There are some stories that are difficult to recount. The difficulty is not so much in the story itself but how to start talking about it. This is because such stories activate a whole range of cerebral and emotional reactions, they link two or more dots together and you just keep wondering where to start. Every part of the story seems more like a plausible starting point. In the end you just have to start from somewhere. Some days ago, the Deputy Editor of the Sunday title of Daily Trust Newspaper, Stella Iyaji, called me to produce a piece for a religious column I have been contributing to for over a year now. The original columnist, Father Cornelius Omonokhua, became more engaged in his work of mission and dialogue beyond the horizon of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria where he currently serves, and he called me one day and told me to be ready to start writing articles for the column whenever he is unable to. Since then, I have stylishly ‘colonised’ the column. For most part of 2016, Father Cornelius had plenty other engagements that kept him out of the column. So when Stella called me to write something, I kept ruminating on a possible topic. I then remembered that I had been developing an article on Christianity and burial carnivals in Nigeria. I went back to my Apple computer and dug it out. It was halfway completed. I then began to work on it.
When I started writing the piece during my annual vacation, I had a clear scenario in my mind regarding the Nigerian social phenomena of lavish celebrations. Nigerians, I noted in the piece, love to live life to the fullest. Almost everything within the Nigerian social space calls for some kind of celebration or the other, from birthdays, funerals, and job promotions to the birth of a child, the reception of a chieftaincy title or award, the buying of a new car or the building of a new house. These events bring a large gathering of people – rich, poor, influential, not so influential, etc. The celebrant provides food and drinks, with music and all sorts of things that make the celebration the talk of the town. With funerals, it is almost an entirely different ball game. I noted that in the last couple of years, funerals, which are now described as “celebration of life”, have become avenues for organising and hosting big carnivals on behalf of the dead.
Among other things I said: “The character of the average Nigerian is one that is exhibitionistic in outlook. In this light, lavish burial celebrations are a typical Nigerian phenomenon. Ours is a society where wealth and all its trappings command maximum social respect. The more money you have to throw around the more respect and recognition you get. In this social setting of twisted values, that places no restraint on pomp and ostentation, men and women who have insatiable ego for spectacle and glamour and a ballooned sense of their own self-importance find it very expedient to assert their financial power in brazen forms of public exhibition. In living and spending lavishly, they entertain themselves and others with the humane achievements of their wealth. This is partly why burials in Nigeria are conducted as carnivals where the rich display their wealth and the poor are invited to come and eat.”
I then proceeded to ask: From the Christian perspective where death is not the annihilation of life but a transition to a life that never ends, shouldn’t there be a sense of moderation and sobriety during funeral celebrations? Are burial carnivals not a waste of resources and unnecessary show-off? Does it not offend Christian sensibility, the idea that the living would go to the extent of bankrupting themselves to commit the dead to the ground? Should the Islamic rites of burial not offer us a convincing ideal about the need to apply simplicity and moderation in funeral celebrations?
To write this article to completion, I had to temporarily put aside a book project on the theme of mercy. I started writing this upcoming book midway into the Year of Mercy, which ended in November last year. My plan was to get the book out before the close of the Jubilee of Mercy, but it wasn’t possible. Interestingly, I was editing chapter 11 of the book titled “The Corporal Works of Mercy” when Stella called me to help her write the newspaper article for publication. Before the end of the day, a priest-friend Father Donatus Chukwuedo, popularly known as DonChuks, called to share a story with me. Father DonChuks and I studied for the priesthood in Ss. Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Bodija, Ibadan. He was three years my senior while we were in the seminary. He is a young, handsome priest of average height. He has a very clean skin, fair in complexion and interesting to be with. There were times I asked myself in the silent chamber of my soul why such a divinely handsome young man would contemplate becoming a priest. Our fascination with Father DonChuks during our seminary days was his gifted dexterity in playing musical instruments, especially the saxophone. He was a grandmaster of the seminary’s horns men.
After his ordination as a priest of Issele-Uku Diocese, Father DonChuks returned to the University of Ibadan for advanced studies in Special Education, and he has been doing tremendous work among people with hearing impairment in Okpanam, where he is also parish priest. Father DonChuks called to narrate a touching story of a man from Sierra Leone who had lived in Okpanam for over 30 years. Babatunde Lewis is his name. No one knows the circumstances of his arrival in Nigeria, but I would readily imagine that the situation of conflict in his country at that time drove him to Nigeria. He settled in Okpanam and was employed by someone as a security guard. Father DonChuks was a bit emotional when he described to me the religious fervour of Mr Babatunde – a very ardent and devout Catholic who never missed morning Mass. Sadly, Mr Babatunde died on December 26 last year, just the day after the infant King was born. For Catholics, December 26 is a significant day of our religious calendar. We celebrate on that day, not Boxing Day, but the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church. Stephen, a prominent deacon in the early Church, was the first to die on account of the faith after the coming of Christ. On this day, one of the prayers of the celebration makes a very striking and sublime contrast between Jesus Christ and St Stephen. It says: “The Lord Jesus was born on earth yesterday so that St Stephen might be born in heaven today.”
