Thursday, 29 January 2015


I have been reflecting on the mendicant orders. Just like no one wants to eat pig, but they will will eat pork, mendicant is a much more refined word for begging.

It started in Africa. An Egyptian, St Anthony was the first of the “desert fathers”. Around 300 AD he became a recluse, acting alone, not asking anyone to join him.

The first one to actually organize a monastery was Pachomius, about 320 AD, also in Egypt.

The first monastery in Europe was started by an African – St Athanasius – in about 335 AD. He was in exile, in what is now Germany.

St Martin started the first monastery in France around 350 AD.

St Augustine was the first to form a celibate community, in 395 AD. It was another first for Africa – in Hippo.

St Patrick Christianized Ireland starting in 432 AD, after ministry preparations in Gaul. His use of Abbeys was unprecedented – the Abbots were the main church leaders, as opposed to the European configuration which organized dioceses around bishops.

It was not until around 550 AD that Canadorius deployed monks for the first time in the translation of manuscripts.

During the so-called Dark Ages, around 575 AD, the Celtic Church re-evangelized Europe, founding 40 monasteries. Pope Gregory I noted that the Celtic monks were the first to dress differently, with robes and distinctive haircuts. He was the same pope who promoted the rigorous Benedictine Rules, which had been formulated by an Abbot by that name.

Bible Translation
Concurrent to these dates was another phenomenon – the emergence of Bibles in the vernacular. This is often associated with the much-later Protestant Reformation about the time that the printing press emerged, but the truth is that several translations had been undertaken long before that.
Armenia was the first nation to declare itself Christian, in 303 AD.  By 400 AD, the Bible had been translated into that language.

Around 340 AD, Bishop Ulfilas translated the Bible for the Goths. This is at the root of Gothic influence over church and community life for many centuries – particularly in  architecture.
When St Jerome translated Scripture into Latin, in 405 AD, it was still a live language. Too often his Vulgate is remembered as part of the “hocus pocus” syndrome that emerged - long after Latin ceased to be spoken in streets and homes, like Hebrew before it. But at the time this translating was done, it was part of a trend have scripture into the vernacular.

So it was only a question of time before Canadorius thought of deploying monks in the translation of manuscripts.

From Self-denial to Self-reliance
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum...

Ignatius, who was the first person to coin the phrase “catholic church”, was also the first to distinguish between the offices of bishop, elder (presbyter) and deacon. He saw the bishop reflecting God's role, the elders reflecting the role of church councils, and deacons reflecting the ministry of Jesus. Structure was starting to set in, although a quick look at I Timothy 3 and Acts 15 will confirm that this thinking was in line with practice and teaching in the early church. Like Tertullian, who coined the phrase “trinity”, such new concepts and structures were evolving during the turbulent era after the Apostles and before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, in 312 AD.

In 361 AD, the last pagan emperor ascended. From 363 onwards, all emperors were Christian. At this time there were various bishops and none was paramount. Thus the rise and fall of various heresies and tendencies, as these were debated and defended.

By 390, St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, actually excommunicated the emperor! This was a far cry from a persecuted, underground early church.

Leo I became the first pope – in 440 – by declaring the supremacy of the bishop of Rome. By that time, Patrick was already evangelizing Ireland! There was no pope yet at the time that he set out from Europe to evangelize the emerald isle, where he had previously been captive in slavery.


The following centuries see the Roman Church asserting its predominance – over the emperor and the state, the Church of Ireland, the Eastern Church and even crusades against Islam. In the same way, the Vulgate became the paramount translation, even when and where most people no longer understood it! The self-denial of the desert fathers gave way to self-reliance in the monasteries (ora et labora – pray and work) and to self-indulgence on the part of bishops and popes. That is the background to the mendicant orders...

