Thursday, 22 July 2010

A question of hope

There are many reasons not to have hope. In the West, our political institutions are founded on a certain hopelessness. Life is “nasty, brutish and short”, as Hobbes said, and so we need a strong state to keep us from tearing each other apart.

350 years since Hobbes was writing, new economic opportunities have not given any new ray of hope. Increases in economic well-being have seen a mirrored rise in suicide, divorce, abortion, depression and euthanasia. Go to where people are best off materially and it is hard to find suspicions of a utopia just around the corner.

But people of faith do believe a utopia is just around the corner and this makes them strange.

Yesterday I took tea with two men of Nairobi whom I had met at the Holy Family Basilica. They showed me to a café, asking me to keep my bag close as we paid the equivalent of 15p each for tea to a cashier behind an iron grill. They were interested in Europe and how things are there and I tried to explain it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

“People are very wealthy in Europe but at the same time many are quite poor,” I tried to explain. “There aren’t many morals—a kind of spiritual poverty.”

I had met Patrick, one of the two companions, last year when he had approached me after Mass to ask for a job. Last week, over coffee between us two, he had opened to me his thoughts about the ups and downs this year had brought.

“You see, the problem is work. I have no job and I look around and see lots of people with lots of qualifications. Me, I have no qualifications, no education.”

Patrick was not born in Nairobi but came here like so many others to find new opportunities.

“Offices are looking for young people with education. I am not young so they are not interested in me.”

But Patrick had said there had been ups as well as downs so I ask him what the ups have been.

“The good thing is that I know Jesus Christ is looking after me. I have been praying, you know, praying for my salvation. I know Jesus is watching over me and that things can get better.”

I would normally dismiss this as cheap testimony, the sort of testimony you might get from a washing powder advert. But I can’t because the poverty around me is real and I know this is his burden on a daily basis. Really, he hopes in Christ.

“Even now,” Patrick concludes, “I am grateful to God for meeting with you here.”

These rumbles of lives filled with hope are difficult to avoid. Yesterday I entered the Basilica through the side entrance and was cornered by a girl of no more than 8 years old who displayed twice the sneakiness of any distributer of the London Evening Standard.

“Please sir, I would like to ask if you will sponsor me for Youth Empowerment.”

And inside, the church is never empty. A nun passes me a booklet with words of the rosary of divine mercy. She has highlighted the lines of response to make it easier for me. Going to confession I have to wait 30 minutes in the queue and at the end the priest tells me to ask the others to go to the other confessional because he has to start saying the Mass.

Faith is tied with hope. This is a problem for many who want Africa to develop. Faith is seen as a distraction to the pursuit of profit, blinding people from their economic situation.

But here one cannot help feeling that faith and hope are worthwhile. In fact, people of faith are the most in touch with the poverty that surrounds them. They know it and they breath it. They want to fight economically, not just for themselves—like a capitalist—but for everyone they know. They can think to their own welfare and others’ at the same time, because they have hope.