Monday, July 27, 2009
There is a self-consciousness that comes with being asked to explain my last eleven years since graduating from college. One likes to think it’s been a linear journey, with logical turns of events. But life’s more fun than that. I graduated from college feeling as if the world was open to me, but I didn’t know where to start. Maybe I’ve spent the years since just trying to pare it down.
Soon after graduating from Xavier I moved to El Salvador as a volunteer with the Catholic Church. Days were structured around teaching English to kindergarten through high school students and priests of the Diocese of Chalatengo. More than the classes, I simply lived with the Salvadorans recovering from the trauma of a twelve-year war in their own backyards. We shopped at the open market. We sang with children. We celebrated Christmas. We waited for the bus. We sat with the dying. We ate lots of beans. We waited for the bus. We waded streams. They taught me to make tortillas. I taught them to make Thanksgiving dinner. We waited for the bus. It was a time for personal formation and an experience of the effects of war and violence. Since leaving El Salvador I’ve found myself frustrated by light-hearted talk of war, as if it comes down to a lively game of Risk.
Having grown in my worldview, I returned to the United States in early spring of 2000, intending to enroll in graduate school. But culture shock and a desire for more meaningful work brought me to a position with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. I spent two years living in a trailer, keeping a food bank, running Emergency Assistance (distributing FEMA funds) and learning the social service system of Appalachia. I loved it. I learned about drilling wells, septic systems, 4H, fundamentalism, truancy, unions and patriotism. But I was also in my mid-twenties and truly in the middle of nowhere (the town of Genoa had had one restaurant; it closed the year trains stopped running, 25 years before I moved there). On a whim I applied for the Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship. It speaks to the grace, blessing and beauty of my life that I was awarded the scholarship and chosen to spend a year in New Delhi, India.
I was overwhelmed and challenged by India’s extremes. Delhi is full of dusty crevasses holding images of truth at every angle. I studied International Relations with an emphasis on Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). JNU prides itself on its anti-Americanism. This kept me from being admitted as a regular student to the program in the first place. I was a “casual student” meaning my classes were pass or fail, and I have never received transcripts from the school. I was fine with the set up since it meant I could take time off to learn about successful NGO's in India and Pakistan. Rotary took me to Kolkata and Peshawar and small villages in between.
As a student of religion I simply assumed a year in India would strengthen my appreciation of Hinduism. Though I learned and experienced Hindu celebrations and practices, I found myself drawn to the steady poetic rhythm of Muslims living their faith through daily life. I found comfort in the distant call to prayer, full surrender in worship, and soft words from the Qur’an, all of which reminded me of traditional Catholicism with quiet rosaries in times of need. From mothers in burkas in Peshawar to the longing sound of azaan across the slum on the banks of the Yamuna River, the pull of one faith practiced by many reverberated truth to me. My very real and alive Christian faith could only feel enhanced by the witness of another experience and expression.
After six years of learning about the world I felt a heavy responsibility to begin sharing. I had been approached to consider teaching religion or youth/campus ministry a few times along the way. So I took the leap into mainstream (or at least the Midwest) USA. I moved back to Ohio and took a job as a campus minister at a high school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame.
For five years now I’ve been working with upper-middle class young people. What a position to be in: to expose children of privilege to a new understanding of what “opportunity” really is. And who can’t love the Millennials – these kids who don’t shut down in the face of ambiguity? They challenge the rest of us to sit quietly listening to large-scale societal problems when we want resolution to conflict and suffering in succinct overly simplified answers. I love that when working with these young people I can question how the virtues of humility and compassion can permeate not just the individual but society, and young people today are creating a language that can do just that. They are aching for more; and we, their educators, can’t keep up.
