Xenophobia, and oneness in Christ

I had only the vaguest notion of what xenophobia even meant when I came across it, decades ago, working on my book about the Mozambican church. An old Swiss missionary, Pierre Loze, drafted an article entitled ‘Why the Xenophobia of the Portuguese People in Relation to Mission Work in the Portuguese East Africa Colonies?’ It was a fascinating manuscript (at least to me), but xenophobia sent me straight to the dictionary.

Xenophobia: ‘fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.’

‘Fear and hatred’ seem a bit strong to me. True, xenophobia reveals itself in extreme ways around the world, and it has certainly made it into the South African vocabulary in recent years, leading to violence, as it has made it into the United States, with all sorts of bizarre expressions that suggest fear and hatred.

'Oneness in Christ' in Botswana: Batswana, Ghanaians, Gambians, Malawians, Zambians, and Americans

But there are certainly degrees of xenophobia. In these lesser degrees it is present in Botswana. When Zimbabweans crossed the border into Botswana during the grave economic and political difficulties there, mixed into a genuine generosity of spirit was a strong degree of resentment. And even for ‘foreigners’ who have placed their roots firmly into Botswana soil, there remains a distance. I wrote a Diary entry back in 2010 about the Callenders, from Guyana, who have served in Francistown for decades. ‘I have spent over half my life here,’ the wife says. She smiles. Then she adds: ‘I am told that it does not matter; I will always be an outsider.’ This is not ‘fear and hatred.’ But it does carry with it a sense of identity that excludes, a rejection of others who are not ‘one of us.’

For us Christians, this is tricky. Back in the nineteenth century – the great missionary century – Henry Venn, the head of the Church Missionary Society (which had such a profound influence upon African Anglicanism), declared that the goal of the missionary enterprise was to create a Church that was ‘self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.’ Missionaries ended up taking a long time to get out of the way of what Venn called ‘an indigenous church’ – he was one of the first to use that term – but the vision was there. And what may appear to be xenophobia in some church circles today is actually an assertion of a contextual identity. In that circumstance, Batswana are the ones who are ‘us’ in Botswana, and those of us who come from elsewhere may be partners, and may be welcomed, but we cannot demand that Batswana consider us ‘one of them.’ We are not indigenous. They are. For those on the receiving end, this can be painful.

To me this situation is understandable when we consider that the Anglican Diocese of Botswana has taken a long journey toward becoming ‘self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing.’ It was only a bit over 40 years ago that it became its own diocese. Previously it fell under the Diocese of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe and the Diocese of Kuruman in South Africa. Until the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Metlhayotlhe Beleme in 2013, its bishops all were ‘foreign,’ even those who spoke Setswana; they came from the United States, Zimbabwe and Zambia. And until the December 2015 ordinations, over half of its active clergy came from somewhere else: Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Britain. What some may call xenophobia today may just be the excitement of finally becoming an ‘indigenous church’ – truly self-governing at last, and on its way to becoming self-supporting and self-propagating.

Add to the ‘indigenization’ theme as a counter to the accusation of xenophobia is the emergence of ‘contextual theology’ in world Christianity, especially in nearby South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle. Thanks to Albert Nolan and the Institute for Contextual Theology, which deeply influenced the crucial Kairos Document in 1985, the idea spread that our identity as Christians is legitimately defined not so much by a universal doctrinal conformity but by the context – culture, nation, and economic and political realities – in which we seek to live out our faith. ‘Adjective theologies’ emerged: African theology, Black theology, Feminist theology, and so on. In that sense the Church in Botswana is asserting an identity wrapped up in simply being Batswana. How do Batswana reveal Christ in their own setting? In what ways is that distinctive? In what ways does that distinctiveness become a witness that the rest of the world needs to hear, rather than an exclusiveness that shuts out people of faith from elsewhere in the world? Contextualization should not be seen as xenophobia.

