Love one another, as I have loved you…

Click here to read the original blog posted on the CAFOD ‘Just One World’ blog

It’s been over a week since I returned from Madrid, and I’m still processing exactly what it was that I experienced out in Spain. The entire trip was such an energetic collection of encounters which started off in a small Church in Toledo and culminated in a gigantic open-air Mass on an airfield in Madrid. I was given the opportunity to try traditional foods, learn the Spanish lingo and meet people from particularly obscure countries many of us had never heard of before.

After setting myself the challenge of spotting CAFOD partner nations, out of the 40 possible, I only managed to meet people from nine of the partner countries – Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines – although I did meet people from a further 36 countries in total. My favourite had to be El Salvador, the nation whose national hero is a CAFOD icon and a strong inspiration of mine for speaking out about civil violence within the country which lead to his assassination in 1980.

Upon meeting, we realised immediately that we knew neither of each other’s language, so we managed to have a very hand wavy conversation which just about conveyed that we were from the United Kingdom. And although we weren’t sure what the Spanish word for “hero” was, I think they got the general idea what we meant when we screamed “Oscar Romero” at them, and beat our heart with our fists. Another highlight of the trip was the daily catechesis sessions which ran at the “Palacio de Deportes”. The theme was “Love & Life” and my favourite speaker was the Archbishop of New York, Fr. Timothy Dolan. He took us through the four most important ways to spread the Good News: charity, joy, hope and love for the Church.

With my passion for social justice, I was particularly struck by Dolan’s remark that, “We are most nobly human when we give ourselves away in love to others.” This captures everything I believe about charity and Christianity; Christ calls us to forget all our worldly possessions, and start accepting the call of love. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And sure, this may seem like a deviation from the norm in today’s society, and our peers may think we’re strange for not going after the most cut throat, or best paid job. But what I realised from Dolan’s talk, is that although the Christian way might not be society’s way, as Dolan best puts it, giving ourselves away in love to others is surely the “nobly human” way. What a guy!

My experiences at World Youth Day were everything I expected them to be, and so much more. The huge crowds were there, the celebrating was there and the youth solidarity was there. I was able to meet young people who had spent a year doing youth ministry in their Dioceses back in America and other young people from Ghana who were representing a youth Don Bosco movement, similar to a group we met in Liberia. I met young people from France who could understand my Scottish friend’s accent better than my own Geordie one, and other young people from almost every country who were asking, out of genuine concern, after the English people who had experienced the London riots. I chatted to another guy called Michael who had come from Syria, and spotted young nuns from Kazakhstan crossing the road. There are endless stories, for an endless number of countries.

Looking back, the things I will take away most are not just the stories, but the friendship and love that underlies all of them. Although meetings were often brief, and sometimes we only had time to pluck from our distant memory a “hello” in a language we learnt a long time ago, somehow it was just so natural. Nowhere else, have I been able to chat to random South Koreans on the train or wave to a group from St. Lucia as we pass in the street. Young people were open to talk to other young people, from different cultures, from different backgrounds, from different walks of life. And it was easy. No murmurs of, “we have nothing in common” or “they don’t speak our language”. For the most part, we most probably will never see or speak to each other again, but for that fifty seconds walking down a street together there is a connection made – friendship in its simplest form.

So, I look to the future and encourage any young person who has read my recent blogs to start considering whether or not they may want to attend a World Youth Day event. The next one is in 2013, and is taking place in Rio de Janeiro and I pray to God that everything aligns so I can be there myself. Events like these make the world an exciting place to be a young person; we can all be a part of this “great generation” which works together to “give ourselves in love” and bring much needed change in a place which is full of so much tragedy, so much sadness. So let’s celebrate the fact that we’re young people, let’s celebrate the fact that we want to make this world a better place, and let’s celebrate the fact that there are millions of us across the globe who can work together in spite of language, culture or geographical barriers to really make a difference and change our world.

The most surreal experience of my life…

Click here to read the original blog posted on the CAFOD ‘Just One World’ blog

It is two o’clock in the morning and I am lying on on a concrete runway in Madrid on the sleeping bag I brought all the way from Whitley Bay. I am with one of my good friends from school who I have known for almost a decade, friends I have met over the last two years working with CAFOD and YMT, and people I have only just met this week, and even just this evening. If I am to describe it as one of the most surreal experiences of my life, I wouldn’t be exaggerating.

