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Pastoral accompaniment as a sign of God's presence

Jesuit Fr Richard O´Dwyer celebrates Mass for formerly displaced people in Lobone, South Sudan. The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended a long war and made travel safer; refugees and internally displaced people had begun to return home.(Angela Hellmuth for Jesuit Refugee Service)
Sunday, December 14, 2014

(Lobone, South Sudan) December 14, 2014 — Faith plays a pivotal role in the experience of refugees. Ignoring this reality would be tantamount to ignoring the huge potential of faith to help refugees cope resiliently with the hardships they face, and to look beyond the present to a future of hope. While respecting the faith of all refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service offers pastoral services for Catholic refugees in response to need, distinctly from other services. Jesuit Fr. Richard O’Dwyer says that for many refugees, the presence of a priest is a symbol and a practical sign of God's presence. 

Another important point he makes is that accompanying refugees involves preparing them to stand alone, to give them the time, training and skills they need to be good catechists (in this story), teachers, administrators or whatever role they take on for the good of their community. Finally, Richard shows that accompaniment is often expressed in very practical actions.

A Jesuit priest, I arrived in Lobone, South Sudan, in 2010 eager to begin my work as a JRS pastoral minister there. The long war had ended recently; the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement made travel safer and refugees and internally displaced people had begun to return home. In this context, I discovered that in the process of accompanying refugees, listening as well as giving immediate practical responses to their needs, were both vitally important.

After a few weeks I began to form some idea of the pastoral needs of the people. I decided to call a meeting of all the catechists from the villages of Lobone, Omere, Kicenga, Palwar and Lerwa. I listened to the advice of the head catechist, Christopher, who was the only formally trained catechist in the whole area, and held the meeting at Kicenga, which was a halfway meeting point between Lobone and Lerwa. I did a lot of listening at that meeting, and I learned that listening would be a key part of my experience of accompanying, because it helped me to understand the people of Lobone, to go where they lived and to share their lives.

There had been no priest present in many of the villages around Lobone for the past 10 to 20 years. The group of catechists unanimously agreed that I should draw up a schedule for visiting the villages in rotation so that I would celebrate Mass in each village roughly every five to six weeks. I came to understand how important the presence of a priest was as a symbol and a practical sign of God's presence, especially in providing people with access to the sacraments of the Eucharist, baptism, confession and marriage. The ‘chapels' where I would celebrate these sacraments and say Mass usually turned out to be a mango tree with a makeshift table serving as a simple altar. When Mass was finished, we continued the celebration with a simple meal.

Travelling the roads of South Sudan was always difficult but the rainy season often made them almost impassable. Distance measured in kilometres meant little. The round trip to Lerwa from Lobone – about 80km – required seven or eight hours.

On Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011, Gunnar Bauer S.J., my pastoral assistant, our driver Julius and I set out for the village of Palwar and arrived, as planned, around 5pm. Just as we reached the chapel, a terrible sound of tearing metal came from our land cruiser. We were astonished to find our rear left wheel had come out about half a metre from its normal position. Amazingly it had not fallen off. If it had come off anywhere along our journey, it could have resulted in serious injury for any or all of us. Realising that we would likely be spending the night in the village, I began preparing for the Christmas liturgy in a state of confusion.

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me" (Mark 9:36-37).

As part of our celebration, we were to baptize 25 babies. We finally began the celebration around 5.30 p.m. as dusk began to fade to nightfall. I was struck by the atmosphere in the chapel. There was a wonderful sense of joy coming from the entire congregation but especially from the mothers of the children who were about to be baptized. They had been well prepared for the ceremony. I felt very pleased that Omal Patrick, the catechist in Palwar, had been able to instil such a sense of celebration in the mothers. He and another trainee catechist had been sponsored by JRS to undertake catechetical training in Gulu, northern Uganda. They were scheduled to graduate in a year's time, the first Sudanese to graduate from the Catechist Training Centre in over 20 years.

The entire ceremony was conducted in candlelight in the grass-roofed chapel supported by wooden poles. I thought to myself, how appropriate on this day, of all the days of the year, to be so close to what the surroundings of the stable in Bethlehem must have been 2,000 years ago. It was not difficult to speak about what we celebrate at Christmas time: that God, in Jesus, was born as a little baby just like the 25 babies there that evening. This is how God chose to come among us.

I asked all in the chapel how they saw God, what their image of God was that evening. One person suggested God was the creator. I walked over and knelt down in front of one of the mothers and her child and I simply said, "Here is our God, Emmanuel, God-with-us, as a little baby." Then I asked, "Is anyone afraid of any of these little babies?" Nearly all those present shook their heads, responding with a definitive "No". I said, "My friends, my brothers and sisters, neither do we have any reason to fear approaching God, because this is our God, born as a little baby for us, this day."

As we conducted the baptisms, the atmosphere became even more charged with joy. I deeply believe that such joy was present because somehow on that night, the Christ — the child from Bethlehem — was reborn in an unknown village in South Sudan among ululating women and singing children. It was the best Christmas gift anyone could have wished for, beautifully simple and simply beautiful. How did such a wonderful event come about? The JRS pastoral team was there to accompany the Catholic community of Palwar and to help baptise the children of young mothers and fathers who had attended the catechetical classes for a number of weeks. In a real way our presence as pastoral ministers allowed God to be present. Jesus puts this so succinctly in St Matthew's Gospel: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (18:20).

A different kind of accompaniment. About a month after the Christmas celebration, a dog infected with rabies bit five young children in Lobone. There is nearly no infrastructure or services in Lobone, other than a small clinic run by four Ugandan healthcare workers for expectant mothers and the treatment of routine diseases such as malaria. The clinic had no electricity and was unable to refrigerate the live vaccines needed to treat the children.

When I went to the clinic to find out what treatment had been given to the children, the young Ugandan nurse said they had only been able to dress their wounds, as they had no other treatment. If the children did not receive the anti-rabies vaccine, she continued, some or even all would die.

I decided on the spot that JRS would have to bring the children to Uganda if they were to have any chance of surviving. Most of them lived close to staff members of JRS, so we sent out word that we would bring them to Uganda the next day, together with a parent or guardian.

The following day all the children, their legs heavily bandaged, and the adults accompanying them came to the JRS compound. After two hours on the road, we reached St Joseph's Hospital in Kitgum, only to be told they had no vaccine, and decided to travel for two more hours to St Mary's Hospital in Gulu. We arrived in Gulu just as darkness fell. I was overjoyed to hear the doctor say the vaccine was available and the children could stay in the hospital until they received the first shot. She assured me we were well within the treatment timeframe and that the children would need three separate shots altogether. 

When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Matthew 25:39-40).

Over the next week the children received the complete set of treatments. All made a full recovery. I felt extremely happy to have been a part of accompanying the children and restoring them to full health, and immensely proud that JRS was able to give them the help they needed.

As I reflected on this episode, I am reminded of a scene from Steven Spielberg's film, Schindler's List. Oskar Schindler is given a gold ring by all the Jewish workers from his factory whom he managed to save from death during World War II. The ring was inscribed in Hebrew with a quotation from the Talmud, a sacred Jewish text: "To save a single life, is to save the world entire." One who preserves a single human soul is regarded as the preserver of the whole world.

Richard O’Dwyer S.J.
JRS Eastern Africa