Hope within

I will not leave you orphans… (John 14:18)

It is estimated that in our time, there are more than 130 million children without parents.  One aid agency reports that every day ~6,000 children end the day as orphans.  In sub-Saharan Africa there are some 20 million children who became orphans because of armed conflict and disease. In Kenya there are about 700,00 orphans and 2.6 million children who have lost one parent.

The common language of all the tribes of Kenya, Kiswahili, did not have a specific word for orphans. For a long time in the history of the language the word was yatima – lit. the “sad one.”  It was the same word for widow or widower – the same word that could be used for you or me if we lost a close friend.  Yatima, the sad one.

When the Europeans came they insisted on a word to describe children whose parents had died – an orphan.  The East African people are accommodating and hospitable, so they borrowed a word from the Turkish language:  kiokote or mfiwa.  Those words describe children without parents or families – children alone in the world.

So while you might find older British colonial papers documenting someone as mfiwa, everyday Kiswahili continued to call the children yatima – because the problem was that they were sad, rightly so. Their mom and dad passed on – but they were not without family.  And even if there were no parents, there were aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Even if there was no family in the way we would think, there was the tribe.  The children might be sad, but they were never alone. They were always loved. Cared for and loved.  Always.

From our second reading, the First Letter of Peter, 3:15 tells us that we must always be ready to give the reason for the Hope that we have within us.  A part of my answer is that from time to time I might be yatima, the sad one.  I will never be mfiwa – alone.

And I am not only referring to my own biological family and my Franciscan family – although because of them I am always cared for, always loved.  I am thinking about this family called the Catholic Church.

When I first went to Kenya I had received no language training at all – at least nothing beyond Asante (thank you) and wapi ni msalari – where is the bathroom?  Of course technically msalari means an indoor bathroom with shower, etc.  I needed to learn wapi ni choo – where is the outhouse.

Despite my complete lack of language skills, I vividly remember the first Mass in Kenya. I had no idea of what they were saying, but I was home. The ebb and flow of the Mass was universal. The sign of peace was all embracing – literally. In the Eucharist I was cared for and loved.

In time I came to learn Kiswahili and take my place among the community in the slums of Nairobi – my family grew.  I gained new ndugu – brothers and sisters in Christ. Even today the church of Kenya and East Africa continues to dramatically grow.  It is like the experience Philip had in the first reading when he went to Samaria.  The Word of God was already alive and the Spirit of God was active.

The very same Spirit that so many of the post-Easter Sunday gospels have spoken about. The Spirit of Truth, the one who will teach us and remind us of all that Jesus told us.  The Spirit who binds us and ties us together, building family, building a church universal.  The Spirit who never leaves us orphans.

Our local church here at St. Francis  is a living example of the Spirit who has never left us, but builds ties of family that are not limited to just those who live nearby the church. People come from Warrenton, Fredericksburg, Culpepper, Bluemont, and points West. Yet just as the Spirit moves throughout the church, in time members of our family move to new locales – from Florida to Okinawa. We saw those bonds during the pandemic when so many former parishioners joined the live stream just to connect. It is still one family, still one church.

The parish  remains vibrant, gifted by the many parishioners and friars that have come over the years.  Each has brought new gifts of the Spirit and contributed those gifts to this family.  As they have come and gone, we are, for a while, yatima – the sad ones, but we are not orphans. Never orphans.

I will not leave you orphans… the promise has continued to describe the huge family, international, universal, local and extended that is  the Catholic Church.  2000 years later we are one family, one church.  And there it is – a part of my reason for the Hope that I have within me.

How about you? Are you “ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope?”  May the Spirit help you to discern your answer.


Image credit: Pexels, C0

1 thought on “Hope within

  1. Fr. George,
    A wonderful reflection that was also a wonderful homily at yesterday’s vigil Mass. To me it is especially powerful since it was based on your personal experience in Kenya. This, along with the other Musings I read, Bible study, and Mass in different communities gives me what I need to explain the reason I have hope. Thank you especially for this reflection. We are never orphans.

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