Bonhoeffer’s experience, if not his writing, confirmed the importance of a “head of house” (hausvater) in the community in Pomerania. We find confirmation of the importance of this role in the experiences of Vincent Donovan, in his experiences as a missionary priest in the early 1960s in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Donovan followed in the footsteps of scores, if not hundreds, of European Christian priests before him. The Christian churches had been evangelising in East Africa for a hundred years, and, on the face of it, their achievements were great. They had helped to stamp out slavery; through preaching, teaching, political pressure, and, when all else failed, buying the slaves from the slavers and giving them their freedom. They had helped set up an impressive system of western-style schools: buildings, compounds, curriculum and examinations. They had taught, and baptized, and confirmed, married, and celebrated the eucharist, heard confessions and buried the people of East Africa. A great achievement indeed.
But Donovan found a puzzling thing. Despite all this effort, good will, thoughtful and prayerful action, Christianity had not caught in Tanganyika. By independence, in 1961, there was only one African bishop in the diocese of Tanganyika; there were no African clergy at all in the diocese of Nairobi. In a letter to a bishop in May 1966 Donovan wrote: “The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero… up to this date no Catholic child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so.” Donovan realised that the previous approaches to evangelising East Africa were doomed to failure, and a different method was needed: the story of how he stumbled into the new method is immensely moving and exciting, and the book he wrote as a result of his experience has become a modern day classic: Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (1978).
His subtitle is a significant one, for Donovan discovered that there was something in the Masai’s approach to religion, and Christianity in particular, which could profitably be reflected and acted upon by the prosperous and complacent churches of the west. He saw that the Masai operated as a community: a real community, and not a lip-service community that the churches in the west have become. “A community, a group like this, will act as a unit, accepting you or rejecting you together. I found out that change, deep meaningful change, like the acceptance of a hopeful, expectant world vision, does not take place in one individual at a time. Groups adopt changes as groups, or they do not adopt them at all.”
Donovan came away from his time in East Africa with a burning desire to see how God works with communities: not organizations, nor groups, nor collections of individuals, but communities, for a community is “a group of people… so vitally interrelated that their very fate is in the hands of others in the community”. He had realised that at the centre of every Masai community was a single man, who was able to gather the community around him. He wouldn’t necessarily be the most educated man in the village, he wouldn’t be the richest man, but he “had the talent and the ability to call these people—this community—together, and to hold them together.”:
… he would be the focal point of the whole community, the one who would enable the community to act, whether in worship or in service. He would be the animator of the individual members of the community, enabling them to make their various contributions, enabling the preacher to preach, and the teacher to teach and the pray-er to pray and the prophet to prophesy. He would be the necessary sign of unity that exists among them. He would be their link with the outside, the sign of their union with the outside, universal church. He would be their priest. …His job in a very real way is to enable that community to function.