FINDING THE CHURCH IN TOGO
Marist Brother Tells of Leaving Behind Traditional African Religion
ROME, SEPT. 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Remy Sandah would go to church in his rural Togo community so that he didn’t have to work in the fields.
Now the financial administrator of the General Council of the Marists, Brother Sandah remembers his initial experience of Christianity as a sign that God uses anything to reach his people — even a child’s unwillingness to work.
Brother Sandah is now far away from his western Africa homeland. He works in Rome, where he was interviewed by the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: What is your family background?
Brother Sandah: I’m from a rural background. Many of the rural areas of Togo are poor. People work very hard but make practically nothing, and this is not because of laziness. The rural areas are agriculturally based and when it is a bad year, there is no insurance, and so you starve.
Q: Did your parents work in agriculture?
Brother Sandah: My parents, brothers and I worked in the fields. I was six. We worked on one and helped with the others — you could call it a cooperative.
Q: Did you have time to go to school?
Brother Sandah: You start school, in my village, when you are six or seven. I only worked on Saturdays and Sundays. I tried to escape work by telling my father that I had to go to church. My father was not Christian but he allowed me to go to church.
Q: What kind of school did you attend?
Brother Sandah: It was a government school in the village, but the missionaries were not very far away and they came to teach us catechism and songs for church. I had contact with the Marists when I went to secondary school.
Q: Is Togo a Christian country?
Brother Sandah: I can’t say that Togo is a Christian country because Catholics are 25%, Protestants are 9% and Muslims are 15%. The majority belongs to traditional religions, which make up about half of the population. It is not a Christian country but we have a large Christian population. There is freedom of religion and there are good neighborly relations among all religions.
Q: If your parents were not believers, how did they allow you to go to a Catholic school?
Brother Sandah: My family was not Christian but now they are. Christianity was brought to the family by my older brother. He went on his own to attend a Christian school run by the Marist missionaries far away from our village. He wanted to get an education and my father did not oppose this, and let him go. When he came back he told us about the “Good News” so the family slowly embraced Christianity. I was able to go to church because of him. My father let us go if we liked. In the beginning I was doing both. I was going to church but I was also sacrificing to our ancestors with my father in the traditional religion.
Q: How was this — your move from traditional religion to becoming a Catholic?
Brother Sandah: In fact I was baptized in my infancy but I did not practice and only when I grew up and went to catechism and learned about Christianity, did I leave the traditional religion completely. I told my father: “They told us in the church that we should not make sacrifices if we go to church. We have to choose.” He said: “Then choose.” So I chose the Church. He was not opposed and I’m grateful.
Q: What attracted you most to Catholicism?
Brother Sandah: God uses all means to get his people and for me I would say he used my “bad side.” I used to go to church out of laziness — to escape farm work. In church I liked it because of the songs, and from some time on I went not to escape but to listen to the songs. When I then went to the Marist school it was something else. I saw their dedication to education, their work, and how they lived in community. This is what attracted me and also because of their joyfulness and how they worked together. I began asking myself questions; later on I went to talk to one of them and through discernment, decided to be a brother when I was old enough to decide.
Q: Why the Marists?
Brother Sandah: They came from Switzerland. In fact I did not know about the brothers. I knew what a priest was but the life of a brother, I did not know at all. When it was explained to me that they live in community and pray and work together — almost like a priest but they do not celebrate Mass — I was not attracted to the priesthood but this life interested me and I thought it could be my way. The other reason was that they came from Switzerland. There were no more vocations in Switzerland and the school they were running [in Togo] was to be closed if there were no Togolese to continue. I was the first to join them. So it was also out of love for education.
Q: What was your family’s reaction when you told them that you wanted to join the Marists and become a brother?
Brother Sandah: Their first reaction was negative because, as I said, the religious brothers were not well known and they didn’t want to hear about it. I tried to explain what religious life is and their question was: “Do they marry?” I said “no.” “Well then it is like a priest so there is no difference.” I said: “There is a difference. They do not celebrate Mass.” “Well if they don’t marry it is the same.” As my elder brother went to Catholic school and became a priest, they said, “One is enough.” I persisted. Finally, when my parents visited me and they saw other young people in the pre-novitiate, slowly they accepted it by the time I was ready to make my first vows.
Q: They accepted that you are not going to marry considering that your elder brother is a priest and that someone has to continue the family line?
Brother Sandah: That was the initial concern but my younger brother has a wife and four children and they don’t have to worry about that. My mother, who has since become a Christian, has understood what Christian life is all about. She said: “Life is not ours. Life is to God.” She understood and even my father,who now has gone to the Father, before his death, was completely okay with it. So I am grateful.
Q: Was it difficult to turn your back on the African traditional religion when you chose to become a Catholic?
Brother Sandah: One thing I can say is that I decided as a child that my practice of the traditional religion was not out of faith. My interest was solely eating the meat, which was being sacrificed and just helping, watching and just being there. So it was not from my heart. I discovered the Catholic faith in another way. So I cannot say that I miss the traditional religion.
Q: What Scripture did you choose during your consecration?
Brother Sandah: When I made my perpetual vow, that is when you solemnly decide to remain with the congregation, I chose John 16:33 and Christ’s words were: “Be not afraid, I have conquered the world.” These words spoke a lot to me at that moment because there was a lot of trouble in the 1990s; a civil strife between north and south and different ethnic tribes and people were afraid. I thought, we Christians should not be afraid and we should help people to confide in God because our fate is in his hands.
Q: What is the political situation now in Togo?
Brother Sandah: Things have changed greatly recently. Our last president has done a lot to bring about change. We are a republic that is transforming into a rule of democracy with different political parties in parliament — a transition from a one party system to three major parties and many others.
Q: What else should be done in your country?
Brother Sandah: We should be united as one. Some people feel that they are more Togolese than others and think that they have more entitlement to the place. There is still tension between some people of the north and of the south because of perceived injustices from the past. The government now is trying to make headway to ease this tension because without unity the nation is not going to prosper.
Q: Can you aid in this process of reconciliation?
Brother Sandah: I think everybody can do something. Directly, I think, I can do what every Christian should do, that is, to be an example for reconciliation. In my community we are from different tribes and ethnic groups and we live in harmony. If people see that this is possible then people will learn how to live without dissension and tension, and it will change.
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This interview was conducted by Marie Pauline Meyer for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.