This statement of faith might well reflect the story of Mr Babatunde, who passed on to eternity on the day after the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus, his coming on earth, opened the floodgates of heaven, to Mr Babatunde. This is what makes his story a bit compelling. There is no trace of any known relative of Mr Babatunde, so the Catholic Church in Okpanam took up the challenge of giving the deceased faithful a fitting and decent burial. Father DonChuks took this burden upon himself and processed the papers of the deceased with the civil authorities. This noble act of accepting responsibility for the burial of late Mr Babatunde is surely a great act of Christian charity on the part of Father DonChuks and his parishioners.
In my discussion of the corporal work of mercy – burying the dead – in my upcoming book, I noted that, “Funerals give us the opportunity to grieve and show others support during difficult times. Through our prayers and actions during these times we show our respect for life, which is always a gift from God, and comfort to those who mourn. It helps us to think of the good and beautiful things the dead person did during his life.” The last statement is true of Mr Babatunde. According to the testimony of his priest, he was very active and dedicated to his faith. He never missed daily Mass. I’m sure that the Catholic faithful in Okpanam will always keep memory of this “good and beautiful thing.” According to human testimony, Mr Babatunde lived a virtuous life. Yet it is God alone who knows the hearts of all. That is why our prayers for the dead rely on the loving mercy of God who alone knows the faith of everyone and who alone has the power to set free from the bonds of sin and death those who have died.
In our prayers for the dead, we who are pilgrims on earth are united with the saints in heaven in beseeching the mercy of God. The basis of our Christian hope is Christ himself “the resurrection and the life” who has promised us that “whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will not die forever” (Jn. 11:25-26). Jesus is the first born from the dead. By his resurrection, he frees us from the fear of death – from the terrible fear of the unknown, of our own disintegration – that holds us in a kind of slavery. Because he has walked the dark valley of death before us, because he has promised to walk along with us, we can take “courage” and “fear no evil” as Psalm 23 proclaims.
There is a lesson in Mr Babatunde’s life for every one of us, and the lesson is that we always strive to do our best in the service of God and neighbour. This is the only identity card that we need for our appearance at the judgment seat of the Divine Majesty. God does not demand too much of us, he only asks that we make our little daily efforts to love him with all our heart, with all our strength, with all our mind, and with all our soul, and then to love our neighbour as he has loved us. Even when he demands something so high of us, he provides the grace and strength for us to fulfil his will. The real question is whether we strive to cooperate with the graces that God freely gives to us.
The other part of the story is the symbol that Mr Babatunde holds for many other immigrant people who have been placed in his circumstances as a result of terrible situations of war, violence and conflict in their own homelands. Jesus and the Holy Family of Nazareth knew exactly what it was to be expropriated from their homeland as a result of the insecurities in Judea during the reign of Herod. That is why one of the corporal works of mercy – welcoming the stranger – makes an evident demand of us in our Christian calling. There are millions of people world over who have displaced from their homelands as a result of conflict, but there are many others too who have migrated in search of a better and wholesome life. In my article on the global refugee crisis, published in The Guardian of June 29, 2016 I noted that “a seriously frightening tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has just published the report of the global situation of refugees in the year 2015. Titled Global Trends, the report notes that in the year 2015, 63.5 million people were displaced from their homes by war, persecution and human rights abuses than at any time since UNHCR records began. This means that an average of 24 people was forced to flee each minute in 2015, four times more than a decade earlier. The report also found that measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent.”
“When put in proper perspective, the tally is greater than the population of the United Kingdom – or of Canada, Australia and New Zealand put together. It is made up of 3.2 million people in industrialised countries who, at the end of 2015, were awaiting decisions on asylum, being the largest total UNHCR has ever recorded. The tally also provides that in the total number of displaced persons 40.8 million have been forced to flee their homes, even though they are within the confines of their own countries. Then there are 21.3 million refugees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, this is the first time in the organisation’s history that the threshold of 60 million displaced persons has been crossed. ‘More people are being displaced by war and persecution and that’s worrying in itself, but the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying too. At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.’”
Some world leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Pope Francis have been in the forefront of highlighting the plights of refugees. On April 16, 2016 Pope Francis paid a symbolic visit to refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. On his return to the Vatican, he came back with three Syrian Muslim families, 12 members in all, including six children. The pontiff performed this gesture to highlight the tragedy faced by hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to reach Europe in search of peace and greener pastures. He rescued Muslims, not Catholics, because his message is that we are all God’s children. We all remember the heart-breaking picture of the 3-year-old Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi whose lifeless body was washed up on the beach near a Turkish resort, after two boats carrying 23 people from Turkey and headed for the Greek island of Kos, capsized. The dead included five children – among them Aylan’s 5-year-old brother – and one woman, their mother.
Sheltering and supporting people fleeing from theatres of war and conflict and from other human and natural disasters are not acts of charity, but a legal and moral obligation prescribed both by international law and by our common humanity. The people of Okpanam community in Delta State accorded that obligation to Mr Babatunde Lewis, and they carried that on to the very end. In taking upon themselves the responsibility of burying the dead, they fulfil Jesus’ teaching regarding the criteria for our judgment on the Last Day: “When I was homeless you welcome me. Well done good and faithful servant. Come and share in the joys of your Lord.” As Mother Teresa said when she read the Gospel passage about the Last Judgment, “In the evening of our lives, we will all be judged on love.”
May perpetual light shine on Mr Babatunde Lewis. And may the Angels of God lead him safely home!