From this place I see so much. So much that should be lost to silence because wisdom is often couched in the silence than in the confrontations. I am also often couched in this silence. Yes, the silence of my inner rebellion - the rebellion of my conscience against the storm that we can all see approaching. That perhaps we might all still be missing the mark. That I might right now have the chance to say something, stop this and done nothing yet.
I want out.
‘It’s not exactly how my Bible puts it,’ Tunde retorts.
‘Well, mine says that Abraham was God’s friend.’ Fola insisted, ‘And God is not an author of confusion.’
‘Well, we can’t exactly say that given the story of the Tower of Babel,’ Annabel spoke up. ‘There was so much confusion there if you ask me.’
‘No one is asking,’ I said with as much firmness as I could garner. ‘Let’s just stick to the business of the day. This time, focusing on the outline…’
This is pretty much how things have been going on since I arrived at St. Angelica Parish. So much so that it strangled my once fervent attachment to communal Bible Study sessions. I have never seen people get so caught up with trying to out-study the others or out-memorise the others in Bible verses.
It is a contest.
The masses here are prolonged due to announcements- which are always read at an extra-ordinarily slow pace. The church halls are too chilly. Unfortunately everyone seems to be comfortable. Even the women who clad themselves with veils like Muslim women, and the men who now wear three piece suits in church only to be scourged by the ruthless Nigerian sun at the bus stops as they wait for overcrowded public buses with ‘one chance’ or two.
It’s been generally just a silent routine. Or so it seems. Like an over-rehearsed dance pattern to an over sang opera. I am part of this too, for three months now.
Then again, I have learnt to steal away from the stage every now and then. I sink into private reflection sessions with myself; locking me in, my ears plugged with either BoyzIIMen or Styl-Plus. This is not exactly the ideal taste of a newly ordained priest. But then, no one has said anything about compulsory hymn listening till death do us part.
I also have other not too ideal habits: Remaining in the chapel on Saturday nights after everyone but the altar girls have left. I love the play on colours of the ribbons and satin fabric as they pin them here and there decorating the altar. I like to watch them as they say almost nothing to each other. I have not memorised their names yet- though I have asked all of them one time too many. Perhaps my memory has stubbornly chosen not too. I will be here for a little while more anyway.
However, the colours and satin are not the only things that strap me to the back row of the peel, watching. It was Tunde, the only male altar girl who is also an altar boy -the only boy, in the church, who stays back to blow balloons and pins satin. The only one whose judgment is most trusted by the girls as regards the designs. The only one who strings the girls together and makes them laugh. His presence amongst them makes their interaction and work almost theatrical- nothing like opera.
He was replacing the sheets in my room the day I arrived. He had greeted me courteously, and I had stretched out my hand for a handshake when he bowed to be blessed. There was something so strikingly familiar about him, too familiar. I could not trace the sign of the cross; I just wanted to shake his hands.
The feeling grew stronger every time he stuck out his tongue for communion during mass; every time we locked glances in the course of sermons and every time I stayed up late on Saturday nights.
It did not bother me. Perhaps, I liked this one. Perhaps there was something to learn here- something to take or give. To this one, I knew I could be more than just ‘Fada’- more than just a priest. And with time he found his way into my prayers and my heart. Eventually I reached out for him.
Now I think of every time, he sat beside me in the vehicle as we went for evangelism. He was awfully quiet. Well, that was at the earlier stages. He began warming up to me after I played T.Y. Bello’s Green Land- we sang along like two teenage lovers. I liked that.
However, things got sour when people started talking.
‘Don’t you think you are spending too much time with this chap?’ Father Anthony asked one evening after Block Rosary meeting.
‘People are saying things you know.’ He said.
‘They are bound to say stuff.’ I responded.
‘I know, Father Cornelius, but this not just stuff. As priest we have to be very careful about the impression we give to our followers.’
‘I am not aware that I did anything to give a wrong impression.’ I said. I did not want to defend myself, but I was left with no choice. The evening was cold and windy. Our cassocks fluttered in the air behind as we got closer and closer to our rooms.
‘I understand you,’ I finally said after Father Anthony’s sermon, ‘But I feel strongly in the spirit that God had predestined my meeting Tunde. That boy has a great assignment on earth and I’m led to play my part in it. I appreciate your concern but I believe that God is in charge of everything.’
