Friday, May 11, 2012

God actually is quite Great: Annalena Tonelli

Every now and then as I peruse the internet, especially as I read comments on news sites, I'll come upon a remark like this one, that's both heart-breaking and incredibly frustrating:
When a Christian actually does something nice for someone, I'll check into their god.

This attitude isn't really hard to find online. Every time I meet it, part of me wants to say "are you serious? Have you ever heard of Mother Teresa? Martin Luther King Jr.? Who brainwashed you?"
This is probably not the most helpful response, and in many cases it would be completely out of line. There are a lot of genuinely hurting people out there--hurt by Christians, some of them hurt by me.

These 'God is actually quite Great' posts are, in part, a word to these people: the hurt ones and the cynical, ignorant ones alike.
Annalena Tonelli is a woman you would respect. A Christian woman.

In 1969, Annalena Tonelli left her native Italy to teach in a high school in Kenya. Once there, she was drawn to working with Somalian Muslim refugees who eked out a livelihood in the Kenyan desert. Tonelli came to realize that many of her students and their families were afflicted by tuberculosis, and so she returned to Europe for medical studies. After this, she would spend the rest of her life serving in Africa.
Tonelli continued to work in Kenya with nomadic Somali refugees suffering from TB for over a decade. This ended abruptly in 1984 when she was arrested by a military tribunal after she criticized the persecution of a group of desert nomads; she defended these people for the sake of Jesus Christ, she informed the authorities. Tonelli was expelled from Kenya, and so she took her work to Somalia itself.

Historian Dana Robert provides a nice account of her work in Somalia:
In 1996 Tonelli raised money from her friends to open a 200-bed tuberculosis hospital in Borama, a town in the northwest corner of Somaliland, a remote region in Somalia. The hospital was so successful that the World Health Organization named it a "TB center of excellence," and Tonelli was able to attract support from UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and from Caritas, the international Catholic charitable organization. Traveling out from the hospital into surrounding villages, she founded out-patient clinics that treated people for tuberculosis and other diseases. Twice a year Tonelli sponsored visits by eye doctors from Germany, who restored sight to 4,000 people. She opened a school for the deaf, handicapped, and orphaned. Somalis with HIV-AIDS also started traveling to Borama hospital for care.

Tonelli was also known for her opposition to the universal Somali practice of female genital mutilation.
This beautiful life of service to needy Somalians ended on October 5, 2003, when Annalena Tonelli was shot in the head by a man who had been harassing her for a job driving a hospital vehicle. Her murder was decried by dozens of Muslim religious leaders and protested by thousands of the Somalis she loved and lived amongst in Borama.

While a number of Western periodicals reported on the death of this "humanitarian aid worker" without any mention of her devout Roman Catholic faith, Tonelli explicitly named the motivations for her decades of service. When in 2003, despite her desire to go unnoticed, Tonelli was awarded the Nansen Refugee Award by the UNHCR, she explained: "I left Italy determined to 'proclaim the Gospel with my life'... This is what motivates me deep down, along with an invincible passion for the suffering and downtrodden, over and above questions of race, culture or creed." (You can read her full remarks here.)

There are a lot of incredible stories like hers out there. I wish that those individuals who claim they've never heard of a Christian 'doing something nice' would let these stories shape their perspectives more than the angry and hyperbolic rumblings of someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. Christians--individually and institutionally--have been responsible for some terrible things, yes, but they have also worked towards some truly beautiful ends. Other moments from Christian history--say, the Crusades--may be more notorious, but the vision of the gospel that we see in the life of someone like Annalena Tonelli is more true. In these moments we see the most faithful manifestations of Christian belief, the clearest pictures of what this way of Jesus is really about.

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This post is adapted from Dana Robert's wonderful treatment of Annalena Tonelli's life in Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, chapter 5.

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I really believe that - and I don't know if this is more pronounced in a postmodern culture or if it is universal because of human nature - it is just plain easier for most of us to focus on the negative than on the positive.

It is easier for people to see and talk about abusive priests and theiving televangelists than it is to pay attention to charity hospitals and 12-step deliverance programs and wells being dug and schools being built and spiritual hope and comfort being brought to anxious minds all in the name of the God we meet in Christ.

I believe that it is actually through Christian spiritual practices like prayer and thanksgiving that we can "rewire" our minds to be more positive and hopeful (and there is research to back that up) - but I am afraid that many people will not find the cure precisely because they suffer from the disease, so to speak. Because we have a negative view of the faith, we will not give it a try, and because we will not engage with it, we cannot learn to see the world (including the church) with the spiritual eyes, with the lens of faith, hope, and love.

This reminds me of what Paul was talking about in 2 Cor. 2:14-15. But it sure is frustrating.