In the summer of 2005, I took advantage of the Teachers’ Institute at Dar al Islam in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was 10 days of learning about Islam and the ways non-Muslims can teach about it. Georgetown was referenced a number of times but I wasn’t ready to leave a job I so appreciate. However, the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza initiates conversations in classroom, church and social settings. Maybe it’s just my social circle, but we don’t know enough. And what we do know, unfortunately, seems to give rise to antisemitism or islamophobia (or both). As a person of faith, and having seen the effects of war on children, I fear that shrugging my shoulders and telling high school students “It’s complicated” probably, in fact, perpetuates the problem. So, I take this turn in history as a moment to consider being a student again. I hope it will make me a better educator.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Lois was outstanding. She has no experience with spiritual advising – there was nobody around who did – but I’ve always been impressed by the open vulnerable spirituality Lois shares. I told Lois I was approaching the retreat as discernment for what I’m to do next in my life. I told her of a few options I was considering (grad school, foster parenting, international aid with CRS) as I listen for that soft tickle of joy in my heart that has shown me so many times in the past that I am on the path I’m called to. But lately, frustratingly, I haven’t felt that pull which has come so naturally before. And, I told Lois, at the same time, without clear goals and vision I don’t feel assured that I’m serving God fully in the place I am.
Lois calmly pointed out that I am listening with the same ears I have always listened with. She suggested it might be safe to assume that I’m in a place of waiting on God. Waiting?!? I don’t wait. That’s for people who don’t get things done.
… ah yes, I had to let it settle in. In the hermitage, I found a poor quality audiocassette of Henri Nouwen entitled “The Spirituality of Waiting”. I had to sit still quietly to hear his voice through the fuzz of the old tape. Nouwen reminds the listener: is not waiting central in scripture - for the Messiah - and then for His return? He quotes Simone Weil, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”
It has taken a shift of focus. To explore waiting. I took a virtue a day reflecting on patience, surrender, humility… It’s a slowing to be here now not focused on the goal. So often waiting is associated with illness. Have I had enough compassion for the sick? Have I acknowledged my health with gratitude? How much of my drive is pride? And how often am I involved in big projects to change the world J yet don’t stop my busyness to be present with the one in need before me?
I still wait. Hoping to be present in the moment. I hadn’t left the mountain for 6 hours before I received a call about a friend in dire need. I’ve been able to give her days of attention. I am so glad my heart was clear to be present for her. I pray I receive more definitive direction. But I have a long way to go with patience. In the meantime, my heart feels the gentle joy that the spiritual practice of waiting for God is what I am called to do today.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Friday, July 28, 2006
The Ugandan curriculum for the sophomore year of high school (which very few northern Ugandans can afford to attend), includes a course called "Studies in Development". A large component of this course requires learning the layout and grid of New York City. I could have used the information these hut-dwelling war-weary students have learned upon my return trip to the US. With Joshua and Anisa's help I found my way between Newark and La Guardia Airports. Hey, I just came from Uganda, but it's hot in NYC!
I returned last night. If you're interested, below is a message that didn't get out before this.
Thank you for your interest.
28 July, 2006
I’ve nearly completed the month I’ll spend here in northern Uganda. When I arrived the rains had held off. The rain was poor last year, perhaps it will skip this year all together, they said. Pessimism was in the air. Even if rain came, do they have seeds and can it possibly be safe enough to head to the fields? A month ago the peace talks between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government had just begun in Juba, Sudan. The war weary inhabitants of northern Uganda did not see much hope in the government’s gestures toward peace with Kony and the LRA * (see below).
However, in the month I have been here optimism has grown. My visits to different small towns (trading centers turned IDP - Internally Displaced Persons -camps) seem to coincide with the coming of rain. So much so, I have earned the Acholi name “La Kot” which means “rain”. It doesn’t sound that great to me, but I’m told it is an honor to have such a name.
Acholi are rural people. They would like to be living in their villages. From their villages they could travel by foot to trading centers – small towns where crops can be traded or sold for Ugandan Shillings. The trading centers are found every 10 kilometers or so along the dusty main roads of this area. A trading center has a primary school and a Catholic Church (or, once in a while, the Church of Uganda). Most trading centers and villages are abandoned today. Traveling the rural roads of the north we pass empty churches riddled with mortar holes and damaged overgrown schools housing drunken Ugandan soldiers. Fr. Marvin tells me to look for mango trees. Where there is a mango tree there used to be a home. In some places, there are hundreds of mango trees. Every one of them shaded a family with a story.