We arrived this afternoon prepped for the overnight vigil expected to have over a million young people attending. When we arrived, we weren’t quite sure how we were going to survive the night. The temperature was at least 41℃ and it showed no signs of cooling. I was confused – people were risking their lives. We saw one young person being taken through the crowds in a fire engine to get to the nearest first aid tent. I couldn’t understand it; surely Pope Benedict would not want people putting themselves in danger just to get a glimpse ?

As the day went on, we managed to find a spot near the back of the airfield as our allocated area was too full. We pitched our sleeping bags, and with the help of a few kind Italians some donated tarpaulin, and sat down on the concrete runway ready for the night ahead. And it was as soon as we sat down that the clouds came over and the weather suddenly began to change. Just in time for the Pope’s arrival, it began to cool down and we could enjoy the surroundings and the camaraderie between our group from Hexham & Newcastle and the group of Canadians from Vancouver who were next to us.

When the Holy Father arrived, the heavens opened and we were treated to a thunderstorm. We had to cover our rucksacks with the tarpaulin we were given and use the remaining sheet for cover. It was like something out of a blockbuster film – the wind was blowing through everybody’s hair; shouting at each other to be heard. People were running frantically up and down the runway to get back to their groups to shelter – it actually made for entertaining viewing, if only we weren’t soaking wet ourselves, shivering as the temperature got cooler and cooler. There was a point during the storm where we started to sing the Newsboys song “Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns!” and all the other songs and hymns we knew that had the word “reign” in them. God must have heard our singing, as shortly after the rain died down and the Blessed Sacrament was brought out for adoration, the atmosphere changed entirely.

We were sat fairly near the back, and were unable to hear (or understand) any of what Pope Benedict was saying to the young people. But when Christ was brought out in the gigantic, pure gold monstrance (which we had visited earlier that week at its home in the Cathedral in Toledo) all the pilgrims, which by the end of the vigil was estimated to be around two million, fell into silence to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And then it dawned on me that people weren’t there to glimpse the Pope at all. We were there to unite in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of other young Catholics to have an encounter with God, to walk with Christ through the testing weather conditions, the airfield covered in ant nests, our hard concrete bed for the night… suddenly, none of these worries mattered anymore. What was important was sharing this experience together, and filling ourselves with joy, love and unity so we could come home and share what a touching experience it really was.

Throughout the evening, you could walk up and down the runway and feel like you were in a carnival. African dancing, Spanish singing, Chinese lanterns, English conversations; every nationality under the sun was there that night celebrating their culture, celebrating their faith. I enjoyed closing my eyes, and simply listening to what I could hear around me; appreciating the richness of our one world.

Pope Benedict summed it up the best when, deviating from his pre-written homily, he told the crowds of young people that “your strength is stronger than the rain”. Experiencing the tranquillity and peace during the Blessed Sacrament and being surrounded by pilgrims from all over the planet battling together through the extreme weather conditions really speaks to me that God will be with us no matter what the weather is like, no matter what our situations are in life, no matter how stormy things get. He is alive and present in our Church, in our communities, and in our young people.

He is with us always.

The future of the world, commitment of all

Click here to read the original blog posted on the CAFOD ‘Just One World’ blog

Mathematician? Check! Loves computers? Check! Campaigning for social justice? Check! You wouldn’t be mistaken if you had just thought I was running through a list of my own interests. Yet, imagine our surprise when myself and my friend Tom met our host families on our first night at the San José Obrero parish in the city of Toledo and discovered that our hosts have lived incredible lives doing the work and studying the subjects which the pair of us have only recently begun to embark upon ourselves.

Antonio Vargas and his wife Maria Antigua Diaz welcomed us into their home during the part of the World Youth Day celebrations known as “Days in the Diocese”. The idea is to stay with host families in order to get a real sense of what life is like being a Catholic in the host country. Tom and I stayed in the bedroom once occupied by their son Alberto when he was younger – a typical Spanish teenager’s bedroom; it differed massively to our own, especially in the fact that each bed had three sets of blankets!

