In 1966 some doctors and nurses from the Focolare entered into contact with the Bangwa tribe of “Fontem, a village immersed in the vast palm tree forests of west Cameroon. The aim was humanitarian: to help a population that was stricken with malaria and other tropical diseases with a mortality rate of 90%. Together with the Bangwa and many others, a hospital, school, church and a number of houses were constructed and the first Focolare town in Africa was begun.
Chiara Lubich visited Fontem in 1966. Many years later she would recall that visit while speaking to 8,000 members of the Movement who had gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in April of 1998:«I was in Fontem when the little town didn’t exist yet; now it’s very big – I don’t know how many houses there are… At that time, there wasn’t anything, there was the bush where this tribe lived. Well, I can still see this tribe in front of me on a large clearing of land celebrating my presence. … Of course, they celebrated in their own typical way; also present were the many wives of the Fon, the king, who performed a number of dances for me, and so on. There in that valley, with all those people who had come to celebrate my presence because I had sent the first focolarini doctors, I had the impression that God was embracing this large crowd of people, who were not Christians – the great majority were Animists. I thought: “Here, God is embracing everyone, he’s embracing everyone. It reminds me of what happened in the Cova da Iria in Portugal[the miracle of Fatima], the time that the sun came down and embraced everyone. God is here and is embracing everyone».
Upon returning from the first trip, Chiara responded in this way to the focolarini at the school of formation in Loppiano, Italy: “We westerners are completely backward and unable live in today’s times if we don’t strip ourselves of the western mentality, because it’s half a mentality, a third or fourth a mentality with respect to the rest of the world. In Africa, for example, there is such a unique culture, so splendid and deep! We have to reach and encounter of cultures. We won’t be complete unless we “are humankind”. We will be humankind if “we have all the cultures inside.”
During another visit to Africa in 1992, talking about inculturation Chiara stated: “First of all, the most powerful weapon is “making yourself one”. This means approaching people being completely empty of ourselves, in order to enter into their cultures and understand them and allow them to be expressed, so that you can embrace them within you, and have them within you. And once you have embraced them, then you can begin a dialogue with someone and maybe even pass on the Gospel message, through the riches he already possesses. Making yourself one demands inculturation, entering into the soul and the culture, into the mentality, the traditions, the customs of others – to understand them and allow the seeds of the Word to emerge.”
Another moment that marked an important step for the Movement in its push towards dialogue with people of other belief systems was in 1977 when Chiara was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion: “We were in the Guildhall of London … I was speaking … in that large hall, and present there were people of many different religions…. I had the same impression there; it was as if God was embracing everyone”.
2000 Chiara visited Fontem for the last time. She was enthroned by the people, through the Fon, as Mafua Ndem (Queen in the Name of God). It was the first time that a foreigner, woman and white ever became part of the Bangwa tribe in such a way. At her death in 2008, she was given a royal funeral in Fontem. During the course on traditional religions, which preceded the funeral celebration and organized by the first Bangwa focolarino, the focolarini were admitted to the “sacred forest” (Lefem”), which is a strong sign of belonging to this people. During that week, Focolare president Maria Voce was also recognized as “successor to the throne”. In Africa courses on inculturation continue to promote deeper understanding of different cultures.
In Latin America at Escuela Aurora, in north Argentina, an effort to educate and recuperate traditional cultural and religious traditions of the people of the Andes, in the Calchaqui Valleys:In Bolivia and Peru at the Mariapolises with the Aymara people, and in Ecuador with the Afro people of Esmeralda. In New Zealand, with the Maori people.
On March 20, 2014, there will be an event at the Urbania University of Rome, dedicated to Chiara Lubich and Religions: Together for the Unity of the Human Family. The gathering will highlight her efforts for interreligious dialogue, six years after her death. The event also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate.