This story is taken from the time I was in charge of the parish of St. Joseph’s in Matli, in Sindh Province, Pakistan.
The parish is large and covers and area of 90 km by 150 Km. For convenience it was divided into district centres, where there were Christians living in or around a town. One of these centres was in the town of Tando Mohammed Khan which is about 23 Km. from Matli.
In this town of 80,000, the vast majority of the population was Muslim with perhaps 200 Hindu families, and 100 Christian families, the latter being the sweepers and sanitary workers of the town and sugar mill. The Christians there were originally from the Punjab in the north of Pakistan. Being Punjabi they were ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from the people of Sindh, which added to their problems.
There was another group of Christians in this part of the parish, who were of a tribal group called Parkri Kholi. They lived outside of the town in the country as bonded labourers. My story however, is about the Punjabi Christians of Tando Mohammed Khan, or T.M.K. as everyone called it.
When I first came to T.M.K. a new church building was under construction, financed by the diocese of Hyderabad. The building included accommodation for a catechist and his family. It was situated just about in the middle of the town in a narrow alley off the main road. The Christians of the town were divided into two areas east and west. The logic of building the church in the middle was to prevent any one group from claiming too much influence over the running of the centre or from gaining too much prestige from having the building in their area.
The Christians were uneducated and illiterate, with the exception of a few children and a couple of men, one of whom was Mushtaq Masih, and the other was our catechist, Master George Gill.
The situation was further complicated. Christians were divided equally between Catholic and Protestant. For the Protestants there was no one denomination, but a mixture of traditions, Evangelical, Anglican, Pentecostal and Salvation Army, to name the main groupings.
A minister of one or other of these traditions would come to visit them perhaps once a week from the city of Hyderabad to conduct services in the Anglican church building standing in the next street to ours. It was originally started as a Catholic church, but that is another complicated story.
I would celebrate Mass every Sunday evening and Master George would conduct prayer services every morning for the people before they went to work and most evenings when he was available. Apart from teaching catechism to children and the adults, he was used by the people as the one who would write and read letters for them, there was sometimes a fee or gratuity given for this service. He would also help them in matters of legality and justice issues in their work.
Mushtaq was a clerk to the sugar mill and as such was seen as having a higher caste than the ordinary sweeper. He was also involved part time in the same kind of help to the community as a sort of scribe-cum-notary.
For almost everyone in T.M.K., George was an all-round asset to the community. Denomination didn’t have much of a meaning outside the confines of the place of worship. Even there, whenever a minister failed to come for a service, the Protestants would usually come and join the Catholics for Mass, or whatever liturgy was going on and vice-verse.
Life was pretty ordinary and peaceful in the town, but seemingly overnight all that changed.
One day a man from the Punjab came to town, and claimed he was a Minister and Doctor of the Pentecostal religion. He called himself Dr. Sadiq. He stated that he was going to evangelize the town and take over the running of the church in T.M.K. The Protestants seemed to accept him without question and rallied round him to hear his speeches and promises.
Some days later, one of the Anglican Ministers came to see me and to ask me if I knew anything about this Dr. Sadiq. The minister had heard a claim that he was there with my blessings. This was news to me and so I called a meeting of all my catechists and workers to give me more information. In the next couple of weeks more of the ministers from the different churches came to call on me to find out what was going on, and some even blaming me for inviting this man into my parish.
It became more serious when he began claiming to be a catholic priest and wanted to evict Master George from the church so that he could move in.
I went to T.M.K. to see for myself what was going on. I arrived at the church to find a heated meeting in progress. Master George was arguing with Mushtaq, standing nose to nose and coming close to blows. I bellowed for silence, stormed into the assembly room, sat down at my chair and demanded an explanation. Eventually I made some sense out of the mess. It seemed that Dr. Sadiq had recruited Mushtaq as his lieutenant. Mushtaq, who still regarded himself as a prominent member of the catholic community, felt that he had a right to order Master George out of the church. As the new ‘deacon’, Mushtaq felt that he should be treated with more respect and obedience, especially from Master George, who he said, was his social inferior.
Again I demanded to know where this kind of talk was coming from, and who this Dr. Sadiq was. I wanted to know where he came from and what authority he was claiming to have. I was getting angry myself as I could see that the influence of this man had become strong. Thoughts of the High Priest demanding answers to the same questions about Jesus flashed through my mind.
George explained to me that Dr. Sadiq had set up his own religion. It was basically Pentecostal, but with catholic elements in order to entice Catholics into his power. He promised that with him in control of the church he would develop the community into a modern church with money and influence and social position for all those who followed him. Dr. Sadiq was going to do this by tapping the Mission agencies in Europe and America for donations to develop independence and businesses for the members.
Mushtaq would be his vicar and the principal of a new school. He warned the people that I as the ‘former priest’ in charge and as a foreigner, would try to stop him and prevent them from making progress.
I sent a message to Dr. Sadiq that I would like to meet him and invited him for the evening meal. Mushtaq, returned with his refusal to consort with idol worshippers. He also sent a threat that if we did not hand over the church to him he would take us to court. During the following weeks tension grew as our numbers decreased for Sunday Mass. But the church always seemed to be full of people whenever I came to visit. In fact I was spending more and more time in T.M.K. trying to settle bitter disputes between men who once had been friends.
