We should not be afraid of dialogue, because it enriches our own journey.

Author: Gino Hernan Patricio Jimenez, SVD
Subject: Missionary Life
Language: English, Spanish
With some Christian mothers in Yendi, Gino Jiménez, SVD
With some Christian mothers in Yendi, Gino Jiménez, SVD

Ghana today for the SVD’s in Chile is no longer a mystery, since not only are there several Chileans who in the past served the mission of the Church there in different periods and were able to communicate their varied experiences. Fortunately, however, Ghanaian missionaries, in recent years have shared their life and cultural richness directly, living with us.  In addition, some visitors, from Chile – Religious, lay people, and priests – who have gone to Ghana have shared their experiences in Chile. Moreover, today the advances of communications and the internet enable us to know much and instantly about the development and economic growth of Ghana in all aspects.

I now turn to a personal experience that in some way marked my life and ministry and that, as I received it, still influences how I visualize reality and its challenges.

In Ghana there is a multiplicity of cultures and languages, English being the official language because Ghana was a former English colony, but there are also several market languages spoken by a large part of the population depending on their territorial location. In any case, Twi stands out for the extent of its use and influence, mainly due to trade.

During those 17 years in Ghana, I lived all of them in the Northern District, commonly identified as the Yendi District (both civilly and in the Congregation), which was composed at one time of 7 SVD parishes and a pastoral formation centre. In that District live people from 8 different tribes, each with their respective languages and some migrants from different parts of the country. Of those 17 years, 13 were spent twice in the village of Yendi, capital of the district, and 4 years in Tatale, a village on the border with Togo. In my testimony I will concentrate on what I lived in Yendi where I began and ended my missionary service in Ghana.  In Yendi I worked with the Dagomba, Konkomba and Komba peoples who were intermingled in the parish radius. The predominant religions in this territory are African Traditional Religion, which includes the veneration of the ancestors, Islam and Christianity stand out, in the same proportional order.

The population of Yendi is mostly Muslim of the moderate Sunni branch coming from the various spiritual brotherhoods (madrassas or Islamic school) and whose mysticism was brought by the merchants who began to arrive on the west coast of Africa from the twelfth century. Later, in the 17th century in the north of present-day Ghana, the conversion of the paramount chief of the Dagombas took place, which contributed to the more rapid spread of Sunni Islam among its people. Apart from the Sunnis, also in Yendi there is a small group of the Muslim branch (sect) called Ahmadiyya (originally from India in the 19th century). Yendi is also home to several Christian denominations besides the Catholics, such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Assemblies of God, Adventists, Pentecostals, etc. All Christians together, in the town of Yendi, constitute about 10% of the population.

Interreligious Dialogue

In Ghana, the atmosphere, in terms of coexistence and relationship between religions and denominations, in general is one of tolerance, respect and sometimes even collaboration. If I focus on one aspect of my missionary service in the town of Yendi and in some villages, my work from the beginning was developed in daily coexistence with Muslims, and sporadically, with the Christian churches of the place, especially, participating in the harvest festivals of each church, organized to raise funds once a year.

Together with two Presbyterian pastors and ecumenical community preparing Christmas, Gino Jiménez, SVD
Together with two Presbyterian pastors and ecumenical community preparing Christmas, Gino Jiménez, SVD

But once in 1998, in a meeting with the Methodist pastor, we talked about our reality as Christians in a mostly Muslim and African Traditional Religion area and the importance of being more united and witnessing our faith and union with more concrete signs. This is how we came to the following agreement: we would organize an ecumenical group and invite other Christian churches in the area to discuss how to put our purpose into practice.  Thus began an ecumenical journey with the Methodist, Anglican, Evangelical and Presbyterian churches, Seventh Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and the Catholic Church. There were other Christian denominations that did not honour our invitation, namely, the Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists.

