Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2007
Open Our Ears and Loosen Our Tongues
By James Loughran, SA
The scriptural theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2007 is “Open our ears and loosen our tongues,” taken from the story of the healing of the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment in Mark 7: 31-37. In this narrative, Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs and says, “Ephphatha – Be opened,” and the man can both hear and speak. The international theme uses the quote directly from Mark: “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
This international theme, 1 offered to the whole Church by the International Theme Committee, composed of members from the Faith & Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was developed, as is customary, from a draft by a local group. For 2007 this local group was composed of the Christian communities of the region of Umlazi, South Africa. Adaptations to the theme for materials provided in the USA by the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, including the text “Open our ears and loosen our tongues,” were developed by Graymoor and its partners in the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Interchurch Center in New York.
Umlazi is near Durban, South Africa and was created during the apartheid regime of South Africa as a “township”, segregated land into which the black majority population was forced to live. Umlazi and the nearby township of Bhekithemba continue to be challenged by unemployment and poverty that are lingering legacies of the racist system. As with so many poor places in the world there is an inadequate supply of housing, schools and medical clinics. Hand in hand with the poverty and lack of work is a depressed social morale which has given rise to crime and violence, even domestic violence.
Perhaps more destructive to the life of the poor is the epidemic proportion of HIV infection and sickness and death from AIDS among the people of Umlazi, other parts of South Africa and Sub-saharan Africa in general. It is estimated that 50% of the residents of Umlazi are infected with HIV. 10% of babies born in the region are HIV positive and many of them die within the first few years of life. Many young children have become orphans, living on the streets, on their own or with ageing grandparents who are too old to work, as the population of 14 to 40 year-olds has been decimated by the virus.
In the United States, advocacy groups since the 1980s, such as ACT-UP, have used the phrase “Silence=Death” challenging American culture to deal openly with HIV and AIDS. It is still a stigmatized disease in many pockets of American life. Enough silence has been broken for medical research, communal support and prevention information to make HIV/AIDS much more manageable in the American context than it is in places like Umlazi.
In Umlazi silence is unfortunately the norm. The Zulu term ubunqunu is used to cover subjects not spoken of. It literally means “nakedness” and usually covers anything related to sexual intimacy. Even the violence of rape and other forms of sexual abuse are difficult to control by law because the victims will not speak out. Locally, ecumenical church organizations offer assistance and counseling for these traumas and a variety of needs associated with HIV infection, but the code of silence makes people hesitate in seeking help.
The Zulus also have a saying, ”You do not pass by when somebody is building a house without helping!” The churches work together ecumenically in Umlazi to overcome the code of silence that is leading to death. As the fight against apartheid brought the churches together, so too now the churches are working together to combat the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS, because no single person, church or institution can single handedly take on the problems of unemployment, poverty, crime, abuse of women and children, as well as HIV/AIDS.
In order to reach the youth of Umlazi, who are ingrained with the code of silence, the local church leaders developed an ecumenical service of prayer which had “breaking the code of silence” as its central theme. The young people were given the opportunity through prayer and trust in God to find the courage to “speak the unspeakable.” This was immediately followed up with assistance and referral to counseling, medical care and pastoral care.
The Ecumenical Celebration of the Word of God prepared by Graymoor for the 2007 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity retains elements of this prayer for breaking the silence in the “Moment of Silence” near the opening of the service, followed by a prayer to break the silence, within which are the words, “Open our ears that we might hear the voices muffled in the silence of millions, those voices muffled by the trials and suffering of this transient world.”
The churches in Umlazi and in other townships have worked for the establishment of clinics and have initiated home-based care programs, through which volunteer caregivers are trained to care for the sick and the dying in their homes, undertaking work that is physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing, in order to make a difference in the lives of people who are suffering. Other projects are directed towards care of orphans and other vulnerable children, or towards educating youths, such as the “break the silence” initiative mentioned above. The cooperation of churches also extends beyond outreach programs and includes joint prayer, common witness, and other examples of an ecumenism of life.
The preparatory material for the Week of Prayer, provided by the International Committee from the WCC and PCPCU states that the search for visible unity among the churches is reflected in the spirit of Umlazi: “Today, faced with the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other dehumanizing forces, it is acknowledged that they are too strong for a divided church. In Umlazi, there is one courthouse, one hospital, one post office, one clinic, one set of shops – and one cemetery reflecting one overwhelming challenge facing the people. In this same township, the people, almost all of whom are Christian, adhere to scriptures which profess that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (cf. Ephesians 4:4-6). Yet there are many churches, which are not in full communion with each other, and which remain a sign of divided Christianity. In Umlazi, there is an impatience and frustration with inherited divisions generated many centuries ago in other lands.”
The international preparatory materials go on to say: “When a member from the preparatory group in Umlazi met (with the international committee) they reflected on the search for full visible unity among Christian churches in light of the experience of Christians of Umlazi and their invitation to “break the silence” which oppresses and isolates people in their suffering. Together, they selected Mark 7:31-37 as a central biblical text for the week of prayer, and determined a biblical/theological framework, centered around hearing, speaking and silence, within which both the search for unity and the search for a Christian response to human suffering find a home.”
Ecumenically, there are good attempts at conciliarism in South Africa among the churches and Christian communities. Many of the churches of European foundation, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Dutch Reform, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Congregational, are members of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). Two very large churches of local origin, the Zionist Christian Church and the Shembe Church, are not members of SACC. The Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and United Congregational churches have formed the Church Unity Commission and have managed to create covenants with each other on issues of baptism, Eucharist and ministry.
It seems from the preparatory materials provided by the International Committee, that local ecumenical initiatives are more lively in South African than national efforts. The case of Umlazi proves this point. Whether it be on the level of women creating vegetable garden projects or bead-working craft centers or that of work among the housebound sick with AIDS, or care of orphans, the very well-attended local congregations of Christian churches in South Africa are very busy, working together. The light brightening an ecumenical future of visible unity in South Africa seems to be lit locally, with local churches breaking the code of silence, helping people one on one and overcoming the barriers between them to proclaim a gospel of healing, love and mercy.
The need to “break the silence” is something not unique to Umlazi or South Africa. In every culture there are unmet needs of the poor, the sick, the homeless and the outcast. There are injustices committed against people who are different in some way from the majority of the culture, by religion, language, ethnicity or way of life. If the Lord loosens our tongues as he did for the man who was both deaf and had an impediment to speech, our ability to speak out would truly be a blessing for the world.
Yet the Lord heals the man primarily of his inability to hear (be opened). This is interesting, because the passage from Mark goes on: “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well, he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak’” (Mark 7:36-37). The ability to hear words doesn’t necessarily bring with it the ability to listen. Jesus’ intended gift is one for listening, not hearing. The people want to emphasize his power, his miracle-working and his messiahship (as they understood it). Jesus simply wants them to know that the Kingdom of God has come and that reconciliation with God would bring an end to all human suffering.
Listening is as much a part of the theme as speaking. In their attempts to break the code of silence in Umlazi, the churches proved they could be trustworthy listeners. The youth were not judged or sermonized. They were listened to and loved. The support of the church for the poor, the sick and the outcast is vital in such situations as Umlazi and throughout our world where violence and injustice need to be addressed. The gift of the international theme for the Week of Prayer coming from various local communities over the years has been one by which the rest of us have listened and learned and are able to speak with that local community in one universal voice.
1.The source for this article is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2007 International Theme Preparatory Committee, World Council of Churches and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.