By Laurence Ani
ON a day global news networks and the social media were dominated by reports of the devastating effects of chemical weapons in Syria, gloating remarks arising from the United States’ dropping of what it termed “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan and bizarre tales about the discovery of billions in a Lagos apartment, nothing can be more sobering than spending Easter Sunday among the infirm and those dedicated to their care.
Such was the experience on Easter Sunday at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Home for the Elderly, Awkunanaw, in Enugu, where Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had elected – typically, as a matter of fact, to worship. The greed, hate and conceit that underlie the events recalled above were in stark contrast to the selfless love shown by the reverend sisters to their elderly wards. Indeed, the way the reverend sisters easily care for people who were complete strangers to them stands as a beacon of hope in a world where empathy has gone so terribly cold.
How often do we come across people in very destitute conditions and look the other way, pretending it’s someone else’s responsibility? Pretty often, no doubt. Yet, love is an emotion nearly everyone is capable of demonstrating, although that capacity is usually put to test in the face of increasing demand of our time and attention by others. Even when we become irritated by such unremitting demands it’s still difficult to concede our shortcomings because, despite humanity’s rising indifference, no one likes to be perceived as being cold towards the needs of others. At the Little Sister’s Home for the Elderly, love is not a one-off gesture simply meant for the cameras; it is given tirelessly as a matter of conviction and commitment to the service of the vulnerable.
It was evident in the actions of the sisters as they wheeled their elderly wards into the chapel all spruced up for the Easter morning mass held at the home’s chapel; you could glimpse it on the face of a sister as she wiped spittle off the chin of a drooling elderly woman slouched in her wheelchair, oblivious to her surrounding; and also in the patience of a sister as she shepherds an elderly male congregant whose gait has been severely slowed by age probably to the restroom – and back to his seat in the chapel. She would in a little while repeat the action in the same painstaking manner with a smile.
But notwithstanding the inspiring atmosphere of the chapel, the true import of the vanity of life and the futility of the struggles thereof were still reflected in bold relief. Hobbled by old age and its associated ailments, some of the inmates’ can barely communicate intelligibly. A few are apparently no longer in touch with the state of affairs in the larger society as could be discerned when an elderly man donning a white attire for his first holy communion was informed by a reverend sister that the visitor with whom he just shook hands was the governor of Enugu State. He nodded slowly with a vacant smile, an indication it doesn’t seem like he actually knew what that meant.
This existential reality strikes a particularly ironic chord given that most of the visitors must have come that morning consumed by thoughts of personal needs and dreams, both natural inclinations that may well have been nursed by the inmates in their younger years. Now, their needs are mostly spartan and all their worries are borne by others who ensure they are well fed, kept in the best of health and sleep in quarters that do not lower their dignity. Barring the understandable age-related illnesses the inmates are cheerful and are bonding well. Yet, it’s quite probable that beneath their happiness lies personal tales of heartaches and even abandonment by relatives. But in the Home for the Elderly they have all found new families willing to shower them with unconditional love.
Love is a notion essentially consistent with the message of Easter and even more so at a time that the headlines are replete with the most despicable deeds of cruelty. The visiting priest of the home, Rev. Fr. Benignus Ugwu, clearly understood this as an imperative and made a telling exhortation in his homily. “May the renewing spirit of the Easter celebration rekindle our love for one another,” said the reverend father who is also the parish priest of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Awkunanaw.
The visit may be a one-off for a number of the congregants that morning. Not so for the governor who sat unobtrusively among the pew alongside his wife, Monica. For him, it has become a tradition to celebrate religious feasts or personal milestones with vulnerable groups as he did when he commemorated his 53rd birthday at the Enugu Prisons, in March. “As the Bible said, where your treasure is, there your heart is,” the priest noted, adding in reference to Ugwuanyi’s charitable inclination: “We can see where his heart is; it is with the poor and vulnerable and we can only pray for him.”
Ugwuanyi’s visit to the Home for the Elderly and other such places that are not the usual haunts of the society’s influential class is no populist posturing. It is consistent with his worldview encapsulated in the remarks he made during his birthday celebration at the courtyard of the Enugu Prison said to be the first such by an incumbent governor: “It is indeed the cardinal responsibility of the government to cater for the wellbeing of everybody and every segment, group or class in the society.”
As the congregants dispersed after the priest gave his final blessings, his prayers for humanity’s waning love to be rekindled by the renewing spirit of Easter kept resonating. There’s no doubt that the exemplary works of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Ugwuanyi’s heart for charity will both serve as huge inspiration for the visitors.
Ani writes from Enugu