By Irvin Lumano, SDB
I would like toshare a profound experience I had in July, 2013 in the Metropolitan City of SaoPaulo, Brazil, during the 2013 World Youth Day Celebrations. I was part of theZambian delegation accompanying young people who travelled for this event. Wewere hosted in the families of different Small Christian Communities (SCCs) alsocalled Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs)or in Portuguese ComunidadesEclesiais de Base (CEBs) of St.Paul Parish. I was hosted by Mr and Mrs C. Antunes who are members of Josephthe Worker Small Christian Community of St. Paul Parish in the city of SaoPaulo before we travelled to meet Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro.
St. Paul Parish is located in one of the favelas (poor areas) of Sao Paulo knownas Jardim Nossa Senhora Aparecida. There are a number of homeless people aswell as a problem with drug abuse among the young people. There is also asignificant number of single mothers because of poverty and a high rate ofunemployment in Sao Paulo, especially in Jardim Nossa Senhora Aparecidaneighbourhood.
The area is composed of an elderly generation whoare staunch Christians, the majority of whom are Catholics. However, there isalso a great number of young people who find themselves in dire poverty andtherefore experiencing a loss of meaning of life without much hope and a senseof despair. The Small Christian Community of St. Joseph was composed of about35 active members, mostly adults. About 20 were women and the rest were men.
INTERPRETATIONOF THE SITUATION
It stands to reason that the younger generation isnot very committed to church activities but seeks to engage in activities thatcan resolve their social, economic and political problems albeit throughdifferent means. They seem to think committing themselves to Catholic Churchactivities would be a waste of time as they want something that can earn themmoney for a living. The few young people who were present at the SCC meeting saidthey had been compelled to come by their parents. Some volunteered to help ininterpretation as the elder generation speaks Portuguese only, while ourdelegation from Zambia was English speaking. This is evidence that the youngergeneration is not very committed to church activities.
ACTIVITIES OFST. JOSEPH SMALL CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
The vision of St.Joseph Small Christian Community is to strengthen the community network in itsdiversity, following Jesus of Nazareth, enlightened by the missionary spiritfor building a just and fraternal society amid the challenges of the city ofSao Paulo.
Over a period of oneweek, I attended some of the activities which they do to respond to theirsituation. They train single mothers in bringing up their children in a healthymanner as well as providing some post-natal and home care services. They makeuse of experts in this field such as nurses who volunteer to do this and aswell as general voluntary workers. This is accompanied by spiritual nourishmentthrough catechists as well as the priests assigned to that community.
Another activity inwhich I participated was a reach out program to government schools in theneighborhood. Those who belong to the Justice and Peace Commission reach out totalk to students in the schools about their rights and duties as well as how topromote peace among other activities related to this commission. We visited anearby school where we prayed together with students. Then we went into groupdiscussions to share ideas before we came together for a general input. Therewas a lot of singing such as praise and worship followed by a moment of bondingas this was a unique moment for them as well as us to interact.
PART II: A REFLECTION ON THE LACK OF YOUTH IN SMALL CHRISTIANCOMMUNITIES
At the first blush, the city of Sao Paulo is verylively and full of activity with many young people. Even the nights are full oflife and one would expect the beautiful country with towns and cities namedafter Christian names such as “Sao Paulo” and “Gloria” to have a vibrant andyouthful church.
However, this is not the case on the ground. From 2000 to 2010, the absolute number of Catholics andthe percentage of Catholics in Brazil declined, from 125 million, 74% of thecountry’s total population, to 123 million, or 65% of the population. Brazil isalso famous for its Small Christian Communities and their commitment to thetheology of liberation.
While there are a good number of adults who belong to SCCs, thenumber of young people is very low. The younger generation is not only absentfrom the Small Christian Communities but from the church in general. There areprobably a number of factors for this state of affairs.
My observation from where I come from,in the Catholic diocese of Hwange, Zimbabwe is that there are no Youth SmallChristian Communities (YSCCs) in Zimbabwe. This seems to have been the case inmy experience of St. Paul Parish in Sao Paulo too. The young people whoattended the Small Christian Communities with the adults say it is boring forthem. Unlike in Africa where such a mixture of adults and youth is dominated byadults, in Brazil the culture is different. The young people can speak freelyand participate in the meetings. However, the activities that the youth wouldcommit themselves to are certainly different and incompatible with those ofadults.
