockwork.
We were one family but divided between denominations. My parents and uncles were Lutheran; my aunts and cousins were Roman Catholic. It is fair to say that we held those differences dearly. Many did not know much about their denomination, in terms of doctrines, theology or history. A Catholic simply knew that he or she was not a Lutheran and a Lutheran knew he or she was not Catholic. We knew ourselves by who we were not rather than who we were.
I still remember my pastor’s Reformation Day sermons – from as early as I can recall. Year after year, his sermons called on the Catholic nuns to “come out of the convents and get married”. The most fervent argument I heard from my Catholic debaters was that Martin Luther left the Catholic church because he wanted to get married.
Ironically – for my childhood pastor at least – our Lutheran diocese would eventually open a convent and establish a community of nuns even though we referred to them as “Sisters”.
Occasionally a youngster switched allegiance from one’s faith of birth to the other and thereby became a news item in the village. The church that lost a youngster through this cross-over treated it as sabotage by the receiving church. This suspicion spilled over to family and community sensibilities.
I still remember those Sunday services almost dominated entirely by reactions to a defection. The sermon and the prayers were all directed at what was labeled vain adventure. Ultimately these cross-overs and defections turned out to be no more than rebellion by the youngsters against their parents and families. Sooner or later they were reversed only to be played out again and reversed.
It is obvious that, for everyone in that village and all the Wachagga of Kilimanjaro, one’s faith was ingrained in the family and the community. I was a Lutheran because my parents raised me that way. My cousins were Catholic because their parents raised them Catholic. Those claims were repeated for everyone on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town once remarked that a person born in Saudi Arabia will most likely belong to Islam the same way one born in Italy would be a Catholic or one born in a Scandinavian country being a Lutheran.
Of course I have made my choices and decisions as I grew up – I am no longer Lutheran. Similarly, others of the same background have made decisions, to be confirmed in their childhood faith or another of their choice. The foundation that makes those decisions possible is the parents’ inculcation of principles of faith in their children.
By the time of my first visit to Jerusalem I was very ecumenical in outlook. It was a personal ecumenism though, and consisted of friendships with Catholic clerics, not officially sanctioned by our respective church bodies nor involving ecclesiastic practice. Jerusalem was not – and is not – by the way, ecumenical, but that is later.
When I discovered Fr. Liberati from Uganda at the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem (I have changed his name to respect his confidentiality) we immediately clicked and bonded. He became a good friend over the years in Jerusalem.