From Desert Fathers to Urban Brothers
St Francis of Assisi was quite an amazing person. He saw through it all; self-gratification had replaced self-sacrifice. He questioned the pursuit of wealth and political power – when most people received stones after asking for bread. He looked for a way that was opposite to institutionalization and alliance with the state. This meant that he had to steer clear of both the wealthy Bishops engaged in the intrigues of city life, and also the powerful Abbots whose isolation was no longer in a cave like St Anthony, but in a position that dominated rural life. He started a poverty movement.  As Jesus had told his disciples: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
“Go and preach, 'The Kingdom of God is near!' Heal the sick, bring the dead back to life, heal those who suffer from dreaded epidemics, and drive out demons. You have received without paying, so give without being paid. Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar's bag for the journey or an extra shirt or shoes or a stick. Workers should be given what they need.” (Matthew 10: 7 – 10)

It was a rebuke. There were portents of Ghandi's non-violence in his approach. It was called “mendicant” - that nice word for begging. The Franciscans called themselves brothers, not fathers. They did not retreat into the wilderness, they engaged in community servicve. They were activists, not just pietists. Their lifestyle was as much a witness as anything. It spoke volumes about their faith. They didn't just believe in miracles, they counted on them.

Post-Modern Mendicancy
We live in a different time, but there are parallels. I read in Wikipedia this week that Evangelicals now outnumber both Catholics and “main-line” denominations in America. They are only outnumbered by Fundamentalists. But the real discovery for me was that there is now a new movement called the “emerging churches”, whose members are referred to as “emergents”. While this came as a surprise to me, it is familiar, for the Africa-Initiated Churches (AICs) are a force to be reckoned with in my part of the world. The biggest denomination in South Africa is the Zionist church. It took the gospel from missionaries who came from Zion, Michigan (not Israel!) and like Francis in his era, it re-invented the church. Not only has Africa been Christianized, but Christianity has been Africanized. It sounds like these "emerging churches" are something of a rebuke to the institutional church as well.

But how can you translate scripture, preach (especially in the expensive media), heal, raise the dead, treat dreaded epidemics (especially when anti-retroviral drugs are so expensive) and drive out demons when you have no currency or commodity reserves? You can't even take a guitar case with your guitar – so bunking for money at the subway stations is ruled out!  There goes the self-reliance factor of the monasteries.

Jesus has a plain explanation: “Workers should be given what they need.” Ya, but by whom? Government? Philanthropic foundations? Churches? Generous people? The beneficiaries?
In today's world, "riches in heaven" is a bit of a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. So does fundraising come across as a kind of mendicancy? To beg for resources, you no longer have to take an oath of poverty - the emphasis has shifted to tax deductibility. This certifies two things – that you are a bona fide nonprofit, but also that the donors themselves can benefit from being generous. It gets confusing.  I just hope that the emergents can get a handle on it!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Disaster Watch

My first disaster-related assignment was in 1985 with World Vision.  The Horn of Africa drought of 1983-1984 was so severe, it eclipsed what had happened in Mozambique.  A combination of drought and detrimental government policies brought that communist country to its knees, and I suddenly found myself deployed in a huge Relief and Rehab operation, the biggest that WV had at the time.  We handled a lot of food and other commodities.  I was introduced to Logistics as a way of supporting peace, not war.  We worked in conditions that were dangerous and uncertain.

One thing really impressed me during those years, before I moved on to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and started working the other end of it - in A Christian Response to Hunger.  People's needs - when disaster strikes - are so basic, that Survival needs take over higher levels of need like Security and Socialization (vis Maslow's hierarchy of needs).  As a result, one rarely even has time to talk to beneficiaries or comfort them – simply due to the tyranny of the urgent.

So I have been a disaster watcher ever since, and enjoyed some years of mentoring by Dr Ian Davis of the Oxford Centre for Disaster Studies.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was a case of “Physician, heal thyself” because no country delivers more aid to other countries than the USA.  And yet, it stumbled a bit, and learned a lot about managing major disasters at home instead of abroad. 

Of course, in a natural calamity like a hurricane, even those charged with disaster response can't escape.  Communication lines go down and emergency response teams can end up cut off and working somewhat autonomously, even though disaster management functions in theory like the military -  in a fairly centralized, orchestrated way.  (Logistics didn't – and did - find its way into disaster management by accident!)  One such response team in New Orleans was stranded in a stadium for some days during that hurricane, and just kept on operating – with distinction – until their heroism was later discovered.