‘Well, if you say so. I hope things don’t escalate as they did the last time.’
‘If it’s written, who am I to hope otherwise?’
I was scared.
I had been told that the priest I replaced was sent away because he was accused of indulging in immoral acts with the female members of the congregation. The chaplain here did not like things to escalate. He has a reputation for solving issues before they bloomed into problems.
Who am I to hope otherwise? I started receiving very disturbing text messages on my private line from individuals who seemed to be anonymous members of the congregation.
Some of them were quite derogatory, accusing me of having a sacrilegious relationship with Tunde. Some of them read that the only thing I was good at was driving about with young boys in my car. A few of them were quite polite, asking me to distance myself from Tunde before he corrupts me with his ‘woman-wrapper’.
Shockingly, one read: ‘Father Cornelius, I found you first. I can give you whatever Tunde gives double. Though, you have refused to notice me, I will not stop trying.’
Haba! a priest can only take so much.
I was distressed. But then, I wanted Tunde’s friendship even more. Everything seemed most distorted when he was not around. Everyone seemed to be looking at me, strangely. It seemed as though I could read their minds judging me. Whenever, I celebrated mass, I noticed that individuals and families walked out once the sermon began.
I prayed. I cried. The Bishop of our diocese had sent for me and I was advised to pack up before I went to see him that I may not be returning.
I saw Tunde at a bus stop just before he got into a bus en route the Bishop’s parish. He did not see me. I wondered what was on his mind. The previous day, he treated me to lunch of shawarma and coke at an eatery in town. It was his birthday. While we ate, he told me that He had been asked to stop decorating the altar with the altar girls. I had not told him of the Bishop’s invitation. But no secrets are kept at Saint Angelica.
‘I understand that he is a mass servant.’ The Bishop said.
‘What is it about him that makes you want to throw your calling away?’ He asked.
‘I don’t want to throw my calling away.’
‘You know that people think that you are sleeping with this young man, right?’ he asked.
‘What do you think about these statements?’
‘They aren’t true.’
‘Well, I haven’t asked whether they are true or not. I asked of your thoughts about them.’ he said.
I had not articulated my thoughts yet. I had never encountered situations like this. I had never been accused of homosexuality. I have never been a homosexual. But I had also never taken time out to figure out what I felt about these statements or what I had with Tunde.
‘I’m waiting to hear you, Father Cornelius.’ He bishop said snatching me from my thoughts.
Dusk came hours too soon. I was back in my room on my bed. For the first it occurred to me that things had actually escalated.
Perhaps my heart had chosen to love share God’s love with Tunde, and the church misunderstood it.
Years later, I am in another parish.
‘Father, I need to leave the parish.’ Father Cecil.
‘Not now, no one handles those kids like you do.’ I said.
‘But I’m weak and I need to clear my head.’ He said.
‘I will not stand in the way of decision’ I said, ‘But you will always be stronger than you know.’
‘I need to seek the face of God.’ He said.
‘His face doesn’t spare you your assignment, it fortifies you for it.’ I said.
‘People are saying things: that I harass the kids, that I’m girly. Some kids even call me woman wrapper when I’m not looking…’
‘We have come this far. He said it would be possible not easy.’ I said.
Just then some teenage girls and boys walked up to us.
‘Good evening fathers.’
‘Good evening’ we said, one of the boys, Bayo, embracing Father Cecil.
‘Father Cecil, the auditorium is ready now,’ Adanma said.
‘But the class is still thirty away. It’s only 3:30pm.’
‘Father Cee, you know that last time you did not finish answering our questions. We were hoping we would start earlier today. Plea…………………………se’
‘It does okay dear, please give us three minutes and he’ll be with you.
In the peace of the afternoon, my hands traced the sign of the cross in the air.
‘These kids need you. I need you.’
‘I don’t know how much more I can take,’ Father Cecil said.
‘God is here with us.’
We patted ways, my fingers tapping my phone screen.
He replied, ‘If there was ever an angel. It is you.’
‘Life without you frightens me,’ I texted back, ‘be strong, Tunde. I am proud of you.’ I thought.
Love Me Differently