Another important factor to note isthe challenge posed by New Religious Movements such as Pentecostals andEvangelicals. “Brazil’s Catholic population fell slightly from 125 million in2000 to 123 million a decade later, dropping from 74% to 65% of the country’stotal population. The number of Brazilian Protestants, on the other hand,continued to grow in the most recent decade, rising from 26 million (15%) in2000 to 42 million (22%) in 2010. “Protestant” is broadly defined here toinclude Brazilians who identify with historically mainline and evangelicalProtestant denominations as well as those who belong to Pentecostaldenominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Foursquare Church.”
In advance of thepope’s visit, evangelical Christians held a rival gathering in June 2013 at SaoPaulo’s convention centre. It was a massive event, with more than 200 stallsscattered around and thousands of visitors. Evangelical groups, and they aremany, have also translated their numbers into a growing political clout. Whilethe Catholic clergy are prohibited from being in government, President DilmaRousseff has an evangelical bishop as a cabinet minister.This would definitely seem attractive to a younger generation who wanteverything to be flexible and something with which they can identify withunlike the Catholic Church which sometimes apparently seems rigid and strictwith its dogmatic rules and regulations.
We must note that,these New Religious Movements also offer a lot of personal support to theirmembers because they are smaller in number. They attract people by promisingthem to find employment and to solve their individual problems from thespiritual to the material needs. This can be hard to do in big and establishedchurches such as the Catholic Church due to the big numbers among otherfactors. New Religious Movements also claim to be more compatible withscience and technology in ways that traditional religions are not. Young peopletoday also want democratic values of equality, justice, respect for personalvalues, transparency, accountability, collaboration, participation, sincerity,dialogue to be applied in the church, family, school, formation institutionsand religious communities. Therefore, the divine authority model of leadershiphas no place in the modern school, church, family and formation houses. The CatholicChurch should find an alternative and creative way to address this.
New Religious Movements also appear to offer thefollowing: care and support in a closely knit group, a sharing of purpose andfellowship, protection and security especially in crisis situations. SCCs ofthe Catholic Church should be able to offer this, yet sometimes we have notlived up to these expectations. So young people feel that the church is nolonger relevant to their needs and aspirations. This makes them leave the churchand not to participate in the Small Christian Communities, but go toPentecostal Churches or circular groups (cells) that can offer this kind ofsupport, even if it means joining sects such as illuminati among others.
In some cases, there is a limited understanding onthe possible activities which young people can do in Small ChristianCommunities. Some limit themselves to sharing the Word of God only and thisbecomes monotonous and boring, hence they do not feel enthusiastic to participate.However, there are a number of activities which are appealing to youth andwhich can be of help to others such as reaching out to the needy and peersupport.
Another challenge which we face today is the aspectof materialism, consumerism and globalization. While globalization has had itspositive effects, it has raised a number of challenges. Materialism andconsumerism has taken the world of media and young people by storm, promotingvalues contrary to what is expected of Christians. It has had influence inencouraging individualism and egocentrism as opposed to values of the Kingdomof God such as sharing and being available for one another. The younggeneration has lost their cultural values because of the speed at informationis spread and how people interact via media, thereby creating a situation wherepeople cannot identify with a particular culture. Even very good values fromtheir own culture are lost at the expense of what may seem to be superiorsimply because it is foreign or the glorified “Western culture.”
We have seen a number of causes for the lack ofyouth in our SCCs in some places. It remains incumbent upon us to be creativein promoting and establishing Youth Small Christian Communities. We can tap alot from our own traditional values that could make the youth grow in a moraland spiritual way while enjoying life and feeling at home through the model ofSmall Christian Communities as a “New Way of Being Church” today.
Don Bosco UtumeSalesian Theological College
www.christiantoday.com/article/…catholics…brazil.protestants, accessed 02/04/16.
http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape, accessed 06/04/16.