Last week I watched a CNN weatherman point out on the map a huge storm at sea that was headed in the direction of Burma.  Then it hit the peninsula...  Yesterday I heard that a school collapsed in China and killed 900 children.  I suspected that there was more to this than the first reports...  Today I watched the news at lunch time and they reported bombs exploding in Jaipur.  Seven deaths were reported.  But by supper time, this was up to dozens.

It really hit me – how the numbers keep rising in disasters.  People are bereaved, bewildered and in a state of shock.  But survival needs are paramount – medical care, drinking water and food.  Perhaps out of sight some people in distress may receiving counseling or prayer, but the main focus is always to find more survivors and to get water and sanitation services working again.

The first plug I am going to make here is for you to give generously through those who are positioned to intervene.  I see that World Vision was already working in Burma.  I have also heard that EMAS (Evangelical Medical Aid Society) has representation in Hong Kong. God knows that they have been working in China for many years.  Take your pick; don't miss your cue. 

Slow Onset Disasters
In China, children went off to school yesterday morning routinely.  By the end of the day, they were no more.  Fast-onset disasters are a terrible thing, burying children in the rubble of a school.

Whereas the famine in Mozambique that was my doorway into disaster management took some time to cause loss of life.  (Although in the end, over 100,000 lives were lost in Tete province alone.)  This is different from an earthquake or cyclone.  For one thing, you have some lead time and the opportunity to mitigate the effects of disasters.  But there is a dark side to this – they can go unnoticed.  They lack the shock-value that fast-onset disasters have.  In this sense, they are even more cruel.

Without meaning to diminish what millions of people in Asia are trying to cope with this week, let me remind you that 60,000 people are dying every week in Africa of HIV/AIDS - 6,000 of these in South Africa alone.  The loss of life every week in Africa is roughly equivalent to the combined cyclone and earthquake in the past week in Asia.

This has been going on for several years, and is likely to keep rising for another decade or more.  It is not a case of school children failing to return home one day.  It is manifested in other ways, like drops in life expectancy.  In Swaziland, this has sunk to 28 years of age - hidden away in bedrooms in the shadows of a stigma.

I have wondered about the ethics of even writing this bulletin.  I could be accused of insensitivity.  Forgive me if you find it offensive.  That is not where I am coming from. But those who can remember the media images of the Great Famine in Ethiopia know how deadly slow-onset disasters can also become. 

One key aspect of dealing with the slow-onset disaster of HIV/AIDS is that there is no shortage of time for counseling.  Blessed are the comforters, for they shall be comforted.  It starts with giving advice to people to be tested voluntarily.  It includes counseling those who are sero-positive in terms of their lifestyle and treatment options.  Then there is comforting for those who are assailed by opportunistic infections, or who reach full-blown AIDS.  It doesn't end there, either, there is care for the bereaved,  especially when they are orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).  They basically need therapy and huge doses of TLC.

Typically of disasters, the emphasis in response to HIV/AIDS is on things you can count.  Condoms instead of sacks.  Numbers treated with ARVs instead of number of tents distributed in a refugee camp.  Morbidity and mortality rates.

The field of psycho-social support is relatively uncharted terrain.  As such, it is not as high on the priority list as it is on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

OVC care is sometimes seen as the last vestige of the disaster, at the end of the line.  In fact, it can also be seen as the first steps of reconstruction and disaster mitigation.  For disaster is cyclical, not linear.  Put another way, orphans need protection and conditions of safety more than they need institutions or adoption.         

I know that mega-resources are needed urgently for Burma and China and I pray that the commodities needed can reach people in real time.  Since I remember that detrimental government policies were one of the causes of famine in Mozambique, it does not surprise me that Burma's military dictators seem to be more part of the problem than part of the solution.  The failings of government in South Africa, especially its delays in rolling out ARVs, are legendary, and continue to complicate getting access to adequate resources.

This month is Asia's month.  Give to survival needs in Burma and China.  But don't forget Africa next month, and don't ever forget the psycho-social needs of orphans and vulnerable children.  These will keep rising for at least another decade.  The scale is unprecedented, so much so that even the media and technology of today can't manage to convey it.  The terrain is uncharted, so there is still danger and uncertainty.  That is just a reminder that AIDS is a disaster, not just another STD.