Fr. Alex Zanotelli's page
Fr. Alex Zanotelli became an ordained priest in 1964 after completing his
studies in Cincinnati. He worked for 8 years in Sudan before being
expelled in 1973
because of his voicing of the injustices perpetuated against the Nuba people.
Back in Italy, in 1978 he became the Editor of the magazine “Nigrizia” which contained informationabout the reality and the problems of Africa.
Under his direction, the magazine took a clear stand against any exploitation of Africa.
In 1987, following
from the Italian Government he was asked to leave his post as editor of
We are priests and we love everyone, but we find hard to let people love us. I think it’s beautiful to feel this love. I remember what an abbess told me while she was treating her young brother-in-law dying of cancer: “Alex, I was touched when he told me: << Don’t worry, I think I can die in peace because I’ve been too much loved in my life>>”. I want to remind you the importance of everyone. Everybody has a face, is an unrepeatable face. This is the most beautiful richness we have, it’s not your cars, furs or current accounts. You are the richness. When you go out from the Mass you are sad. What a sadness on Sunday morning! The Mass lasts three hours in Korogocho and it’s a celebration of joy with dances and songs. We start with a simple sign, we look each other and everybody welcome the brothers and sisters. Let’s look and welcome each other, we will find the richness of our faces.
I wear this scarf because I believe in its significance. It’s a present made by the general-secretary of South America native people. She is a wonderful woman: she embraced me and told me: “Alex, wear it, please!”. It doesn’t represent the rainbow nor the peace flag: it’s the flag made by the native people in 1992. It’s beautiful because there are not primary colours and every colour helps the other one to shine. Now we are an economic village and we will become a multiracial, multireligious and multiethnic village. We have to find the richness of our differences or we won’t be able to live in this world. This is a cry for the acceptance of the immigrants. We have to think about this and don’t play with xenophobia, because it’s dangerous. Even the immigrants are victims of the empire: they are among us because they run away from hopeless conditions. If you think you will keep the immigrants out from the army you are fool. The Roman Empire tried to do this with the so-called heathen but they entered slowly and came to power. The despair causes actions that are the result of a fool economic system.
Now I want to tell you something about some of the faces you can meet in life and history’s underground. Giuliana’s face: abandoned by her husband, with three children, she couldn’t pay the rent for the hovel. The owner turned her out. Giuliana had AIDS, she was seriously ill and she spent all day on the street. Late in the evening a Small Christian Community found a new hovel for Giuliana. She knew she had to die and that was the day fixed for her baptism. When I met her, she was confused and I thought: “Perhaps is not worth going on with the baptism”. But suddenly I thought: “Who am I? How can I judge? She asked the baptism and this is the moment to give her the sign of the water, as a sign of God’s faithfulness that never abandon us”.
I reminded Agar, Abraham’s slave, mother of his son and turned out by Sara. She got lost without water in Bersadea desert. Agar put her son down under a bush and said: “I don’t want to see my son dying”. Her son began crying and God heard his voice. Agar is the symbol of every woman that is a slave, of every woman in Korogocho.
Now we meet Martin’s face, one of the several people that pick up rubbish in the dump. He died late in the evening in front of his hovel and his friends kept watch beside him. I found him in the morning and he was surrounded by flies. I raised the black sheet and I saw the Crucified’s face. “My God, my God, my absent and distant God! I’m calling you, but you are silent…While I am a worm, not a man, a dihsonourable man, a waste” (Psalm 22).
A waste among the others near the bog where Joan threw herself. She was 28, she was drug addict and prostitute. That day she had been raped and cudgeled. In the evening, while I was praying in the chapel I heard a cry. I went out and saw Joan plunging into the water. I took her in the hovel, she crouched and cried. Suddenly she stood up and took off her clothes. “What are you doing? A strip-tease in front of the Most Holy Sacrament?” She said: “Alex, look at my body! You don’t understand!”
One night we visited a young man destroyed by AIDS. We couldn’t even go into the hovel covered with water. There were spits, rubbish and vomit everywhere. “I’m thirsty” he said, we gave him a glass of water. We wanted to say Mass, but there was no place to lay the bread. But maybe the Mass had already been said with that water.
These are the faces of the system’s victims, faces who pay for an absurd world system. These are the faces of Korogocho’s people. Korogocho is one of Nairobi’s slums, built on a hill that is 2.5 km long and 1.5 km wide. Korogohco has at least 100,000 inhabitants. Nairobi is called “the sun city”, but it is surrounded by a thorns crown: the slums. It has been built by the british government, its centre is beautiful; nowadays it counts 3 million inhabitants and statistical data anticipate there will be 18 milion within twenty years.
What is amazing in Nairobi is the division between rich and poor people. There are two worlds that live side by side. Rich black people in power are connected with the Indian community that controls more than the 80% of the commerce. The 60% of Nairobi’s inhabitants live in the 1% of vacant land. The most serious aspect is that these people aren’t land owners, as it belongs to the government. Besides, the 80% of these people pay a rent for the hovel. You can imagine the decay and the division even among poor people. In Nairobi’s slums the 50% of the population is seropositive. When you live this reality you can see the impoverisment. Please stop saying that poor people don’t work: come and see women carrying quintals of bananas on their shoulders. It’s the impoverishment of women that are the weakest part of the society. In Korogocho 5,000 children don’t go to primary school, because their parents can’t afford the fees. Even the “Daily Nation” had the courage to say that the economic system in Kenya is an economic apartheid. Nairobi is what you can find in the rest of the world: the 20% of the world population possesses the 80% of the world wealth.
