The idea of having a university level institution to prepare people for social ministry emerged during the first Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishop dedicated to Africa. That meeting, often referred to as the African Synod, took place in 1994. I was in Rome to work on some documentation and facilitate discussions related to the Synod. Participating to some of the assemblies, I heard the bishops praising the great growth of the Church in Africa, but also lamenting the social degradation of so many places there. I, and other like minded people, started to reflect on these themes and asked ourselves what could be done to respond to the challenges highlighted by the bishops. It seemed that faith was growing, but that it had little impact on the life of people. The Church has always cherished its commitment in education and health. Yet, these seemed to have no penetration at all at policy level. Why did faith have so little impact on the lives of people?
We thought the best answer we could give was to create something that would empower our social apostolate. We chose to work in partnership with Tangaza, a Catholic college of theology in Nairobi. A few missionary institutes gave their support, and I was chosen to put flesh on the project.
My first steps were to get in touch with the school of social workers of the University of Nairobi, and a catechetical school in Eldoret. These institutions had some experience in social work, even though their approach was different from what we wanted to achieve. They did not think of challenging and change social structures, which was our aim. After a short preparation, we opened the Institute of Social Ministry, which went to add to other institutes and helped transform Tangaza from a theological school into a school of ministry in a wider sense.
After two decades of experience, the Institute has grown from offering a diploma to preparing people at graduate level. I understood that if we want to have an impact on Africa we must develop further to offer formation to doctorate level. This is a challenge to prepare our staff and be able to improve our methodology of researching and teaching. We cannot be science oriented only. Our research must lead us to action. Our students cannot study only at intellectual level. They have to be able to apply their finding to planning the future.
A second track we must travel is that of social transformation through advocacy. Our institute has to develop a department for advocacy. At the moment we have contacts with policy makers, but these are mostly fragmented experiences. We need to finds way to reach policy makers on a regular basis; we need to be able to propose them a research that can guide their judgement; we need to offer ethical criteria and international contacts to enlarge the horizon of our vision.
Another challenge is the outreach work. We have many requests from dioceses and local governments that want us to help them in the formation of people for social work and for local administrations. This includes both bringing the university closed to their locations and e-learning. We have some outreach programs already running. We need to improve what we do and step up to using the internet for distance learning.
The time has come to create a network to bring together the many experiences and encourage all to work for the transformation of society. The risk is that, once on a working schedule, many of the ideals that animated the young students disappear and vanish. It is important to keep the flame burning. In these past years, more than a thousand students graduated here. It is a tremendous resource; our duty is to facilitate their work and penetration in society. A network requires a continuous dialogue with our former students, collecting data and disseminate them through various media. If we do not make people aware of these realities, we lose a tremendous opportunity to do good.
There is the opportunity to work in the social sphere, but also to influence our vision of faith in other areas. Through the work of social ministry, we can help local communities and other ministers to integrate their faith in their lives. Our way of understanding the demands of the Gospel should influence the teaching we offer catechumens, the kind of spirituality we nurture. There are far too many priests who push for devotional choices, what about choosing to be present in society, at the heart of where decisions are taken, and challenge policy makers to listen to the Word of God? The Church has a rich social doctrine. Yet, many of the teachings – touching family life, relationship with others, etc. – do not find their way to the heat of the faithful.