Lately, I have been going to mass at Old St. Pat’s, just west of the Loop in Chicago. The priest tonight talked about “reclaiming humanity,” and it reminded me of another place much warmer than here. One of the most human moments I have ever witnessed happened at a historic church in Zanzibar called Minara Miwili or St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It happened because of a tragedy.
Two years ago in February, when I was living in Zanzibar a priest was shot and killed. His name was Father Evaristo Mushi. The international news media shared the story of his death under headlines about “religious tension,” “brave Catholics,” and “extremists,” without any knowledge of who the shooters were. A small handful of American newspapers shared the story of his life, since he had lived in places like Pittsburgh and St. Petersburg. I attended his funeral mass with a close friend, and I admit that I was nervous. When we arrived, there was a crowd lined up the whole way down the narrow, ancient street. My nerves disappeared when we saw what everyone was wearing. I regret not having a camera at the time, but no one cared about cameras that day. The only people who did bring cameras were journalists who snapped away when the politicians arrived, quickly shook hands next to the casket, and shuffled away from the place immediately. It is incredible to me that no one bothered to photograph the much more meaningful attendees, who were the hundreds of women in matching kanga.
A kanga–or khanga–is a traditional cloth worn by Swahili women. Each one comes in a pair, and is a multi-purpose textile beauty. Each one also comes with a caption called a jina. What left me in awe was the hundreds of bright red kanga with the following caption:
“Mungu tupe imani tupendane duniani”
It means “God give us faith, let us love each other in this world.” Yes, all that sentiment in five rhyming words. In five written words, hundreds of women showed that they were beyond hatred. They were beyond violence and “religious tension.” A beloved member of their community was murdered, and they did not ask for revenge. They showed up by the hundreds wearing a message of unconditional love and human unity. A faith leader was dehumanized through assassination, but those women responded by reclaiming their humanity.
The church was so packed that my friend and I sat on the floor in the middle of an aisle. Some of the fans were broken, and it was hellishly hot. But, we stayed because we were there to reclaim humanity with our fellow humans.