When I arrived in Korogocho I was alone, then arrived father Gianni Nobili, father Antonio D’Agostino and Gino, a layman. We accepted to become part of this limitless situation: we live in hovel, we drink what the people drink, we buy water with the cans. We walk as everybody walks, we are exposed to the violence. Only when you feel what is the misery of poor people, when you see their faces, when you hear the victims’ cry, you can change.
What we are trying to do in Korogocho is being what Jesus has been. Jesus was born in the poorest part of Palestine and He has been the luminous face of the Father for the system’s victims. He has been a hope, a caress and has unified the poor people of Galilee. This is what we are trying to do here and sometimes people say: “Father, we thank you because Antonio and Gianni could stay on the green grass of Ngong Road to say their prayers, but they are here in the shit, in the nasty smell. They’re here and it is the sign that You don’t forget us”.
We look for the poorest people of Korogocho, as Jesus did. They are the people of the dump. The dump is a hill in front of Korogocho where a lot of trucks arrive every morning. They release the rubbish and more than thirty people try to pick up everything as vultures. They are despised by everybody: poor people that despise poor people. Please, stop thinking that poor people are good and rich people are bad. Poor and rich people are equal, we all are sinners. God is the poor people God not because they’re good, but because He’s God. He’s not the system’s God, but He’s the slaves and victims God.
In Korogocho there are more than 1,000 street children, victims of drugs and alcohol, that unite in the gangs. And if you are so unlucky to be a woman there’s nothing but the way of prostitution, marginalisation and violence. In Korogocho we started with the Communities, where we give the priority to the Word. The Word has the power to give them dignity. The first is the Community of the dump and it has been hard to put this people together: they trust nobody, because they have always been betrayed. Today there’s a beautiful friendship and every Monday mornig I meet them to read the Gospel and talk about their problems. Now they have constituted a little cooperative: they buy recycled material, that they used to sell to the intermediaries, and they share out the profits among the street children or women that sell it. This is an economy that is united with a social aspect, so a woman of the dump could attend a nursing course and now she works for the people of the dump.
The second Community is composed by women. The rubbish to be recycled is decreasing so they started with a cleaning contreactor in Nairobi’s skyscrapers. We are working even to give an opportunity for the street children to meet. For the girls we have Udada group, that is an occasion to work and to give up prostitution, while boys that have problems with delinquency form Kindugu group. Then there are people affected with AIDS. You’d think it’s stupid to devote our time to people dying of AIDS: you think you are worth only if you produce. This is the God we believe in. My faith is weak, but it is strenghtening because they tell me who is God.
I remind when we prayed for Nancy, she was 20, she was a prostitute and she was dying of AIDS. She asked to pray during the Offertory: “Baba, I know I am ill, but You Baba, You that are omnipotent, You can cure me. Please, cure me! I ask You to cure me not for me, but for my son. Please, cure me, Baba! But if You don’t want to cure me, if You want me to come to You, here I am, Baba!”. I remind Florence: she started prostitution when she was 11 and she died of AIDS when she was 16. I visited her three days before her death. I looked at her and said: “Florence, we are here to tell you that we are with you. I know that everybody has abandoned you. Tell me, who is God’s face for you?” She kept silent then she smiled with joy: “Alex, I am God’s face!”.
This is the mystery: Korogocho is a sin, it’s a cry that reach God from this system. The World Bank is the hearth of this system: they tell you that one millard 150 million human beings are useless. They can’t work and they don’t have the opprtunity to have assistance. Has the Church the courage to talk about this system? I talked with father Nolan, he came back to South Africa to fight againts apartheid. He said: “Alex, are you surprised? It took a century for the Church to acknowledge that the apartheid system was a sin. When will the Church admit that this system is a sin?”. I think that this system is made up of three poles. The first is the financial pole, the second is the military pole and the third is the mass-media pole and every pole helps the others. Mass-media are the master’s voice, they cause the illusion that this is the only possible system and they change us into alimentary canals. Do we produce? We have to consume and I think that our Churches allow this system. It forces us to adore the Thing and to become things.
Besides, we lay a terrible claim to the environment. American scientists give us fifty years to change, otherwise next generations can’t live in this world. This disaster has been caused by the 20% of the world population: what will it happen when the 80% of the world population will reach our lifestyle? In 1938 Gandhi answered to an English journalist: “If England needed half of the world resources to gain its present position, how many worlds would India need to reach the same position?” There’s no future in this condition and the alternative is not a utopia at this point. You can ask: “What can we do?”, but we live in this system because we want it.
After the sin of idolatry, there’s the sin of impotence, so everybody should feel that every little action is wonderful. If you don’t believe in God, try to keep silence only one moment. If you are married, try to keep silence together and try to think about this. If you believe in God, try to find some time to pray. If you stop, you’ll see our collective madness. If a woman takes the contraceptive pill, I have to tell her: “You can’t receive Holy Communion”, but a multi-millionaire man can go to Holy Communion. This is neither the Gospel, nor moral. We have to consider the Gospel in earnest with two commandments: you can’t get rich and, if you own something, you have to share it. Let’s try to introduce this in our everyday choices: we have a revolution in our hands. The conversion is a personal commitment, but we are part of a structure, so we have to convert it, otherwise we’ll remain pagan. It’s God’s dream of an alternative world.
I tell this specially to women. Don’t sell yourselves to this system. It’s a sexist system joined to militarism and economy. Women have three virtues: love for life, nonviolence and tenderness. You can give birth to a new system, to a new human being. And remember: the Church is the people God has chosen, but they’ll be recognized according to their choices.
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