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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

The Christian cost of rooting out polygamy


Just as gays and lesbians have fallen prey to uncharitable language, many other people have been wounded rather than healed by the way the Good News has been presented to them.

In Zambia, Joseph Milimo, 72 years old and a member of the Tonga tribe, is one of those otherwise good Catholics who still nurse the shock of their first encounter with Christianity. Spend just a little time with him, and soon you taste how wounded he feels about it. Listen to him:

I was only a small boy at the time. But I remember very well how all of sudden Fr. Jean-Paul became a regular visitor in our compound. No doubt, there was something he was looking for. We suspected it.

In those days, very few people were literate in the area. My father was among the privileged few. And that was the reason for Fr. Jean-Paul’s visits. He was courting my father.

Fr. Jean-Paul began first with making it clear to my father that unless we accepted the Good News he had brought and were baptized, the whole family would have to perish in hell. The priest had a clear picture of how God would deal with the unbelieving people in hell, so horrifying a place as he described to us. We just couldn’t risk it. We would rather be baptized. But my father needed to do more than that. He would have to use his gift, the ability to read and write, to help others as a catechist to be saved too.

Apart from the thrill of being poured with holy water on the head, anointed with chrism, given a lit candle and a white cloth, which together made the rite solemn, there were other things that could not leave my father unmoved.

If he would accept being a catechist, he would be sent for training. On coming back, he would be given a cassock, a bicycle and would be entitled to a few coins as monthly allowance. This was something in those days.

Fr. Jean-Paul succeeded in winning my father’s heart. However, my father had no idea what that would cost him.

Before my father could be baptized, he had first to conform to the way of life demanded by the priest. The way we lived, the priest had convinced my father, was not good for a Christian, much less for a catechist.

In our compound, there were two houses: one for my father’s senior wife and the other for my mother. From the two households altogether, we were 14 children. We all knew one another and lived as brothers and sisters. We never felt we came from different mothers. They were mothers to all of us. Whenever one was not around, we were sure of the same care from whoever remained. How beautiful it was to see how the two mothers loved each other. They were like sisters.

We had only one family field that we cultivated and we always had enough to eat. As a family, we were morally exemplary in the village and we commanded a lot of respect. This is the life that the priest was not satisfied with.

We lived happily like that till he disturbed us.

One day we were bereaved -- impoverished by the absence of one mother forever. My mother was sent away in order to pave way for my father to be baptized, receive Jesus and become a catechist.

This meant nothing to Fr. Jean-Paul. He told my father that according to canon law, there had never been a marriage between him and my mother. This is what hurts me even after being a Catholic for 60 years. When I was still young, I only suffered the pain of missing Mother and the embarrassment of seeing her married later to another man whom certainly she never loved as she had loved my father. But the more I grew up and began to reason, the more bitter I became about the church. It is not just because of breaking up the family. There was something else.

In my culture, you are either born in marriage with all the respect that gives or out of wedlock with all the scorn.

So even if he never said it, for Fr. Jean-Paul to tell my father he had never been married to my mother, the implication was clear: I am a bastard, with all the contempt that the word implies. This is the shock of my becoming a Catholic. It gnaws at my heart.

The case of Milimo is simply one of many people, especially in Africa, who have been hurt in a similar way. It’s a pity if this is all people are made to remember about their encounter with what is supposed to be the Good News.

The statement made many months ago by 23 Chicago priests who called on the hierarchy of the church to use kind language regarding gays and lesbians should be a universal invitation to all church members, as the body of Christ, to minister to the people of God with the gentleness of Jesus, who did not break the crushed reed or snuff the faltering wick.

Evans K. Chama is a freelance writer living in Zambia.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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