Terry Charlton, S.J., is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Kenya for many years. He is the founder of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Nairobi, a Christian Life Communities (CLC) sponsored institution for orphans of the AIDS epidemic. An alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit College Preparatory in Indianapolis, Ind., Father Charlton has a long history in Jesuit secondary education and is currently on a year-long sabbatical in Chicago.
On Dec. 26, I interviewed Father Charlton by email about his work.
How did you end up in Africa and how long have you been there now?
I had never given a thought to working outside the United States. Being a missionary was, in my thinking, for the pious and the crazy. When I was in doctoral studies in the mid-80s, there was a gathering of young Jesuits from the Chicago Province. The provincial had a question-and-answer session. One participant asked him if we were thinking of starting something in Africa. He replied, “No,” but continued that there is a sense that this is such a kairos time for Africa with the many relatively newly independent nations and the tremendous growth in the church there, so perhaps some Jesuits from our province should go there to work.
I spontaneously found myself thinking, I could do that! I was so surprised at this foreign thought that I wondered if the Holy Spirit could be speaking to me. I decided I should pray over this possible inspiration. As I prayed, the desire for Africa grew. I eventually shared with my provincial. It seemed to make sense, and so I was eventually missioned to Africa.
I went to Africa in January 1988, to work at the Centre for Spiritual Renewal in Kumasi, Ghana. It was an important experience of being “on the ground” in a moderate-sized city, surrounded by relatively undeveloped rural Africa and a bishop, Peter Sarpong, a renowned anthropologist, who ran his diocese on the model of a tribal chief. In September 1990, I was missioned to Nairobi, Kenya, to teach Systematic Theology at Hekima College Jesuit School of Theology, which prepares Jesuits and others from all over Africa for priesthood. I’ve been in Nairobi now for 25 years in a variety of ministries, usually two or three at a time.
From your outsider’s perspective as a transplanted Hoosier, how has Kenya changed in your time there?
Kenya has emerged from being a relatively undeveloped country in 1990, and it always seems set to take off economically. If only it could crack the nut of government corruption, it has the potential in a well-educated population and its fairly developed infrastructure to become an engine in the development of the region of Eastern Africa.
Why did you found St. Aloysius Gonzaga School and how is it doing?
Christian Life Community (CLC), a worldwide Catholic lay movement, which follows Ignatian spirituality and is closely associated with the Jesuits, began in Nairobi in 1989. Upon arrival a year later, I was asked to become involved as the ecclesiastical assistant or national chaplain. In 2001, some members of CLC choose as their mission a ministry of presence to persons living with AIDS in Kibera, arguably the largest slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, with about half-a-million people. Engaging in this ministry took courage because it was still a time of great stigma being associated with those suffering from the AIDS pandemic. These people were isolated and shunned.
As CLC members listened to these people and their concerns, they kept hearing the worry about the future of their children, which meant education. All education in Kenya is for a fee. Primary education is relatively inexpensive, but secondary was out of reach for the children of these people who were usually sick and unable to hold a job. There were various efforts to help with the education of the children of the people being accompanied. Gradually, the idea of starting an Ignatian high school for these children emerged.
I remember the idea was brought to me on Dec. 13, 2003, I suppose both because I was the chaplain and because they thought that, as an American, I would have some fund-raising potential for a school that was certainly beyond the meager resources of CLC Kenya. I remember becoming silent and praying for a moment and, then, saying, “I don’t know if we can succeed, but the potential for good is so great that we have to try.”
Amazingly, we opened in mid-January 2004, in the midst of Kibera in a few rented rooms with mud walls and iron-sheet roofs. We accepted 21 sophomores and 35 freshmen in the school that we came to name St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Our criteria for acceptance quickly became clear; we were a college-preparatory school, educating bright AIDS-affected youth living in Kibera slum, meaning for us that they had lost either both their parents or that the one surviving parent was living with AIDS. We quickly began to speak of St. Aloysius as a school of hope, because we were giving a chance to youth who would often speak of themselves as having become hopeless when they recognized that, because of the devastating poverty of their family, they could not pursue a secondary education.
