"Is Jesus white?" That was the question that hit me the hardest. I had been sitting in the shade to avoid the hot African sun and was engaged with a young man in a conversation on issues of faith when he threw out this question. A couple of days later, on Sunday afternoon, I was chatting with a young Muslim man and, to my surprise, I was once again asked, "Is Jesus white?"
I was quick to tell both of these men that Jesus was most definitely not a white man. I explained that he came from the Middle-East and would have looked more like the Lebanese people that come to the city of Bo than a pale European like myself. Roman Catholic Church: Tikonko I added that God doesn't have a skin color. God incarnate in Christ had a skin color based on the region of the world into which he came, but all people, of all skin colors, are created in the image of God and have equal value and dignity in the eyes of God.
Where did the idea of a white Jesus come from?
The local Catholic church was locked so I took this photo from through the grates at the back of the church. The sanctuary is sparse by western standards but on the left is a statue of the Madonna and child and on the right is a print of the Madonna and child. Here in the heart of a rural community in Sierra Leone sits a western image of a white Jesus. Roman Catholic Church
The first Christian missionaries to Sierra Leone date back to the early 1600's. You'd think that by 2018 they'd have figured out a way to make it clear that Jesus wasn't a white European. Apparently not. There's still a lot of work to do if we ever hope to accurately represent Christ in the world today.
This morning at church I was given the Mende name, Kinnie Tikonko. Kinnie simply translates as "a man" and Tikonko is the village we are staying in. In 1995 the Massai of Kenya gave me the name "Oloodo" which means tall giraffe! I now have my given name and also two African names. Names matter, they provide us with a sense of identity. They tell people who we are.
While being here in Sierra Leone I have tried to get the name of every adult I have photographed as they all have stories to tell. It's a little different with the children, they all want their photo taken so I simply oblige and move on.
In one village this woman approached me as I was taking photos of the Rural Health Care Initiative Community Health Workers and asked me to take her photo. I took the photo and moved on. That moment has haunted me over the last few days. Who was she? What is her name? What story does she need to tell the world? I don't know.
It struck me that I could ask to go back to her village and find her, and learn her name and story. However I have chosen not to. Why? Because this photograph will forever serve as a reminder of how important it is to learn someone's name and listen to her story.
For that reason I have title this image, "Grace." Grace
It doesn't happen often, but today words fail me. As I sit here in Sierra Leone and hear about the words spoken by the President my heart is crushed. I wept as I rode from my hotel into the village this morning and I wept tonight as I reflected on my day and the wonderful people I met. If pictures speak a a thousand words then consider this post a little over 3,000 words long. I'll let the images speak for themselves.
Today marked my first full day in the Tikonko Chiefdom, Sierra Leone. I had my own personal tour guide, Joseph, who took me to a couple of different villages today. I have to say it was quite the experience riding on the back of his motorcycle as we navigated the well rutted dirt roads of Tikonko! Our first stop was in the village of Gbalehun. It was here that I met Mamae, Masuman and Aminata. RHCI Health Care Workers These three women are committed to helping improve health care for the pregnant women and their children. They are being trained by Rural Health Care Initiative to provide quality care for the women and children in their village.
(Aside: This is the preachy part)I believe that quite often we romanticize life in the rural villages of the developing world. When we do that it might help raise funds for the N.G.O.s that are working in those areas but the truth is that life is hard in these areas. We dare not give as charity or to justify our own exuberant lifestyles in the western world. Rather we must give because we have been blessed to have the resources to help others. We must not give out of guilt, as guilt is a poor motivator. We must not give out of pity for the people here are not to be pitied, they are a wonderful, welcoming, compassionate and caring people. Rather we must support these fine folks our of gratitude.
Bono said that an accident of longitude and latitude should not determine whether someone lives or dies. He is correct in that assessment. However, it is also true that an accident of longitude and latitude should not become a reason for an exuberant lifestyle at the expense of others. (Aside over)
Peter Dyfan, School Principal Then there's Peter. Peter works as the principle of the village elementary school. They currently have about 50 students attending the school. He is also responsible for some of the teacher training. When he's not working at the school Peter serves the local Catholic church as a Catechist. I had to ask what that was and he explained that because there is only priest who serves several villages (he happens to be a white guy so many of the kids called me "Father") on the 2 or 3 Sundays a month when the priest is absent Peter is the one with the responsibility to officiate the Mass. Peter's school is part of the World Vision Sierra Leone's Area Development Program for Tikonko. World Vision Hong Kong has been partnering with World Vision Sierra Leone since 2006 with a focus on Child Sponsorship, savings program and their WASH program.
Peter's school has a set of latrines for the students provided by World Vision that helps the whole community in learning and developing healthy sanitation practices. Something that we, western world dwellers, take for granted but is not as clear cut in a village with no running water, sewer system or electricity. Zainaba
Another program World Vision sponsors is a savings program. Each week members contribute a small amount of their earning to the program in order to develop a savings account that they can draw from when times get tough. The program is part of the investment in the economic future of the area and well being of the people. Zainaba is a member of the savings group in Gabalehun.
After leaving Gabalehun we rode to the village of Kassama. A beautiful village sitting on the edge of the Kiewa river. In this village I met another member of the savings program, Hawa. She makes her living by making palm oil. It is a labor intensive process that requires roasting/burning the beans from which the oil is derived and then pounding it to pulp that is then heated and strained to separate the oil so it can be sold in the market.
Hawa making palm oil One last person that I want to introduce you too is Kinnie. Kinnie lives in Kassama and makes his living on the river. About four times a day he makes a trip downstream to dig sand from the river bed. With a full boat he makes his way back upstream where the sand is deposited on the river bank. This sand is then sold for use in the construction industry, primarily in the cities of Freetown and Bo. Kinne
I have an 18x12 print of this image in my office and have been living with it for the better part of a year. I feel it's impact every time I look at it.
The original idea for this image came to me in late 2016 as I reflected on the tensions created in Shusaku Endo's novel Silence and Scorsese's movie adaptation of it, along with some of the song lyrics written by my friend Bryan Gormley. My hope was to create an image that juxtaposed the oppositional nature of the sacred and profane, saint and sinner, violence and peace. Broken
The theology behind this image reflects the reality that we live in a broken world, that innate sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Christians refer to this brokenness as sin.
The apostle Paul wrote, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15). What allows him to say this is not a false sense of humility but rather an acceptance of reality. The more Paul came to know and understand the holiness of God the more clearly he came to see the huge gulf that existed between his best and who God was and is in Jesus Christ.
Tragically too many Christians today take a position in which they pretend to be "better" than other sinners and are often heard castigating people for their failures. Yet Christians, more than any other group, should be the first to declare that sin is the great leveler of all people, we are all guilty. We all have the same starting point as part of humanity, created in the image of God, but due to sin our humanity is fractured and broken. So everyone has the same need to receive forgiveness and experience the grace of God.
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