God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

What I expected from being a priest and how I became an Aids activist in Africa

Stefan Hippler:

Was that it? – What I expected from being a priest and how I became an Aids activist in Africa

I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was in July 1986, shortly after my ordination to the priesthood. I was driving from Koblenz to Trier, in south-western Germany. Suddenly a strange anxiety gripped me: was this all there was?

The beautiful scenery of the countryside of Hunsrück and the Eifel flew by, and it felt as if I was confined to a golden cage. My priestly future seemed to be limited to a few precise, definable coordinates. A parish, service to the Church, pastoral duties – I saw my life flashing before me. In the end, a small obituary would say: “Well done, thou faithful and loyal servant…”, and with it a catalogue of parishes and other stations of importance, and a note of appreciation from the bishop of Trier. But I managed to shake off this sense of confinement and lack of direction, and reported to my first post as curate in Münster-Sarmsheim. I was ready to follow the promise I had made at my ordination, to experience the glorious freedom of God’s children.

At the same time I was also intensively engaged in the peace movement – much to the distress of my Episcopal superiors. I took part in a sit-in at the American nuclear depot in Hasselbach, and was promptly arrested, along with a couple of high-profile protesters. The officials of my diocese were less than impressed when they watched the TV footage of their vicar being bundled into a police van. And so just six months into my priesthood my career, in as far as there is such a thing in the Church, was already on a slope.

When the first Gulf War broke out in the early 1990s, I was serving as vicar in Andernach. My parish of St Peter’s became a regional refuge of spiritual resistance, and again the superiors were irritated by my peace activism. At the same time it bothered me, as a young priest, to be preaching Sunday sermons at my congregations without having been exposed much to real life – I felt that I needed real life experience before I could act as a proper pastor. So I applied for a year’s leave. The sabbatical turned out to last five years during which I didn’t always work in the vineyard of the Lord, but also in other pastures. A McDonald’s drive-in restaurant taught me how to prepare burgers. After the Berlin Wall fell, McDonald’s offered me a lucrative managerial post in eastern Germany. I turned it down: I wanted life experience, not a career.

Instead I went to work for 18 months on a finca in Spain to learn various farming skills, such as harvesting and the processing of almonds. After that I returned to Germany to work as a care assistant in a hospital ward for final-stage cancer patients. And then I was joining as a volunteer of he organisation Pax Christi to care for refugees in Croatia. In Mostar I began to fully understand the horrors of war. My next station was Frankfurt, working at the international airport in the social services department which attends to stranded refugees and asylum applicants. My primary function was to take care of unaccompanied refugee children. That experience marked a turning point in my life. I quickly learned that Germany’s Constitution (or “Basic Law”) ended at passport control – as not infrequently did human rights.

I had to witness how children would be traumatized as they were arrested at machinegun-point by border patrols and then be put into a sort of Ikea-jail in Terminal 2. Or how a two-year-old refugee boy was refused entry as a security threat to the Federal Republic, even as his mother was granted an asylum seeker permit inside Germany. Or how some people in their despair attempted to commit suicide. After such experiences I began to think of Germany in some aspects as not better than as a banana republic. That time-tested my view of humanity, and by extension of God. On reflection I am thankful for these experiences – without them, I would not be the person I am today.

The key event was my massive clash with the then-minister for the interior, Manfred Kanther. The conflict centred on seven Sudanese men who protested against their expulsion with a weeks-long hunger strike. On three occasions the Constitutional Court ruled, at the last-minute, against their deportation. But then Kanther ordered the seven to be put in leg irons, placed on a chartered jet and flown to Khartoum. During their eight-week hunger strike I had become particularly friendly with one of the seven, a quiet, reticent young man, whose claims to having been tortured in Sudan appeared to be highly credible. But having been tortured was not good enough grounds for securing asylum, so I had decided to shield the poor guy by way of adult adoption. But he and his six friends were now back in Sudan. A reporter for the magazine stern (which once attracted attention for publishing the fake diaries of Adolf Hitler) established through instant research that they had just been economic refugees. Minister Kanther must have been delighted, because the article seemed to vindicate him.

I decided to fly to Sudan to determine the facts of the matter myself. My employer, Caritas, also had an interest in the matter: if we were proved right, we would at least be able to claim a moral victory. I succeeded in locating and visiting all seven of the deported men, and could now verify that stern’s account did not correspond with the facts. For example, the reporter worked a pure miracle by interviewing, without the aid of modern technology, the mother of one of the seven from a distance of 400km!

