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Catholic radio and the choices we make


Life decisions are never made once, my mother insisted. They are made over and over again every day through every small thing we do. Sometimes we get so tranquilized by life, however, that try as we might, we miss the meaning of them. It just happened to me, for instance.

Just before I left for Africa, I read with interest the June 5 NCR article on the creation of the Catholic Radio Network. CRN, the article reported, is “America’s largest system of radio outlets with a Catholic orientation.” Operated by professionals, subsidized to the tune of $57 million dollars by “nationally prominent Catholics,” situated to begin in September in 10 major cities from New York to Los Angeles and intent on reflecting an “orthodox, conservative” voice of Catholicism in the United States, the operation promises to be an effective one.

It will, organizers say, concentrate on evangelization. Catholicism, I could see, was joining the ranks of Radio-TV evangelists and the 1,240 stations that air religious content at a very sophisticated level. I was impressed. Then, I came here. To South Africa. I began to think about all of it again.

On a side street of Rustenberg -- “the AIDS capital of South Africa” is how some describe this city -- there is a small cement block building. From this spot Finbar Murphy of the de La Salle Brothers, an order dedicated to the teaching of poor youth, and once a happy high school teacher himself, also began to realize the value of radio.

In a population of squatter camps and far-flung tribal villages, radio represents the one steady voice from the outside world. So Finbar opened a radio station and a newspaper, too, as living witnesses to a new Africa and a vocational education that plays for keeps. He hired young blacks and turned them into radio announcers, business managers, reporters and publishers. They transmit to an audience of 85,000 young people every day.

I walked through the station’s bare rooms, saw the three small computers they’d been using to put out their newspaper but which, having been destroyed by a computer virus, were dark now. I saw the one small production studio where a young African woman sat, earphones at the ready, waiting to begin the next transmission. I sat at Finbar’s small wooden desk in front of a stack of telecommunications bills that he hesitated to open.

Murphy doesn’t have the money to pay them until the next handout comes from someone in some other part of the world, so why bother?

But I saw two other things, as well -- a mission statement mounted on cardboard and a copy of the The Sunday Independent, one of South Africa’s major newspapers. The mission statement of little Mafisa -- translated The Sharing Word -- spoke of another dimension of religious radio programming. This statement says that the station will “bring gospel values to bear on issues of social justice.”

To be specific, the statement goes on to announce that it will “break the culture of silence and question the status quo, which still leaves the majority disempowered.” The statement promises that Mafisa will “critique and evaluate the performances of public figures.”

Those are big words for a small system, a poor station, but the young African staff takes its mission seriously. In fact, they are leading public opinion on what would otherwise be some very private oppressions.

The Sunday Independent confirmed the truth of Mafisa’s mission statement. A major story in its July 5 edition was a story that had been broken by Mafisa on one microphone and with one computer. A village woman, a Jehovah’s Witness, the story reports, has been confined to her house for 11 months because, as a Christian, she refuses to practice the tribal custom of sprinkling herbs in her pathway each time she leaves her house as a sign of mourning for her dead husband. The tribe holds her responsible for the present drought and believes that her lack of fidelity to tribal customs threatens the fertility of their livestock. They are “against her religion,” she insists.

Mafisa insisted that this is a violation of human rights, a recent concept in Africa. The woman’s case is now before the courts.

Finbar, meanwhile, expects a visit of protest from the local chief of the 250,000-member Bakgatla tribe. But the miracle has already been performed: A village widow is being heard by the world because a little radio station has made itself the mouse that roared.

I couldn’t help but wonder if all our millions of Catholic dollars for Catholic programming will do as much, will do as clearly, will do as well for the poor as they will for the pious or the disaffected or the traditionalists or the moralists. I wondered if CRN will do the gospel while talking about it.

Meantime, Mafisa is beginning to work on a series of reports that will expose the effects of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on South Africa and the region of their listenership. No doubt there will be more visits of protest to Finbar’s office. But Mafisa does not mind. They seem to know, too, that life decisions are never made just once, that they must be made every day, over and over again in every smallest action.

Watching us develop communication centers the emphasis of which, unlike that of Mafisa, is on dogma and doctrine in an age perilously close to creating a permanent underclass even here, it makes me wonder what kind of life decisions we ourselves are making in the name of the gospel.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998