By Mathew K Jallow
From under the ground in Brikama, like a phoenix, it rises. Its aesthetic calmness evoked a sense of Messianic reverence. And, even in its tranquil demeanor, the echoes of Fr. Gomez’s serene voice transcended the tribal and religious divides, to reverberate in the hearts and minds of Gambians; everywhere. Unsurprisingly, Fr Edu Gomez’s Sunday sermon touched on raw nerves, and gently challenged our better angels to act with sagacity and moral rectitude, as we ride out a dangerous religious fire-storm, in a country once renowned for its tolerance. The issue that grips the Gambia, this time again, is serious enough that hardly anyone is treating it with levity, and in soaking up on Fr Gomez’s dose of wisdom, the pandemonium surrounding the unilateral declaration of the Gambia’s Islamic state, a week earlier, resurfaced to nudge us into rejecting the injection of religion in the Gambia’s body politic. Suddenly, the gravity of the Gambia’s predicament was not theoretical anymore; it was real. And even as the temper of Edu Gomez’s sermon betrayed an Orwellian somberness, which spoke to the solemnity of the moment, only a few Gambians had come to grips with the precarious situation the country is plunged into. Only days earlier, a motley crew of self-serving Islamic clerics and elders had demonstrated their dangerous lack of objective rationality by lauding the surreptitious transformation of the Gambia into an exclusive Islamic hegemony, leaving other faiths in the lurch. Yahya Jammeh’s customary misuse of Islam, and abuse of Islamic clerics, to advance a political agenda, is unparalleled, but the easiness with which Muslim clerics and elders often succumb to the temptations of financial incentives and allow lust for material wealth to override their doctrinal liabilities, tantamount to dereliction of religious responsibilities
In contrast, in this instance, the Rev Fr Gomez symbolized a check back into reality, something evidenced by an underpinning of professional insight and foresight in how draconian measure could easily degenerate in acts of violence. Fr Gomez’s reference to the tragedy in the Central African Republic, in his monologue sermon, exemplifies a contemporary historical attitude that Gambians can wrap their minds around, in order to understand the full breadth of the unintended consequences of superficial divisions of citizens, based solely on shallow, selfish political considerations. Rev Fr. Gomez’s lecture transported me back in time to another era, so long ago, sitting in church pews, listening to the booming voices of so many priests bellow out compelling canons of wisdom, but with the magic of imagination, that past was soon crowded out by the reality of the grimness of now, and the perils and the cataclysm that potentially looms over the Gambia. Unlike any other time in history, the sanctioning of inequality, based on religious belief or lack thereof, will drive a deep wedge between citizens of different faiths, and incite the resentment of a significant sub-section of the Gambian population. This intentional convergence of religion and politics has emerged as a centerpiece of the political conversation; a potential flashpoint of bigotry, intolerance and civil strife the Gambia cannot afford. Already, threats to the national security loom large in a political system built to appeal to the worst human instincts, and the tribe based politics that have haunted the majority of citizens for twenty-one long years. The implications of erecting barriers to opportunity, based on religious beliefs, are frightening to even ponder, considering how, so far, tribal preferences have relegated a section of the Gambian population to second-class citizen status, with a pent-up anger ready to explode into a political conflagration.
A cursory look at anecdotal evidence shows how seemingly innocuous hyperbole and bluster, have historically established footing, and turned the insipid into the awakening of the monsters in each of us. What makes the story of Fr Edu Gomez all the more fascinating is his emergence as a national icon, from a faraway parish, invisible behind thick shrubs and dwarfed by tall, majestic mahogany trees. The town of Brikama, Kombo North, is an unlikely place for a Catholic cleric to preach a message of wisdom to a local audience; a message that resonance at the national level, and has global reach. The adulation of Fr Edu Gomez is not limited to Catholics, as the verdict of history sets him apart from other clergies easily influenced by political access, and corruption of financial and material considerations. Fr Edu Gomez’s simple act of reverence has become a national call to reconcile with our better angels, and his moral rectitude has inadvertently turned into a national indictment of the systemic corruption of the Gambia’s Muslim clerics. The recent convergence of Muslim quacks at the State House, in demonstration of support for social stratification of Gambian society, based entirely on religious affiliation, has, for now, mainly receded into the dark depths of Gambians’ collective consciousness. An unpretentious sermon of piety in a back-yard chapel tucked innocently away behind thick shrubs and tall trees, has given rise to a new voice of reason. The towering character of Rev. Father Edward Gomez may not save the Gambia from sliding into the toxic mix religion and politics, but in this spat between religious excess and simple common sense, this man of God has illustrated how the cantankerous Islamic clerics have fallen into disrepute, as objects of political propaganda and the destruction of Gambian society. This may not be the march of the crusaders, but, it is certainly a reminder of the constant struggle to keep the Gambia united by tribe, geography and by religion.