But then there is that nagging passage in the Gospel of John (17:21), Jesus’ prayer that we all may be one. Should not you or I, wherever we may be, be considered ‘one of us’ by fellow Christians? Well, yes and no. What is our primary identity? Are we first and foremost children of God? Or does our ‘adjective’ define us? It may certainly be argued that many American Christians give primacy to the adjective and even conflate the two, a ‘patriotic American’ and a ‘faithful Christian’ one and the same. That fallacy creates all sorts of problems, but it remains true that our identity is wrapped up both in our context and in our faith. Sorting that out is one of life’s great challenges.

So it is in Botswana. At the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Gaborone, after-church tea is served each week by different groups. One Sunday it may be the West Africans, another the Kenyans, another the Indians. This is clearly a recognition of diversity within the faith community, an acknowledgment of a particular identity. But they, and we, are all part of the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church,’ the one Body of Christ, and they know that. The great difficulty comes when that local identity works to exclude rather than leads to a celebration of the richness of God’s world and God’s peoples. At that former point we move – church and culture and nation – into the realm of xenophobia.

Botswana needs to be careful. So does the Episcopal Church in the United States. And so does Anglicanism worldwide. One of the challenges at April's Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Lusaka is to try to sort all this out in a manner that recognizes our oneness in Christ. Some of us, determined to claim sole possession of orthodoxy, aren’t very good at that. There is a meeting place where we can be both one in Christ and witnesses to our own context. Finding that place moves us faithfully, and gracefully, away from xenophobia.

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We give gifts for all sorts of reasons. We give gifts to family and others whom we love, well, just because. We give some gifts simply because we ought to, hospitality to hosts and so on. And then, we give gifts expecting something in return. For better or worse, we recognize there are meaningful returns for our generosity.

There is a bit of history of this latter purpose between companion links of Anglican dioceses. Years ago I remember one African bishop even telling me of how wonderfully his diocese hosted some companions, then added, ‘and we got a library for our seminary out of it!’

But that's certainly not always the case in our companion links. Our Diocese of North Carolina recently gives some gifts to our companions in the Diocese of Botswana. We do it for the best of reasons: No one asks us to, we do it because we want to, we do it because we care.

First it is the historically black churches in the Diocese of North Carolina. They give Bibles to all of the ordinands from the St. Augustine Theological School at their December ordinations.

Second it is the deacons in the Diocese of North Carolina. They give clergy shirts to the new priests.

Bishop Metlha, Fr. James Amanze and I try over the last several months to find an occasion to gather the new priests together and present the shirts and affix book plates to their Bibles, indicating the gift. Unfortunately, we never find the occasion. Most of us gather for the funeral of Fr. Jacob Modisenyane in Matsiloje, but that is not the best occasion.

The plan now is for the new priests to receive shirts and book plates for their Bibles when all clergy gather on Maundy Thursday. I will no longer be here, so we arrange for a photo of the presentations with Bishop Metlhayotlhe Beleme, Fr. James Amanze, and me in advance.

These are wonderful gifts, much appreciated here.

This business of gift-giving can be relationship-building or relationship-diminishing. What is just happening with the deacons and the historic black churches is, I think, relationship-building. But when gifts are given by one companion link in a manner that suggests our abundance and their neediness, we undermine the relationship.

Fr. James and I are talking just the other day. We’ve been wrapping up the technology project, in which we hope to enable face-to-face conversations across the ocean, across our boundaries, using Skype and the like. We in North Carolina have just spent a bundle: a laptop, flat screens, camera and speakers and microphones, software, and internet upgrades. All of us – Botswana and North Carolina – have agreed on the plan, and the grant.

I mention to Fr. James that if the St. Augustine Theological School needs some wiring work to get an outlet near the new flat screen, our grant can cover it. Fr. James laughs. ‘When someone brings the main course for dinner,’ he says, ‘we don’t ask him to pay for the salt.’

This is refreshing. Bishop Metlha says much the same when Fr. James and I meet with him. Botswana’s companion link committee has outlined some of Botswana’s church building needs. But: ‘We need to work this out for ourselves,’ the good Bishop says. ‘We need to be able to build our own churches.’

It has not always been this way. We have been through a long history, we Western and African Anglicans. For well over a century Western Anglicans define what the African churches need, then pay for it. Then, for a fairly brief period, African Anglicans define what the African churches need, and Western churches pay for it – penance, perhaps for the long history of paternalism. At long last, we are reaching a point when African churches are defining their own needs, and Western Anglicans consider what it means to be partners, not just check-writers.  Maybe we are actually treating the ‘Ten Principles of Partnership in the Anglican Communion’ seriously. (The 'Ten Principles' are on pp. 16-18 of Toward Dynamic Mission: Final Report of the Mission Issues and Strategy Advisory Group II [1992] but appear on pp. 27-29 on the bar at the bottom of the linked document.)

I love the generosity of our historically black churches and our deacons – true gifts. I also love the fact that we are beginning to cope with the challenge of divergent resources in ways that reflect God’s gift to us, and our gift to one another.

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A naturalized home

Coming ‘home’ takes all sorts of forms, let alone whether where we are coming to is technically home at all. Back in 2010 I came to Botswana, my first visit since 1989, to work with Fr. James Amanze in envisioning a House of Studies, now the St. Augustine Theological School. There was nothing about ‘home’ then – rather just a curiosity as to whether a ‘foreign land’ where I had been over 20 years earlier had changed much (it had). But when I returned in 2013 to teach at the new school, my first diary entry tried to convey the emotion I felt when Ben Motlhalamme, then the diocesan secretary, simply said ‘welcome home’ as we passed the peace on my first Sunday back. It felt like belonging. The following year my first diary entry only speaks of the intensity of it all – classes and the challenges of settling in and all that. It still felt like belonging, but the focus was on the busy-ness of it all.

Here I am again. 2016. It’s almost ordinary. Susan Mogwera, the Diocese’s executive administrator, meets me at the airport at noon and drives me to my flat, which looks much as I left it (well, no longer in the midst of a major construction site), and where she hands me the keys. We have a bit of lunch and she takes me to the School, where Florence Bogopa, who keeps all working smoothly there, greets me, hands me keys to the School and to my car, which is sitting outside, nicely clean and with a full tank. I sit down and we begin our class at 2:00. Two good sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. Afterward I boot up my laptop and glide smoothly into the School’s wireless setup. I hear the printer start to whir, and it even remembers that I asked it to print out a couple of documents in 2014, and it spits them out now. Later Fr. James takes me to dinner, and I return to the flat, needing nothing but some groceries to ‘belong’ again.

The Diocese's flat for companion link folk, plus my car

It all seems so routine.

Finding ‘home’ is a great theme, in life as in literature. Sometimes it may touch us deeply, sometimes there’s an intensity to it, sometimes you feel as if you never left. It doesn’t matter. One of our great quests is to discover a place to feel at home, whether in or out of our own culture, whether geographically our ‘technical’ home or not. Sometimes, remarkably, it comes to us in unexpected ways, unexpected places. Sometimes even its ordinariness may be profound.

This morning, at the early (7:30) service at the Holy Cross Cathedral, Bishop Metlha offers me a word of welcome. ‘We will help you become naturalized when you are ready,’ he says with a smile. Some in the congregation follow with a laugh. I smile too, and I thank him. But I remember too that being ‘home’ is multi-directional. The extent to which I feel at home is directly related to the extent to which I am made to feel at home by others whose home this truly is. I remember those who have been in Botswana for decades – even secured citizenship – but are reminded daily that they are not truly ‘home’ here, and never will be. I recall that, despite having grown up in North Carolina, my absence for over 40 years means that I am not, in the eyes of some, as ‘North Carolinian’ as those who never left. I think of the viciousness with which people in leadership, both political and religious, have made it clear that children of God who are distinctive in their ‘otherness’ are not truly ‘home’ in the United States. I see daily – we all do – those caught up in war seeking a new ‘home,’ knowing that what used to be home cannot be again, and what may become home is a foreign land and a foreign tongue.

How do we discover home for ourselves, and affirm home for others who come among us?

This week’s return to Gaborone happens against a backdrop of a meeting of Anglican archbishops, where together in Canterbury they seek to find a way forward after years of contention over the Church and issues of human sexuality. Those issues are important, but for purposes here: Never mind those issues. The issues could have been quite different, but it wouldn’t matter. Behind it all is the question of ‘home.’ Do we belong together? Are we ‘at home’ together? Can we embrace difference – much as families try to do when they get together on holidays – and still belong together? Can we respect the dignity of every human being – which for me means, can we welcome others as being at ‘home’ with us?

Jesus has an answer to this. It’s his prayer that ‘they all may be one’ (John 17:21). We are one together when we find a home together, one which we can embrace despite all that distinguishes us from one another. That’s not easy, as the archbishops sadly demonstrate. But I like to think that in such a small but maybe not such a small way, my being welcomed into a ‘naturalized’ home in Botswana is a small gesture at our oneness, at our sense of home.

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‘My brothers,’ Bishop Metlhayotlhe Beleme asks, ‘do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a priest?’ Twelve, our first graduates from the St. Augustine Theological School, answer, ‘I believe I am so called.’ ‘Do you now in the presence of God and of his Church accept this trust and responsibility?’ Bishop Metlha continues. ‘I do,’ they answer.

Today, in Gaborone, at Holy Cross Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Botswana, marks the culmination of the long process of discernment and study and formation for these men. It’s the largest ordination held in the Diocese’s history, and is a major expansion of the number of locally-trained Batswana priests.

I am not here.

Our – the Diocese of North Carolina’s – absence is just one of those things that happens. It really is a stewardship issue. I am returning to Botswana in January to teach another term, and despite my having taught these ordinands in two previous years, and despite how much I would love to be present, it is not a good use of our resources, and no other options present themselves. So our Diocese is not here.

Representatives from another of Botswana’s companion links, the Diocese of Newcastle in England, are, and visitors from the Diocese of Tennessee happen to be here on this occasion. Some South African Anglicans have travelled up.

We are not forgotten, however. Bishop Metlha acknowledges the ‘tremendous assistance’ it has received from North Carolina, and he singles out now Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. He also kindly mentions me.

And the Diocese of Botswana rightly recognizes that ‘the primary success of the school and ordination of these men was made possible by Canon Professor James Amanze, Principal of St Augustine and Canon Theologian.’ It is his vision that began St. Augustine Theological School in 2012, begun truly as an act of faith. Today would not be without him.

But the focus today is on these men. I can picture them, their families present, excited by the prospect, relieved that this moment has finally arrived. The evening classes, day after day for three years, is finished. The decision of the Bishop is final. The previous week’s retreat is over. And now, they are to be made priests.

Besides relief and excitement, however, I hope they feel humility. In our Sacramental theology class I ask them, two years ago, to read ‘the charge to the priests’ in the ordination liturgy. I remind them of the seriousness of the words they will one day embrace. Now, at last, they are doing so.

They are standing before the Bishop as he says

You are called to make disciples, bringing them to baptism and confirmation; to lead the people in prayer; faithfully to read the Scriptures and proclaim the word of God; and to preside at the Eucharist with reverence and wonder. Like Aaron, you will bear the names of your people on your breast in intercession before the Lord. You will teach and encourage them from the Scriptures, and bless them in the name of God. You will help God’s people to discover and use to his glory the gifts he has given them. Like Moses, you will gladly receive counsel and share the burden of leadership with others. In love and mercy, remembering your own frailty, you will rebuke sin, pronounce God’s forgiveness to the penitent and absolve them in the name of Christ. Following the Good Shepherd, you will care for the sick, bring back those who have strayed, guide his people through this life, and prepare them for death and for the life to come, that they may be saved through Christ forever.

This ministry will be your great joy and privilege.

That remains, for me, a remarkable charge. Back in 2013 I ask them to reflect upon the ordination liturgy throughout their formation, readying themselves for this day. Now they are hearing this recitation of their calling by their Bishop.

And after all of these words, and acknowledgment of joy and privilege, the charge concludes with great understatement:

It is also a weighty responsibility which none would dare to undertake except for the call of God.


Give them holiness of life, wisdom and gentleness in their ministry, and perseverance in prayer, we all say in the post-communion prayer.

I am not here, at Holy Cross Cathedral in Gaborone. But I am in spirit.



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