Before the trouble started the parish had been running a kindergarten and primary school for two days a week. One of the Sisters from the Matli convent and a lay missionary woman taught the children on the roof of the church in half day shifts. In the evenings we held adult literacy classes run by volunteers from the neighbouring parish. But this crisis as it had become, had deprived us of any pupils.
I began to understand what was happening. The people in T.M.K. were all sweepers and untouchables, outcasts of society. Being Christian gave them some little respect among the Muslims. But the idea of becoming socially independent and acceptable, to have equality, was a dream beyond the reach of most of them. The promises Dr. Sadiq made them, had the ring of possibility about it. Or he was just a very gifted speaker who ignored the truth and the facts of life to get what he wanted.
I continued to visit the people, and to celebrate Mass with smaller and smaller congregations. Word that several of the die-hards of the community had been taken to court for strange offences began to reach us. George and I would go and stand witness for them and charges would be dropped for a fee. We soon discovered that it was Mushtaq who was filing the charges against those who would not follow Dr. Sadiq.
I was getting tired of all the trouble and tension that surrounded this affair, so I decided the time for action and confrontation had come. The next evening I went to see Mushtaq. He would not even let me into his house. He shouted torrents of abuse at me over the wall of his yard, most of it in language that I could only imagine the meaning of. The neighbours, curious about all the commotion, were crowding into the ally-way. Embarrassed by the scene, aware of the scandal for everyone, the tension around me was rising. I was fired up and angry. I was about to curse him back.
I took a deep breath, trying to compose a suitable curse for the occasion. It was then that I suddenly remembered what a fellow priest had said one night as we shared our problems. He said never curse anyone who is evil or just bad, since the evil will increase and the curse come back. Rather bless them with a blessing that calls on God to open their hearts to conversion and the truth. So that is what I did, I changed my mind in that dark, dirty and crowded ally-way. In a loud voice I called on the Holy Trinity to bless Mushtaq and his family as the whole neighbourhood listened on. Something happened, Mushtq shouted a last unrepeatable phrase at me and slammed his door shut. Everything went quiet and the crowd dispersed.
The next day I was called out of my bed early with the news that Master George had been arrested. So gathering some of my staff, I set out for T.M.K. and the jail. George had been charged with running an illegal abortion clinic and a brothel in the church.
By the time I reached the court, Master George had already been released. The judge was convinced that there was no truth to the charges and had threatened the accusers with punishment for wasting the court’s time..
Later that night I was visited by Mushtaq. He was very upset and asked for forgiveness for his crimes. After a long talk he convinced me he had changed and was repentant. I told him that while I could forgive him, he was still going to have to face the community and to live with them. I challenged him to ask forgiveness from the whole church during the Sunday Mass the next day. He agreed to what I had suggested.
The next day before I started Mass in T.M.K. I hid Mushtaq in the sacristy. I had told no one what I was doing but the congregation was the largest I had seen for months. When I came to preach the sermon, I summarised the situation that had been going on in the town and asked them what they would do if their enemies would repent and ask for reconciliation. Would they forgive or seek revenge? The gospel of the day was of the Prodigal Son. After a long silence, Master George spoke up. He said that he could forgive if I would. One by one the other men in the congregation agreed with him. This was the moment to spring my surprise. I called for Mushtaq to come out. There was a sharp intake of breath as the men and women of the congregation tensed with anger and surprise. It took some moments for them to calm down. I then asked Mushtaq to speak. He did, with great humility. He explained why he had turned against the community, and why he had repented. He said he had repented as a result of me blessing him that night in the dark alleyway. He also said that Dr. Sadiq had run away when the case against Master George was thrown out of court. He then realised that he was in the wrong and asked to be allowed to come back to them as a brother.
The people talked among themselves for some time and I was beginning to get worried that it would all go wrong. Master George was eventually asked to speak for them since he had been the one most injured by Mushtaq. He spoke long and eloquently about the pain and injury he had suffered and of the damage done to the church. He then puffed out his chest, and filled with pride. He went on saying that through the trials of the past months, he had become stronger in his witness to the truth. By forgiveness of this man, he said the church would also be seen as living out its teachings. Then he and the people said they would forgive Mushtaq if I would.
I explained that on my part I had already forgiven him. But I said that he still wanted to make a fitting penance to make up for what he had done. I ask him to suggest what he thought would be good for him to do? He said that he had heard me talk about how in the old times people would go on a pilgrimage for their sins, and that he would like to do the same.
This was discussed for a while and the people and I agreed on sending Mushtaq on a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady in the Punjab. This was a journey more than 1,000 km. He was to visit all the main churches in between and get a signature on a document that he had been there. And at the shrine, he was to pray for all the community of T.M.K.
After the Mass there was a celebration of food, song and dance. It was late at night when the people went home, tired but happy.
Six months later Mushtaq came back to T.M.K. He presented his document of signatures to me, to prove he had completed his penance. He then gave a gift of a medal for myself and Master George from the Shrine of Marianabad. In the years that followed Mushtaq proved to be a great member of the church and defended it more that once with no little danger to himself. Reconciliation is not always so dramatic, but it is always something that must be taken as seriously, and always demands some effort for it to have real meaning.