Our meetings of Christian churches, apart from prayer and reflection, dealt with various topics, such as how to organize ourselves for certain special Christian celebrations, for example, when we celebrate the procession of Palm Sunday with branches through the town. Also, the celebration of Easter Monday together when a communal picnic is held, preparation of Christmas carol singing for the town, youth sports competitions, our help to the local prison, etc. And the coordination of the harvest festivities of each church, to make participation and collaboration possible.

As time went on, however, our ecumenical union did not stop there. We decided to have a channel of interreligious dialogue that originated with the development of an extended group of interreligious dialogue with Muslims in which even some Muslim women participated (it is very unusual for Muslim women together with the ‘Imam’ (senior priest) and Muslim mallams (priests) and alhajis (pilgrims). Both Muslim branches in Yendi – Sunnis and Ahmadiyya – participated together, which was something extraordinary).  The goal was to find what would most benefit the local people in Yendi.

In conjunction with the Muslim leaders, we would schedule talks in the village schools about how to prevent diseases, promotion of girls’ enrolment in schools, training meetings with talks and forums for peace in the territory, etc.

This last theme (peace) was later taken up by Bishop Vincent Boi-Nai (SVD) in 2001, to whose objective he dedicated much time, contributing to peace throughout the territory, an effort that was even recognized by the Adenauer Foundation (Germany), which awarded him an internationally recognized prize.

Mission without Prejudice or Fear

Reflecting briefly on my experience as above led me to think that it is possible to take steps of dialogue, crossing limits that seem, at first sight, insurmountable, being conditioned by our environment and limited training, but that, by encouraging us to take those steps, new perspectives, never thought of before, open up for us. Personally, living in this actual environment, coming from Chile, the last corner of the world, geographically and religiously closed, helped me to open my mind and heart and to get to know and value other cultural and religious worlds, to experience what it is to be a minority and to see the world around me from another equally enriching perspective. Another experience was to live the experience of fragility due to the conditions of the environment itself, such as living in a territory that is always unstable, facing the prospect and threats of constant wars, the limitations of personal health, the limitations of being unable to fully understand other and different worldviews of life. In short, all this conditioned me, on the one hand, but also helped me to open myself to new dimensions of service in which I was forming, adapting and, why not say it, improvising as well, to contribute to the life and mission in the place.

Ecumenical work in Prison, together with Pastor Yeboah Methodist, Presbyterian, Adventist, etc., Gino Jiménez, SVD
Ecumenical work in Prison, together with Pastor Yeboah Methodist, Presbyterian, Adventist, etc., Gino Jiménez, SVD

I think that we should not be afraid of dialogue, since, although it often makes us walk on unknown paths and dimensions without the old securities to fall back on, when we enter the world of the other, of the different and even the unpredictable, this experience leads us along the way to enrich our own path in a surprising way. Such, I believe, was the inspiring experience of Jesus when he met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6-26). In such an encounter, stripped of prejudices and taboos of race, sex, religion, both characters were able to enrich each other in a dialogue without borders. And by placing themselves on an equal footing, Jesus was not hindered in his proclamation of the Good News. Moreover, by speaking from their respective identities, their dialogue was undoubtedly prophetic. This experience of Jesus’ life and mission is an eternal source of inspiration and renewal also for all of us who love our Missionary Religious Congregations.

———–

Father Gino Hernan Patricio Jimenez, SVD, was born in Santiago, Chile. After his perpetual vows, he worked in Ghana from 1979 to 1985. From 1985 to 1992 he studied missiology in London, after which he was appointed Secretary of Missions of the Chilean Province and then Rector and Provincial Councilor. In 1993 he returned to Ghana, where he remained until 2004, working in parish ministry and as provincial councilor. From 2002 to 2004, he was appointed secretary for the Spanish language at the Generalate in Rome. In 2008 he returned to Chile, where he served as retreat house administrator, provincial (2011-2013) and parish pastor from 2014 to 2015. From 2016 to 2018 he served as praeses of the community in Nemi (Italy), then returned to Chile.

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