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Friday, February 10, 2023

Finding Jesus In The Slums–The Nasty But Accredited Way To Salvation

John Phipps had always had a mission from the first time he heard Father Brophy read the beatitudes from the pulpit of St. Maurice’s church in New Brighton.  Jesus’ priorities were clear and simple – the poor, the meek, the downtrodden, and the persecuted were first on his list; and those who were merciful towards them would themselves receive mercy. 

Phipps would become a missionary, an envoy of Jesus in the most benighted places on earth, giving the disadvantaged and the oppressed hope and spiritual succor. He envisaged himself anointed, a priest among the most needy of Jesus’ souls, suffering the same physical hardships, penury, disease, and misfortune as his supplicants and receiving His divine mercy in return.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5: Meaning and… | Zondervan Academic

Unfortunately he found he had no vocation.  His mind wandered during Mass, his sins grew in number and importance every month, and he could not quite unravel the mysteries of his faith.  The trinity, the immaculate conception, the divine birth, the resurrection, all pillars of the Church, had no ring for him.  While he granted that the world was a sinful place, too sinful for any one act of forgiveness, and no redemption possible without total spiritual amnesty, the entire idea of sending God’s only begotten son to die a miserable death for the sake of masturbators, crooks, and adulterers was beyond him.

“It’s a matter of faith”, said the chaplain at his university from whom he sought spiritual counsel when his intellectual well went dry; but as hard as he tried, Phipps simply couldn’t embrace ideas that were way beyond even the most rigorous Augustinian and Thomistic logic.  That and a passionate affair with a young girl from Framingham was enough to derail his vocation.  He sent his apologies to Father Brophy who had proposed him for the seminary and to Sister Carmichael Elizabeth who had first noticed his vocational leanings.

Yet his missionary zeal did not abate after his decision, and his mind and aspirations turned to the Third World.  It was there amidst penitential misery and abject nastiness that he would find the real Jesus and bring his light to the slums.  

Anyone with his pedigree, desire, and most of all willingness to work as an aid worker in the most dismal environments of the world was a quick hire with a suit him up quickly before he changes his mind kind of contract – and before he knew it he was off to Lagos where he was charged with improving neighborhood sanitation – yeoman’s work because of the foulness of the environment and the complete indifference of the residents to any reform.  

Worst of all and true to form within three months of his arrival, he had been scammed by Nigerian cyber-touts, his identity stolen, his bank accounts rifled, and his automatic payroll deposits diverted…and had his small residence sacked and torn apart. 

Slums in the City: Why these 3 “Urban” Slums in Lagos Thrive | by  Oluwatoyin Bayagbon | Medium

“Perhaps I began too ambitiously”, he thought.  Everyone in the economic aid business knew that there was no place in the world worse than Nigeria and no fouler, more rancid, and disgusting place in it than the slums of Lagos.  What was he thinking?

Because he was so young, and despite his spiritual confusion, the beatitudes still resonated loudly, he did not give up his mission and simply applied for reassignment to a more generous, temperate place.  He opted for a training project in Bamako, at that time a peaceful place not yet beset by ISIS and Tuareg insurrection, endemic political corruption, and growing indifference to law and order.  He designed culturally sensitive, Islam-appropriate curricula regarding health and nutrition, vetted them with the countries France-trained pedagogues, produced and tested them, and inaugurated the course in Mopti, a small town in the northern Sahel on the way to Timbuktu. 

The students and his teaching assistants were all respectful, diligent, and committed; but they were as perplexed by Western concepts of biology and physiology as he had been about the mythical Jesus.  The students had grown up with ideas of organic functioning that was part animist, part Muslim, and part witch doctor voodoo.  Phipps, trained in cultural relativity, especially when it came to people of color and especially those of alternate faiths, fought to respect these illogical and totally fanciful ideas, but found himself grading paper after paper with an F.  

Besides the total failure of what he thought was a premier enterprise, he was far from the beatitudes.  This community was, by African standards, reasonably well off.  The student’s fathers all had a camel or two, interest in the trans-Sahara salt trade which believe it or not was still operating, and a shop or two on the Mopti-Timbuktu run.  These were not the poorest of the poor by any means.

About Tuaregs - FUNCI - Fundación de Cultura Islámica

So finding the right constituency – appropriate beneficiaries for his aid – was like trying on clothes in a department store.  It took a long time to get a good fit.  Because of a complex of unusual circumstances – a strain of Portuguese nationality among the most important – he landed in Angola with great hopes and his principles still intact.  He opted for a multivalent social welfare project which included AIDS and malaria prevention, iron supplementation, and latrines.  

While Luanda was no Lagos, it was not far behind.  The civil war had recently ended, and the reintegration of former combatants from both sides into civil society was going poorly.  Armed with the weapons that were simply ignored at decommissioning, the former combatants found organized and street crime lucrative enterprises.  Luanda was a chaotic, lawless, undisciplined, and completely amoral place.  It was no place for an African let alone an American.

Still Phipps persisted and in the deepest, most repellent slums of the city, he began his behavior change program.  By hook or by crook he would teach young Angolans the importance of celibacy, respect for women, condom use, and HIV testing.  This to the Africans was of course just whistlin’ Dixie.  They went about their sexual business as lively as before, battering, and pimping their women, and making ends meet with a carjacking or two of newly-arrived foreign assistance workers like Phipps.

Angola was a purgatory, and although Phipps did not want to throw in the towel, he saw how the beatitudes were more platitudes than words of wisdom.  The poor were just as likely to advantage of the nearest mark as the rich.  They would not inherit the earth but do their best to take even the most scraggly, ragged, bilious corner.

He had enough residual faith to pray – not for the poor but for himself.  He admitted the sin of pride, but saw no other way.  He was the key to the mitigation of African misery, so it was he who should receive divine guidance and support.  Of course, even if there were a God, He would have far more important things to do than bother with one adolescent-minded do-gooder in the slums of Africa.

John Phipps story is telling and not unfamiliar. He was sent to Africa by political fiat, armed with wooly, hopelessly impractical projects, without the cultural, linguistic, or technical wherewithal to negotiate the endemic, universal corruption, and with little intelligent support.  He was a dupe, a mark to be taken advantage of while the next tranche of money was being readied in Washington.

He quit before his time.  By choice and inclination he was not able to ride above the fray, enjoy the good life in the best hotels that Africa could offer, consort with the glitterati and beautiful high-toned women, arrange liaisons with women equally self-excused from responsibilities of hearth and home.  His mission lingered.  He felt badly he had not succeeded.

Still a young man when he arrived back home in the States, Phipps was unsure of his direction.  The slums of America no longer interested him, so he had no place to invest whatever was left of his goodness motive; so, always good with numbers, he spent his earnings on accounting, set up a small tax business, married, bought a house in Arlington and carried on like every other American – unburdened by any care or worry whatsoever about the miseries of Africa.  And when it was time to vote, he always voted conservative – all this liberal fol-de-rol about helping the poor missed the point. ‘Development’ would happen through government reform, civil responsibility, and private investment.  Good luck, and so much for the beatitudes.

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