"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 3, 2013
A Few Good Men and Women in a Darkling Plain
by Imo Eshiet

Among the 1.2 billion people Pope Francis leads today, there are many whose faith has been shaken by ignorance and uncertainty. Many in a Christ kingdom who have been led by some leaders with dubious religious authority are turning away from the ideals taught by Christ.

The disarming way Pope Francis sets about battling to restore hope among his followers invites comparisons. Pairing the pope with the man I have in mind may seem far-fetched, but it will serve my purpose of showing that a few good men and women can bring so much light in a dark and despairing world.

John Frank was a distant uncle. He served as an indentured laborer in a plantation in Equatorial Guinea, an obscure island some nautical miles away from my village in the cusp of the Bight of Benin and Biafra. While there, he probably worked under the supervision of some colonial Spanish gentleman or possibly in the home of one such man.

Upon returning home, Uncle Frank brought with him some “strange ways” contrary to our way of life. In my village certain roles especially domestic functions were rigidly set aside for women. When he breached these roles, he instantly became the butt of snide village jokes.

These became increasingly virulent as they rolled off vicious tongues in our culture, where clever words can easily be as hurtful and cruel as serrated barbs. Rather than observe Uncle Frank and learn from him, most stereotyped him for muddling and bastardizing tradition.

“Fufu,” a staple often made from yam or cassava flour (like most of our foods), is traditionally prepared by women. When made from cassava, the process is pretty tasking. Laden with cyanide, the tuber is first shelled of its rind and then fermented for several days to ride it of its deadly payload.

To make it really fit for consumption, the now soft tuber is washed and sifted to further extract the starch and completely rid it of cyanide. In the process, cassava releases some very disagreeable smells.

In our male-ordered society, this disgusting but essential job is reserved for disadvantaged, especially women, children, and house helps. Men who do it are written off as effeminate. Yet Frank did this for his wife and children. When he followed up with laundering his wife’s clothes at the stream, fetching water, cooking and doing several other things shunned by those who fancied themselves macho, the gossip became virulent.

Some said when they were making babies his wife played the role of the husband. Others said he even carried the pregnancy, but only handed it over to the wife to deliver shortly before the water broke! It did not help matters that my uncle had a distended belly.

In a culture where wife battery was common, it made the villagers mad that he took it calmly when she talked back at him! Generations later, however, many men would no longer find it too objectionable to slough off some of their sexiest prejudices and partner with their wives as Uncle Frank did.

Like Uncle Frank, Pope Francis is an extraordinary man. His courage to turn his back on moribund tradition and breathe freshness into uncritically accepted norms has persuaded me to rethink my dislike for popery.

The way he rolls, this pope seems driven by an obligation to drain his church of ostentation in order to connect with audiences the gospel was originally meant for. He has startled many for doing what no other pope is known to have done in living memory.

He finds time to personally put a call through to distressed members of his church oceans away from him. When he called a telephone operator recently and introduced himself as Pope Francis, the poor fellow, thinking it was a joke, retorted, “Yeah, and I’m Napoleon!”

According to Catholic rites, the pope on a Thursday proceeding Easter washes twenty-four feet in a ceremony that re-enacts the humility of Jesus Christ. Again tradition privileges men’s feet alone for the washing, but for the tradition-defying pope, some of the feet washed and kissed this year were women’s and those of other faiths including a Muslim!

Not only that, the pope as exemplar of humility and the simple life of Christ, moved the ceremony from the comfort of expansive cathedrals to a setting peopled by social outcasts — the Casal del Marmo prison on the outskirts of Rome.

Hear him: “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”

Preferring his ministry be defined by what-you-see-is-what-you-get, the pontiff’s actions mirrors the Lord’s instruction that the most important servant in the vineyard “must be at the service of others.” Pope Francis resonates thus: “We need to go out, then, in order to experience our own anointing (as priests)... to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.”

The Catholic leader spells out in deeds how and with whom members ought to spend time and the urgency to invite all to come to Christ.

Matching style with substance, the pope counsels his flock that, “Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager... doesn't put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks.”

Going to the prison to minister to those at the fringes of society, connects with the expectations of the man the pope prefers to be named after. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, professed humility, obedience and poverty.

According to tradition this holy man taught: "Preach the Gospel always! When necessary, use words.” While there is no certainty he actually said this, yet nothing persuades more than action. Evidently Francis of Assisi shunned the trappings of wealth and luxury, and urged that Christian do what Peter said to do in 1 Peter 3 : 15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

In a crooked, perverse world aggravated by economies programed to keep the poor kissing dirt, the pope’s gracious gestures inspire hope. Hope, in folk Irish wisdom, “is the physician to every misery.” It helps to see someone in authority speaking out for the voiceless, touching them, showing empathy and joining forces with like minds to make light their burdens.

Having known suffering, seen bloodshed and blindness that longs for sight and “prisoners in thrall to many evil masters,” one knows in deed that the world lights up when powerful men and women step out of the bubble to serve and uplift those bludgeoned by starvation and helplessness.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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