The trading centers and villages were abandoned in early 2004 when the LRA attacks escalated beyond the threshold of human capacity to live. The Ugandan government assigned certain trading centers as safe IDP Camp where the people will be guarded by the national army. The national army isn’t much to speak of. Still, they are armed; the LRA is armed (by Sudan, they say); but the villagers aren’t.
I have been visiting the mission of Fr. Marvin Fuentes Murillo, a Camboni Missionary from Costa Rica who has been in Uganda for 10 years. When Marvin begins to talk of what he has seen and experienced in the past 5 years his words are like water from a well that has ached to be released. Once he begins details come forth in a disorganized flow of memory and horror. He'll describe the candy filled pockets of the 75 year old Italian priest who was gunned down in his car then set on fire. He’ll tell of guns in his own face, the shoes he was wearing and children shot dead. We stop on the road as he remembers the trading center here three years ago… the bodies, the injured, his prayers. He’ll describe what goes through your mind (and what doesn’t) the moment a wall is all that is between yourself and those who wish to kill you. In his own sitting room he shows me where he threw the lock, which is still on the door, when the boys with machine guns demanded entrance. He shows holes in the walls from gunfire and points out paths impassable due to landmines. He doesn’t tell of being beaten with the blunt side of an axe; others, who have also suffered, share that detail. He knows he is still in shock.
My visits have been to camps in Kitgum, Padipe, Mari-Opei, Agoro and Namokora. At the IDP camps, villagers live in huts of mud and grass which are too close together and prone to bad fires. There is limited food or room for roaming animals and children. If you ask an IDP where they are from they will tell you their home is a village there… gesturing with their hand and making an “e-e” sound. The higher the pitch of the “e-e” the further away they feel from their village home. The village is home, where the water source is a river, the mud is in abundance to make the huts, and there is land for crops of staples (peanuts and sesame). There is plenty of room for cows, goats, chickens and children to safely roam. Their village is where they were born, therefore the place they believe they must be buried – like their ancestors - in order that their spirits not haunt the world scared and homeless. The village is the beginning and the end of the journey.
The last attack was in October. Could it be over? Perhaps the LRA is finished. In the two years of living in camps the food has dwindled. The trading centers carry only leafy green okra and tomatoes the size of a baby’s fist. No peanuts or sesame to grind into wholesome paste to serve with wet millet bread. (This is like going to the supermarket for your hungry family and only finding spices). Now, with the light of possible peace and the incoming rain villagers begin to venture to the vast abandoned land. They are tentative as they till the soil, now holding out for seeds. In the past two years they have had no crop so no seeds to carry each person into the next year. Their hope is the UN and non-governmental organizations** to supply seeds to get them started. If there is peace, and rain continues, perhaps seeds will come…
Peace and love,
*Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, one of the regular commentators in The Weekly Observer, a Ugandan newspaper, summarized the frustration with peace talks well when he wrote:
Anybody who has been involved in any past attempts to bring an end to LRA’s terrorism through dialogue is aware of the complications and dilemmas involved in it: Ceasefires can reduce violence and save lives, but can also give rebels opportunities to rearm and reorganize. Talks can be an opportunity for bringing peace at hand, but could also give unfair legitimacy to armed groups who have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. There is also, of course, the question of sacrificing justice in the interest of peace or putting justice first, as the ICC (International Criminal Court) is keen to do, while at the same time leaving a crucial question unanswered: who shall enforce justice by, for instance, carrying out arrests? (The Weekly Observer, July 13-19, 2006, p.9)
**The most active international organizations I’ve seen here – this is only by my limited experience, there are probably others – are: UNICEF, AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service), Doctors without Boarders and, of course, the Camboni Missionaries.
Monday, July 24, 2006
More than of anyplace else I’ve ever been I don’t know how to tell of northern Uganda. To put down facts of suffering does nothing to relay the experience of this place. I only know how much I want to share what has too many facets to be described.