Having volunteered for CAFOD for over two years now, I was very keen to discover anything I could find out about Manos Unidas, CAFOD’s Spanish sister agency. When I saw a Manos Unidas carrier bag draped over the dining room chair I was quick to ask about the organisation. After help from their English speaking son, we discovered Maria was the Diocesan Manager for Manos Unidas in Toledo. We were living with our very own version of Anne-Marie Hanlon (our CAFOD Diocesan Manager back home in Hexham & Newcastle)! Not only did our Spanish grandparents have connections to CAFOD but our host “abuelo” (“grandad”), is a doctor of Mathematics – a subject which I currently am studying at University!

On our final day in Toledo, we even got the chance to help set up the Manos Unidas stall in preparation for the ‘sending forth fiesta’ which took place on Monday night before everyone travelled either overnight or the following morning through to Madrid. It was something I was very used to: setting up tables, putting up campaign posters and putting prices on all of the merchandise. I came away with a couple of t-shirts and a cap which I have been wearing every day since the fiesta.

Part of the reason the “Days in the Diocese” seemed to work so well was because we were praying as a community in the parish of San José and living as smaller communities with all of our host families. The work CAFOD does with developing countries is not at all dissimilar to what we were experiencing in Toledo. We have made friends for life out of the people who we have lived with and hopefully we will be able to keep in touch. We were seeing World Youth Day on a small scale and saw how building relationships with people outside of our normal social circles is something that is incredibly important not just for achieving peace, but also for the nourishment of our faith.

Seeing Maria working for hunger and poverty around the world gives us the hope that we are not alone in our mission to eradicate global debt, starvation, war, etc. We can work together as Christian people, following the word of Christ, alongside non-Christians from all over the world to help publicise and fundraise for such important issues. As Manos Unidas best puts it, “El future del mundo, compromise de todos.” (“The future of the world, commitment of all”)

Picture this: World Youth Day – Madrid August 16 – 21

Click here to read the original blog posted on the CAFOD ‘Just One World’ blog

Picture the scene: A hot, sticky August afternoon in a beautiful yet crowded Spanish city. You stand surrounded by a near two million strong delegation of young people representing almost every country on Earth. The atmosphere is electrifying; hearing chatters in different languages, watching people from different cultures trying to communicate and people exchanging tokens, badges, bracelets from their native lands.

Here are just a few of the images that have been promised to me when I attend the World Youth Day celebrations in Madrid this coming summer. From August 16–21, 2011, approximately two million young people are expected to descend on the Spanish capital to join each other and Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate our faith together. On the schedule is music, prayer, guest speakers, plays, and so much more, all topped off with a final celebration of Mass on the last day. Personally, I cannot wait to arrive!

I always think that the only way we are going to achieve peace in our world is if we strike up conversations and make friends with people and World Youth Day (WYD) is an ample opportunity to do just that. In January 2010, I was given the chance to visit Liberia with CAFOD and work with other young people my age. So, imagine my surprise and delight when I log on to the official WYD website and discover three Liberian young people are registered to go to Madrid. In fact, according to the website 46,815 young people from the 40 CAFOD partner countries are expected to be attending the celebrations – wow!

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to expect – I’m slightly nervous as to what I may experience, the stories I might hear. Although I have seen first-hand poverty and hunger at its worst in Liberia, I’m not sure how I may feel hearing stories from other twenty-year olds from countries from Asia, South America, even Europe. I just hope I can make friendships because really, twenty-year olds are more than likely the same all over the world – we all have relationships, families, jobs…

So for that reason, why I want to go to Madrid this summer is simple – I am truly looking forward to meeting as many different like-minded young Catholics from around the world. It’s not often we get the chance to meet many other Catholic young people outside of our parishes, schools or universities yet here is an opportunity to really get a sense of how international our faith can be. We all come from different backgrounds – rich, poor, educated, uneducated, access to clean water, you get the idea – but what isn’t so different about us is our commitment to our faith; our passion to praise God.

I am reminded of the scene in the Nativity when all different kinds of people (the lowly shepherds, the rich wise men…) start on a pilgrimage to get a glimpse of Christ. Not only will I get a chance to meet people from around the world, I will also get a chance to pray with them, worship with them, and reflect with them much like the pilgrims did that night in Bethlehem. What better experience could I ask for to really appreciate the feeling of global fellowship and harmony? I don’t think there is one.