What are the effects of AIDS on your orphaned students and how does the school try to empower them?
Despite being orphaned and mired in poverty and suffering from the stigma of being AIDS-affected, our students are highly motivated and dedicated to studies because they realize that this is their chance out of poverty. Beyond that, most of our students love learning. We do our best to give our students a well-rounded education in the best Jesuit tradition. In fact, while it is sponsored by CLC Kenya, our Jesuit Province of Eastern Africa accepts St. Aloyisus as part of our province network of Jesuit schools.
When we reached the point of having our first graduates in November 2006, we asked, “What next?” In Nairobi, one cannot do much with just a secondary education so we decided that we would try to raise additional money to send our graduates to college. Our benefactors have been so generous that we have been able to achieve this goal.
There is a “gap period” in Kenya between finishing high school and beginning college. We decided to use this time profitably by engaging our graduates in six months of community service. We organize placements in and around Kibera for each graduate. They work Monday to Thursday and come back to school on Fridays for reflection groups. I think that youth like ours, who have experienced marginalization and suffered a great deal but whom we treat as valuable and important, have the potential to be especially sensitive to the plight of others. Their experience of community service goes far in forming our youth into men and women for others.
We also recognized the deficits of schooling in our poor and crowded conditions in the midst of Kibera slum so that we began fund-raising for building a permanent school in 2005. Again, thanks to generous benefactors, we were able to build a modern school, which opened in May 2010. Now we are taking the step of raising money to build dormitories so that our students do not have to return to the difficult situation of Kibera each evening where studying can be almost impossible.
Some American Jesuits burn out in what we used to call the “foreign missions” after an initial period of enthusiasm. What has kept you grounded and sustained during your 27 years in Africa?
Maybe the main difficulties are that progress is so slow and many people do not become “transformed” by our help as quickly as we would desire. I think I learned to recognize pretty quickly that our hope has to be in the Lord. If I can be an instrument in Christ’s saving work, great! We do what we can, and my work is about facilitation. Despite the pressures to work long hours, I know that it is essential that I maintain for myself what I want for others, a balanced life of work, prayer, community, friendships and some healthy relaxation.
What have been some highlights of your time in Africa?
When I came to Nairobi in 1990, our Jesuit province of Eastern Africa was 95 members, including over half in formation, and most of those in the trenches were non-African. Twenty-five years later, we are 210 members, still including over half in formation, but with just a few rather elderly non-African members. African Jesuits are now doing such great work! I am pleased to be part of the forming of African Jesuits competently to lead the province and to continue to develop our service.
I am proud that CLC Kenya has developed into a strong, vibrant community on mission that can successfully sponsor a high school that is achieving so much.
What have been some challenges for you?
The greatest challenge has been not to become overwhelmed by the poverty and injustice that I see around me. I must maintain the belief that my role is to facilitate others in being grounded in our call to continue the saving work of Christ, in helping each realize his or her potential, and in building a community of support for realizing this work.
What have you learned from your time in Africa thus far?
I have been amazed at how our students at St. Aloysius so frequently speak of their gratitude for all God does for them. I find myself wondering, if I lived their situation, would I rather be cursing God? I become more grateful and that leads me to want to make a return for all I have received.
How do you pray?
My core prayer is about being with Jesus as present to the world around me and to the particular persons and situations that make up my reality. Often, I sit in gratitude. Sometimes, I come to recognize my failures or how I can respond better. I pray I become stronger in doing the Lord’s will, which I see as being purified of my a prioris so that I can more freely respond according to what the situation calls for.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Romans 8:28 reads in part, “God draws all things to good for those who love him.” This tells me that God is working for good in every situation. There is no situation so horrible, desperate or sinful that God is not at least potentially present, working for good. Indeed, don’t we believe that our salvation comes from the most Godforsaken situation of the intentional murder of an innocent man? But might God want to be working in a given situation even through the likes of me? As one who tries to love God, my discernment must be open to the recognition that God could be asking me to be present in even the most horrendous situation so that God can bring about salvation through me.
Any final thoughts?
In case any of your readers wants to know more about St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School, our website is www.sagnairobi.org.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.