Father Gary Smith, S.J. worked for six years with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda. In his recently published African spiritual journal, They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees, he reflects on the South Sudanese refugees who helped him understand himself as “loved and called” by God:
In the Sudanese refugee experience, there is a poignant analogy to the Jewish experience. The Israelites were formed by their miraculous deliverance from the pursuing enemy and their harsh desert exodus. Their awareness of God was made personal by God’s intervention in the seemingly endless, chaotic journey out of the Sinai wilderness. In the same way, many Sudanese refugees’ experience of God began with the terrifying trip out of Sudan and the journey to Uganda. Like the Israelites, they lived to tell about the escape and to share it with their children.
In our experience of God and grace, there are transforming moments. Sometimes they are explosive, turning our life upside down, and sometimes they begin and endure over a long period of time, leaving us, in the end, with a profound interior change. Whatever the transformation, swift or gradual, life is never the same. Critics can disdain the faith experience, and write it off as a delusion of grandeur, but for those who have experienced God in peril, the encounter is true and undeniable. They can point to their lives as evidence of it, like the blind man in the Gospel of John: “I only know that I was blind and now I can see” (9:25).
What follows are brief interviews with Sudanese refugees. Almost to a person, they begin the description of their experience of God not with their morning prayers, but with those traumatic, tragedy-filled days of escape from Sudan. It is an experience, incidentally, that illuminates and informs those morning prayers.
I fled from Kajo Keji several years ago. It is there that my awareness—my real awareness—of God began. I moved in the bush, avoiding both what looked like government soldiers and soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I was traveling alone; my family had been killed. All of them. I believe that God led me to safety. I do not understand why I was not killed or why I did not starve to death; I only know at some point I turned to God and told him that I trusted him and that I was in his hands.
Here in Uganda, I experience God in people as they live the gospel. What I mean is that people love each other and stay together at time when things are very difficult: lack of work, sickness, insufficient food, the loss of close loved ones. The community helps me believe. And I know God is present by the moral support that people give to us, as, for example, the priests of JRS and the Comboni Fathers. These are people who come to share our suffering and to share spiritual gifts that they may have. It is like God is saying through them, “I did not abandon you when you came away from your homeland; now I will not abandon you in exile. I will send others to love you and teach you of my concern.”
I carry on this interview even though I am very sick: malaria. There have been lots of problems in my life, but I find God in my prayer and God gives me relief. I know God is with me. Let me give you an example. When we escaped from the war in Kajo Keji, we left with no food. Starving—we were starving. One night, we met a woman in the bush, a local in the area through which we were fleeing, and this woman gave us a goat so that we would not starve. Can you believe it? A goat! For me, it was a sign of God’s care, and I never let my children forget it. They all remember when God sent an angel so that we would be properly fed. It kept us going until we arrived in Uganda.
And when we arrived in Uganda, there were hundreds, thousands of people waiting to be processed. It seemed like a hopeless wait, and then, in the midst of this huge crowd, we were called forward and we were registered right away and settled. Such a blessing.
When I think of God, when I say my prayers, I always remember how God protected me and my family as we ran from the killing of that terrible war.
I know that God is with us and that he comes with us daily in our life of work and sharing with others. God was with us in the suffering of the Sudan. He protected me and the family as we escaped.
I think I have suffered as much as anyone, especially in the loss of my children; some, as you know, were grown up and then died. God is aware of our suffering, and each day I commit myself to God and pray for the wisdom to get through and to be able to share in the suffering of others.
God makes himself, his love, known through the suffering of the refugees.
Suggestions for Prayer:
- Where in your own life have you had an experience of “God in peril,” an experience of God’s presence in the midst of trials, loss and discouragement? Do the reflections above from Sudanese refugees help you understand how God has cared for you in the midst of suffering?
- Fr. Gary Smith, SJ recently gave a presentation at Creighton University on his experience of ministry with Sudanese refugees in Uganda. To watch his moving presentation, click here. [Note: This link opens Windows Media Player to play the video.]
- If you would like to read more about Fr. Smith and/or purchase his book, They Come Back Singing, please click here.