46 Things We’ll Miss About Liberia…

  1. Food, especially palm butter and pineapple
  2. The fantastic West African music especially “Yori, Yori”.
  3. The glorious sunshine that glows like a balloon in the sky at night
  4. Shaking hands with everyone and anyone we meet
  5. … and doing the African ‘snap’
  6. Getting a high five on the way back from Communion
  7. People remembering your name
  8. People getting your name wrong in a friendly way
  9. People looking delighted to see you even though they’ve only seen you once before
  10. Patience and Kindness sitting next to each other in class
  11. … just behind Comfort
  12. Watching football
  13. Talking about football
  14. The Virtuous Women’s Multipurpose Collective
  15. Walking round inside the President’s Palace on an impromptu visit
  16. Visiting Guinea without a visa or a passport
  17. How beautifully mathematical the Palm trees are as well as all the amazing trees in general
  18. Sitting in a gushing waterfall, dancing next to the water fall, drinking Club Beer next to the waterfall and dancing to African Gospel music next to that same waterfall
  19. Messages of (Spirit) inspiration… on the bumpers of yellow taxis
  20. The warm welcomes
  21. The amazing people
  22. The tropical fruit (including Solero fruit)
  23. People being shy but never embarrassed
  24. Everyone wanting to be your friend, including those you shake hands with on the street
  25. The spontaneous harmonies that pop up as kids sing in class
  26. The silent conversations (with smiles and head nods) with people you pass on the street
  27. Putting ‘o’ on the end of words and sentences
  28. Being introduced to people with brand new – and sometimes peculiar – names wherever we go
  29. Being told by people they heard you on the radio
  30. … and they remember what you said
  31. Club beer
  32. Sugar cane
  33. Having our own driver
  34. Having these particular drivers – Simeon, Flomo, Jimmy and Bility…
  35. Dancing at any given opportunity
  36. Teaching Africans to dance
  37. Orange Fanta that’s deliciously different to our own Orange Fanta
  38. Driving along with the windows open taking in brisk air (and being able to smell lots of different kinds of foods)
  39. New sights everywhere we drive
  40. People being out and together all of the time, day and night
  41. Seeing wild fires at the side of the road
  42. Beesie the dog and his fox-like friend
  43. The massive “No Lemon” sign marking the garage which indicates that they don’t sell lemons
  44. Bizarre Liberian advertising and billboards
  45. The fact that people still say Happy New Year to you, even though we’re two months into the year…
  46. …and also that people still have their Christmas decorations up

The country itself – we’ll never forget our first trip to Africa

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Small Romeo

The biggest complaint in all the police stations we visited was lack of funding for transport and basic furnishings. The policemen often don’t have enough money to hire a motorcycle taxi to go to crime scenes, and one policeman apologised that they didn’t have enough chairs in the station for us all to sit on. There were five of us.

But he was proud of the businesslike way they had developed their own police jargon – ‘Romeo,’ he told us, was code for ‘rape’. There are so many people hanging around police stations that they don’t like to broadcast the news if there is an accusation of rape.

In our first week, we came to a police station with three little boys – aged nine, ten and 12 – in the Women and Children’s Protection Section. “Small Romeo,” said Robert, our Don Bosco Homes guide. “Are you getting me? Small Romeo”. The policeman behind the desk also looked at us knowingly. The charge on the sheet was “corruption of minor”.

One of the boys looked slightly tearful, another blank, and the third – who said he was 12, but looked much younger – seemed excited by this sudden appearance of white people and beamed at us. He was so taken with us when we all left that he forgot his toy car. The policeman called him back and handed it to him as we left.

At Don Bosco’s Savio Village halfway home, Robert gave the three of us a sheet each to fill in with the boys’ details. It was difficult, partly because of the Liberian English, and partly because we were nervous about the sensitivity of the case.

Some details emerged: they were on the way to or from the water pump; there was a building nearby; there was a man involved – possible the uncle of one of them.

The next day we were leaving for a week in Gbarnga, but when we returned, we asked what had happened. We heard a confusing story. The three boys had been returned to their families and there was to be no charge brought; the community would deal with the incident. Our first reaction was of outrage: surely this couldn’t be fair?

Robert took us out for a full day following up different cases. The last one was to visit the three in the Small Romeo case. We met the two aged nine and ten in a dingy half-constructed building with a huge hole in the floor that the owner had intended for a cesspit, but which was currently lined with rubbish and dirty water. The father of one boy was in a wheelchair; the other boy’s father carried his baby daughter and answered the official questions stony-faced.