The earth is dry sand packed solid then baked by the brightest sun you’ve ever seen. Most Acholi adults are taller than me. Given the powerful sun, I have to cast my eyes toward the dull brown ground instead of lifting my eyes to the friendly faces of adults who wish to try out a conversation with me (with my very limited knowledge of the Acholi language my conversations would be very short anyway). The children, on the other hand, are right in my line of vision.
We are in Mari-Opei, only 16 uninhabited kilometers from the Sudanese border. We are at the foothills of a mountain range which embraces this northern region of Uganda. Here the landscape is flat, dry and bare as the children’s feet which are calloused and thick. There is a determined gritty sound that tough bare feet make against the dry packed earth. It’s a sound that runs up my spine when I’m not thinking of it, like nails on a chalkboard - only heartbreaking. Not that the shoeless children feel themselves at all unfortunate. At the moment they are gathered around the place where I’ve stopped, next to their open recess field. Most have never been so close to a person as light-skinned as me. My color can make babies cry and small children scream in fearful delight. They gather wide-eyed and curious, ready to bolt at any sudden move I might make.
This is the birthplace of Fr. Robert Obol, the priest studying in Ohio who invited me to visit his country. Next to the school is a tree planted years ago (the large trees were planted by the British, I am told). To my non-horticulturist eye, trees here seem to be all root and branches. There is no trunk, only long thin growths stretching to the ground and branches running horizontal before reaching for the bright sun above. Under the shade of a tree is a wooden table with six chairs. The school uses this shady spot as its office. A big branch of the tree stretches forth and has a radio hanging from it. It is tuned to BBC News. From this flat land, embraced by distant mountains, in the span of less than ten minutes, I heard reports of an attack on a market in Iraq, of people suffering following a bombing in Mumbai and evacuations of Lebanon.
While I sat, wanting to soak up the reality of the world news, more children gathered around in clothes mostly donated from distant lands. This was one of my first days in Mari-Opei. I had yet to realize that the clothes they wore that day would be the only clothes I would see them in; one outfit was all they had so all they wore day in and day out. When the buttons fall off their thin shirts they sew the shirts shut rather than spend precious resources on buttons. To spite the lack of quality in their clothes, I am struck by the quality of their eyes. To think of it now brings tears to my own. They have very little hair, their skin is fresh and dark, their eyes bright and white. First they fear my look; their eyes dart away if they happen to meet mine. Then, somehow, in only moments, courage is found. One meets my eyes, then another and soon I have twenty or more sets of bright truthful vulnerable eyes meeting mine. We have no language in common, until they start to teach me to count. In unison they begin to shout: Acel… Aryo… Adek…
I have been blessed to have visited many places. None is like this.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Dear Patient Friends,
According to the CIA fact book, the median age of a
person in Uganda is 15.
UNICEF is the division of the United Nations that
deals with children and children’s needs. You can
spot the word UNICEF at all angles in Kitgum. Usually
it’s black writing against a white background.
Sometimes it’s blue on white. The word UNICEF is
emblazed on jeeps that take the unkempt roads with
ease. The word is clear in the daylight on the huge
empty tents waiting to be filled by the night
commuting children at sundown. UNICEF is on the
packets of the iodine tablets to clear the water
against the cholera outbreak. It’s on scraps of tarp
that cover the burnt remains of the roofs of huts in
the camps built too close to each other to prevent
The Lords Resistance Army (LRA) targets children. But
then, children are most of Uganda. The LRA is a
rag-tag rebel group known internationally for
kidnapping children between the ages of 8 and 12. They
murder and force the children to watch or even
participate in the murder. Once they beat humanity
from their victims they recruit the young people to join
their ranks. They take girls. This is what is most
horrific in the eyes of the local people. The people shake
their heads hoping not to imagine the fate of the
girls. Sometimes, after months or years, the girls
escape - a baby or two on their backs.