My research did not please the Sudanese officials, and even less so their German counterparts. When I landed two weeks later in Frankfurt, border patrol units surrounded the aeroplane. My companion to Sudan and I were detained. At the station I noticed an Interpol wanted poster…for me! I realised that the situation was serious: I was being investigated for suspected human trafficking and formation of a criminal ring! An attorney secured my release. Shortly after a telephonic message from Caritas: “Your employment is terminated with immediate effect.”

The confrontation with the might of the state, the falsehoods peddled by the press, the inhumane asylum policy – all this shook my set of values to their core. I prevailed in my legal case against stern, and after half a year the investigation against me was closed. Caritas welcomed me back on duty, but only after I had threatened them with a complaint in labour court. But Germany had become too restrictive for me; I knew I had no future there.

In 1997 my diocese allowed me to continue my pastoral service abroad, for which I remain grateful to my then-bishop, the late- Hermann Josef Spital. So I went to Africa – and arrived, to the shock of the parish sister, with another man, namely my Sudanese friend, whom I had adopted. It is obvious, she told me, what it means when two men live together. And right off I had another problem: the parish sister immediately informed my superiors in Bonn. In the end, a brief clarification was enough to smooth things over.

Now I began to meet a great challenge: the renewal of the stagnant German-speaking Catholic parish in the Cape. It had neither a church nor a presbytery, the parish register consisted of a hand-written list. I set about visiting families, asking for addresses and contacts, and then founded a parish council. I also bought a building called the Mediterranean Villa for the church, to serve as a presbytery, a parish centre, and also as a guesthouse, because I was also in charge of the pastoral care for German-speaking tourists. The proceeds from the lodgings were intended to cover the running parish costs and to finance social projects. Confirmation, Easter vigils and Christmas Mass were reintroduced, and slowly the somnolent parish found a new life. A decade later, the 400 square kilometre wide parish is running smoothly.

Besides my pastoral ministry I was also eager to develop social activities: outreach with parishes in black townships, partnerships and development projects with people who remained disadvantaged even in the new, democratic South Africa. Soon one matter occupied the focal point, and I couldn’t let it rest: HIV/Aids and its devastating consequences.

Why do I write at such length about all of this? Because one can understand certain thoughts I express in this book only against the backdrop of my life story. Perhaps only those who understand the harsh realities of everyday life will follow my doubts and questions, and empathise with the abyss which so demoralise me as a priest.

Only those who know my life’s journey will appreciate that behind my cries from the conscience I have an absolute desire for dialogue and, yes, a longing to be taken seriously. The texts in this book are not intended as a gratuitous critique of the Catholic Church, but as a serious enquiry which cannot be dismissed simply with reference to God’s will or the classic “It was always so; why should we do it any differently now?” This is more about the challenges of real life, about questions to which we must find answers. It’s about being confronted by the insights of natural science – and by the ancient sources of our Christian beliefs.

The suffering which has visited millions of people – and also millions of Christians, millions of Catholics – obliges us to enter into a new dialogue with St Augustine, for example. That Church Father’s principles concerning sexual morality and sin have been carved into the Catholic stone, so much so that they seem unassailable. I am not interested in dispensing with all that is old, conventional and traditional for the sake of modern wisdoms. I am looking for an honest inquest and dialogue which must be open for the New which God wants to give us again and again by trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.. In doing so we must conquer our fears, with trust in God. Benedict XVI, the present pope, is a brilliant theologian. Those in the know suggest that after almost three decades in the Vatican he has lost touch with the realities of common life. I understand why that may be inevitable, but I wish that the highest authorities in our Church might listen to its specialists on the ground, instead of closing their minds from the start.

I offer no patented solutions. I also have no intention of rebuilding the Church, never mind shaking it to its foundation. But I would like the Church to consider my practical experiences and intellectual insights in its development of a theology of a people-friendly, loving God. The time in our Church when people would be condemned for thinking independently categorically should be over. I expect to receive the same spiritual respect I offer others, because that shows respect towards those people whose lives and sufferings this book deals with. They are all daughters and sons of God; they are all respected and loved unconditionally by Him.

Translation from:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV, Development and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and social development in Africa has its challenges. You will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa, about politics and whatever triggers my interest. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me. Blogging means to initiate thoughts and discussions and for the writer to formulate what is loosely running around in the heart and mind in need of being sorted and spoken out.

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