The boys were healthy and apparently happy to be back home, we heard. Both fathers had talked to their boys, and the community witnesses said they were behaving normally. Everything seemed comfortable, but we were all thinking of the seriousness of the case, and wondering if one of these men was the ‘uncle’ in the descriptions we’d heard.

The third boy lived in a house almost on the beach. We walked further into the community, through mazy paths and sudden corners, but he wasn’t there. For a moment, we stepped out of a dark alley and savoured the bright sunlight and the fresh sea air. Word had got to the boy and he came to meet us. He was at his Grandmother’s stall back up the road the way we’d come, and he happily walked us back there.

The same questions followed: Was he healthy? Was he happy? Was there anything to be concerned about? His Granny again seemed content that all was well with the boy: he helped carry the stall – selling vegetables and bottles of locally produced gin – out to the main road in the morning and back in the evening. He washed his own clothes, carried water, and cleaned up in the house.

We took a picture of the three of them before we left – again one looked sheepish, one blank and the third one was smiling happily.

Back in the car, we were burning with questions, so we asked Robert to explain the full story. He told us that the three boys had waylaid a girl on her way to the pump and raped her. The ‘uncle’ had caught them. Because they are minors, they can’t be charged, so the best that can be done is for the community – with DBH prompting – to monitor their behaviour and keep them on track as best they can.

“Ah, they are bad boys,” said Robert.

Football – The unifying force…

Football atheism in a land of believers:

Here in Liberia – in this land where everyone believes in something and literally everyone loves football – you get a similar bemused reaction saying you don’t support a Premiership football team that you would if you said you don’t believe in God. One devout worshipper has even embarked on the hopeless task of trying to convert me: promising to email me once a week on our return to England with reasons to support Arsenal.

Yesterday we went along to the final of the African Cup of Nations at the Relda Cinema: a dark cavernous shell of a building that was almost destroyed during the war – everything was looted from inside, including the entire upstairs. All that is left are the red theatre-style seats, most of which don’t fold up, some of which have the springs poking through, and here and there, there is no seat at all. To our surprise there were two games projected onto the huge back wall: the final between Ghana and Egypt and a game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

As people with little to no interest in football, to Michael and I it was like watching a load of brightly coloured ants running around a billiard table. I’d sooner have turned my chair around and watched the audience, who broke up the tediousness with constant screams of support and excitement.

Surprisingly everyone’s attention seemed to be on the English Premiership match rather than the African final: there’s globalisation for you! When there was nothing much happening a man a few seats down simply stood up and shouted delightedly at the screen: “Football, Football!” The enthusiasm of everyone here hasn’t quite succeeded in breaking through my own indifference to the game but I have been impressed to see what a unifying and motivating force football is in Liberia.

I don’t know if there was an official statement released to this effect, but everyone tells you that football in Liberia is “a unifying force”. During our stay, the County Meet – a football tournament between Liberia’s 15 counties – came to a climax, and the final was to be contested between Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties – the two main antagonists in the county’s 14-year civil crisis. Nimba won 2-0, but there was no crowd trouble: county officials shook hands on the pitch before and after the game and fans joined together in one big post-match party. Unlike our Premier League’s over-paid stars, professional footballers in Liberia earn around $40 Liberian per game, so anyone playing football at any level in Liberia can only leave the country to be a success.

Teku Nahn, who toured the UK with the Millennium Stars football team as a teenager in 1999, was top scorer in Liberia with 16 goals before Christmas last year. Callers to radio phone-ins clamoured for his inclusion in the national team. He was invited for a three-month try-out with Cape Town FC in South Africa, which he thinks went very well. He scored in his first game and impressed the coaching staff with his skills and hard work. Now he is waiting for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to be over before finding out whether they will offer him a contract.

If Teku makes it to South Africa it will be a success for the whole Millennium Stars club – a narrow bridge to success that others may be able to follow him across. For those left behind, the focus is shifting from their own dreams to the dreams of others. Now in their fourteenth year – they are engaged in a consultation with team members to transform the football club into a community organisation to be role models to local children and help them develop their talents in music, singing, sport, and especially football.

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