Kitgum Town, with its one bank, a hospital (with one
microscope) and bicycle taxis, is the biggest city
many here have ever seen. Most people who are now
living in Kitgum are not from Kitgum. They will tell
anyone who asks that they are from a now abandoned
village, not too far, mostly within the 65 kilometers
between Kitgum and the Sudanese border. But with the
last 10 years of terror from the LRA, no small village
has been safe. The government set up camps. People left
their home villages, they left their community, their
rural school, their crops and their dead buried near
their family hut which they also abandoned. The LRA
raided the abandoned villages. They stole the crops and
burned all that could be burnt. In most cases, there
is no village left.
The camps are sprawling huts, small, built too close
together and full of children. Near each camp is an
army base protecting its residence from the next LRA
attack. Yet, few feel their children are safe. They
send them into town at night. A child packs a mat, a
blanket and heads to the UNICEF tents in well lit
areas of Kitgum. They find their way, younger
siblings in toe, to the hospital ground, school yards
and the football (soccer) fields. They lay on the
ground, the dust powdering their skin. They pull the
blanket – often shared – close to their chin or
over their heads and sleep as children sleep, angelic
It cannot be said that anyone appears unhappy in
Kitgum. Perhaps because there has been peace for
three months. Actually, the raids stopped about six
months ago, but it took three months for the awful
frozen shock of terror to melt before people could
realize nothing has happened of late. There has been
no truce, no amnesty (to spite international media,
northern Ugandans are sure Kony will never fall for an
amnesty agreement – Museveni’s word is worthless).
The raids simply stopped. But so has the food.
The LRA, who hides in southern Sudan, grows in number
(by kidnapping children and forcing them to become rebel
soldiers) and in size (most in the LRA are not full
grown adults) from the village raids. But now, with
villagers in the camps, there are no crops for the LRA
to raid. The hope is to starve off the rebels. But
in the process the villagers in the camp go without
food too. The World Food Program provides basics,
corn and oil and rice. A staple of this region is
millet, but the WFP doesn’t supply millet.
Right now, as I sit with my journal writing this
letter home, a young man greets me. He has a beaming
smile and wears brown clothes. His name is Simon and
his right arm is missing just above the elbow. He
looks about 16 and had heard I am from the North
America - a rarity in these parts. He wants to know
if I know Dr. John Wood, also from North America. He
knows little more of John Wood than his continent of
origin. I explained how very big North America is.
Simon assured me that he is fairly certain John Wood
is not from Mexico.
Simon also told me his father and older brother were
lost in an LRA raid. First their village was
attacked, then Simon was taken by the rebels. The
Ugandan military followed, attacking the rebels and
their hostages at the same time. In that second attack Simon
lost his arm and the LRA left him for dead. Simon was
taken to Fr. Tarcisio (who, incidentally, found his arm
when he went to bury the dead) who brought him to
John Wood, the head of St. Joseph Hospital in Kitgum.
From Simon’s beaming impression of North America, John
Wood must have made a wonderful impact on Simon’s
There is more to write but little time. I’ve now
transcribed what was in my journal to a computer which
is running on batteries because the electricity has
failed this morning. It’s dark and the battery is
So thank you for reading again. I am well.
Saturday, July 8, 2006
"Have some, it's especial for this region..."
The region is
Why am I in northern
I arrived in
None-the-less, I was relieved to be on the low flying 19-seat prop plane as we took off to the northern city of
As we neared the landing in Kitgum the sand and clay soil looked soft and comforting compared to urban
So I had my first meal of a local specialty - upon closer inspection I could see the crunch was the small legs and external skeleton of the insects. I received the information that things were busy right now as one of the Camboni mission parish's catechists had died that day - snake bite.
There is so much more to write. Ugandans are wonderful people. As with all new cultural experiences, I find I sink into the experience. What impacts me today will go unnoticed tomorrow as a new layer of the life here is revealed before my eyes. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
love and peace,
p.s. My sister, Christina, arrived in her community in
#1 - On Fr. Tercicio - http://www.worldmission.ph/5June06/Tarcisio%20pazzaglia.htm
#2 and #3 - On the LRA - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord's_Resistance_Army and http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5157220.stm
#4 - On HIV/AIDS in
#5 - On L’Arche - http://www.larcheerie.org