Book Review of Were You There? Stations of the Cross
Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books
1999, xi, 99 pp., paper, $15
Reviewed by Joseph G. Healey
Scripture Meditations as Written Theology,
Religious Paintings as African Symbolic or Visual Theology
Diana Hayes is a professor of theology at Georgetown University. In these mediations on the Passion of Jesus she tries “to reveal the continued significance of the man and the message for me, an African American lay woman,” (x) and for others. As we enter the third millennium of Christianity she believes that Jesus and his message are just as relevant today as they were long ago.
Hayes creatively uses lyrics from religious songs especially African American spirituals to reflect on the different stations. The 18 songs quoted include “Hush, Hush Somebody’s Calling My Name,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Were You There.” Her meditation on Station XI (“Jesus is Nailed to the Cross”) ends:
“Our God has not, our God will not abandon us despite ourselves and our actions. God calls and calls and calls yet again, holding out a hand that will ease the pain and suffering. He continues to shower us with the grace to respond to that call.
Hush, hush somebody’s calling my name
Oh, my Lord, oh, my Lord, what shall I do?
Listen. Hear. And say yes” (73-74).
The artist Charles Ndege is one of the best-known religious painters in Tanzania. Originally from Maji Moto in Northwest Tanzania, he studied art at the Sukuma Cultural Center, Bujora near Mwanza. Some of Ndege’s art has been published in Towards an African Narrative Theology (Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 and Orbis Books, 1997) and various books, booklets and calendars published by Paulines Publications Africa. Ndege also had done paintings and illustrations of African proverbs and sayings.
Ndege was commissioned to paint African-style Stations of the Cross on the cement walls of St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe Catholic Church in Nyakato outside of Mwanza. The vivid, full-color paintings depict typical scenes of the Sukuma Ethnic Group around the southern shores of Lake Victoria. The work took nine months during which he lay or sat on scaffolding. In her “Introduction” Hayes states: “It is fitting that Jesus is depicted as a Black man, one of African descent. Just as he has been depicted over the centuries attired in the robes of the Jewish poor, Middle Eastern nobility, Renaissance princes, Flemish merchants and English nobles, he is today rendered in a style and manner representative of the largest and fasting-growing Catholic community in the world, the church of Africa” (xi).
Ndege feels passionately that the Jesus of contemporary faith should be portrayed as an African, as a Tanzanian, as a Sukuma. Just as Hayes’ series of meditations are a type of written theology, Ndege’s religious paintings are a type of African Symbolic or Visual Theology. His art implies a theological interpretation of the biblical narrative within the Tanzanian context. In Station V (“Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross”) the distinct African flavor is portrayed in the large rock formations of the Mwanza area on which lizards sun themselves. The blue waters of Lake Victoria are in the background. Coming in from the fields Simon of Cyrene drops his hoe and helps to carry Jesus’ cross. Two other Tanzanian farmers are depicting running away with their hoes in their hands. Hayes comments: “Today, we continue to flee, turning our backs on those less fortunate than ourselves, those who may be different for whatever reason, those seeking to bring about change…We turn away, too busy, too full of our own lives, never realizing that in so doing we are turning away from God, condemning ourselves by our own selfishness and fear” (34).
Were You There? Stations of the Cross is a book of meditations that should be read slowly, reflectively, prayerfully. An ideal time is the season of Lent. Other times could be periods of physical or psychological sickness and at the death of a relative or close friend. Our Western culture often tried to deny suffering, death and other “down” moments. But Hayes says: “Death is not an ending, but a beginning. The cross does not stand for suffering and pain but for life, a life in Christ” (96).
Father Joseph G. Healey, M.M. is a Maryknoll missionary priest who teaches a course on “Small Christian Communities as a New Model of Church in Africa Today” at Hekima College (Jesuit School of Theology) and at Tangaza College (CUEA) in Nairobi, Kenya. He is co-author of Towards An African Narrative Theology (Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 and Orbis Books, 1997). He is the co-editor of Small Christian Communities Today: Capturing the New Moment. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005 and Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2006.