“There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit: there are all sorts of service to be done but always to the same Lord, working in all sorts of different ways in different people.”
(1 Cor. 12: 4)
Living in The Gambia and ministering in Gambian Church opened my eyes to see the varied gifts given to people by God for use in the building up of the parish community. In 1999, I was appointed parish priest of a new parish situated in the middle of the biggest township in the country. We had little to begin with, a building that we used as a church that looked more like a warehouse and a rusting container to one side of it that acted as a general store. I still remember how deflated and confused I was on that first weekend of November 1999. A few people scattered around the church probably not really understanding my accent and I was not even able to say hello in any of the native languages of the area.
It was in the midst of confusion that God taught me that He is the one builds His Church where He wills. It was there that I saw the real meaning of the passage of scripture quoted above. People coming forward with different gifts showing a great willingness to build a local church that would in time become a powerful witness to the Gospel of Christ in a predominantly Muslim community. Since it’s inception the parish community has offered basic education, basic health care and food for the poorest of the poor as well as assistance to families who could not afford to educate their children. All of the above came about because of the willingness of so many to commit themselves to a radical living of the Gospel message in an often difficult environment. The words of Dom Helder Camara came to life for me: “Accept surprises that upset your plans, shatter your dreams, give a completely different turn to your day and who knows? – to your life. Leave the Father free himself to weave the pattern of your days.”
Roll forward the years then and I am back home ministering in a parish in Ireland. I often wonder if the variety of gifts and the all sorts of service were ever explored in our parishes. I found it and continue to find it so frustrating when people say to me “sure whatever you think Father”. I am encouraged in our parish by the work of the the Saint Vincent de Paul, by organizations like Meals on Wheels, and by the volunteers who have come forward to offers their time on committees and to help with evangelization.
Yet I believe we have a long way to go here. We seem content to continue in a model of church that focuses on maintenance. Are we content to expend all our energy on keeping the plant looking good and holding on to what served best in the past whilst ignoring the ‘God of surprises who upsets our plans’?
Recently in this parish in a series of meetings we looked at how we can best build faith communities for the future. Communities aware that we all are baptised Christians who have been given gifts by God for the proclamation of the Gospel in our times. I am unsure of how this process will end up or if we will achieve the aim of building a living faith community willing to be sent ‘two by two’ to announce the Good News in a world where the Gospel is no longer listened to.
As we go forward I look back to a small group of people in 1999 who did not really know what to do. Yet over 10 years we built from a small group of dedicated Christians to a parish that is now one of the biggest and most active in The Gambia.
Simply put, I trust that God continues to use the variety of gifts he has given to us for the announcing of the Gospel in our time.