-- Maryknoll's Father James Eble Builds A Parish With The Community --
He climbs a boulder-strewn hill where people have crammed their mud-stucco houses on and between the rocks of the Mabatini settlement of Mwanza, the second largest city in Tanzania. Trash and sewage collect in the low areas and the Maryknoll priest and his companions must balance their steps to avoid falling.
Father James Eble of Fairfield, California, is on his way to meet with a small Christian community that he said is drifting apart from the Church. As he climbs, he wondered if anyone will meet him.
Father Eble, 58, is a busy priest. He is the only priest serving the settlement west of Mwanza. His Transfiguration parish has 4,000 official Catholics from a population of about 70,000. His two Sunday masses each draw 700 people, including children, in a church built during the mid-1990s than can hold only half as many worshippers. Many stand outside. They include non-Catholics who are curious about the highly visible church on a rare open track of land surrounded by small shops and houses.
Father Eble is planning the construction of a new church to go along with the parish center completed a few years ago for parish and local community activities. The new church will seat 800 people and include a rectory that will house, he hopes, more than one priest. The building projects are consuming, but Father Eble always finds time to visit and pray with the flock.
Community Meeting And Building Together
The priest's trip on this day to the rocky summit was not in vain. Two dozen adults and many children greeted his arrival at the St. Thomas Base Christian Community.
The meeting, conducted in Swahili, lasted several hours. Most of the conversation was directed by the men and women of the community. For Father Eble, who has been working almost 10 years to build this parish, the meeting is an eye-opening, perhaps cathartic, experience.
"The people said a few times, they showed up because I showed up," said Father Eble. "They'll always tell you that's what they want from you: to be visited and comforted."
The community's appeal to see more of their pastor has left Father Eble reflecting on his role in the parish and its origins.
"That's how I started this parish," he said. "I just went around visiting the people for six months."
Construction of the buildings proceeds in stages. Father Eble juggles the projects along with the available funding and the process of obtaining construction permits. He estimates the church will cost about $400,000 and the rectory about $145,000. The people of Mabatini are raising some of the funds, but much also is coming from donations through Maryknoll.
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is the overseas mission outreach of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, following Jesus in serving the poor and others in need in 28 countries that include the U.S. All Catholics are called to mission through baptism, and Maryknoll's mission education outreach in parishes and schools throughout the country engages U.S. Catholics in mission through prayer, donations, as volunteers and through vocations.
During 2011, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is commemorating its centennial with a theme of The Gift of Mission – The Maryknoll Journey. These missionaries will celebrate as they continue their journey into the next 100 years to share God's love and the Gospel in combating poverty, providing healthcare, building communities and promoting human rights.
Father Eble's vision is for a church compound that is "a spiritual, intellectual and physical space" that gives people a place "to reflect and pray and dream...where everyone feels good about themselves."
Rocks from the hills will be used for part of the church walls, especially the wall behind the altar. Father Eble would like the altar to be a huge rock from "our hills."
Rock outcroppings are a prominent geological feature in this part of Tanzania. The rocks are an apt motif for the new church, reflecting both the local topography and Scripture ("Upon this rock I will build my Church" – Matthew 16:13-18).
As the son of a career Air Force officer, Father Eble was raised on military bases around the U.S. and in the Philippines, where his mother was born. After ordination during 1988, he began his ministry among traditional African people in the Tanzanian bush. He has worked in Mwanza since 2000 and succeeded in having Mabatini declared its own parish. The name echoes the shantytown origins. "Mabati" refers to the corrugated metal used on house roofs.
Father Eble understands that infrastructure alone with a new place to worship and for a community to meet is not the Church. The small Christian communities are key to building the true Church of the people and serving the people to obtain clean water and improve sanitation.
"In the rush to get things done, you can leave them behind and end up doing it for them, instead of doing it together," said Father Eble. "I was in the mode of pressing and getting things done and I needed to get back into the mode that is more of going with the people."