Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Returned SLMs Reflect on and Share Their Experience

Returned SLMs Reflect on
and Share Their Experience

Salesian Lay Missioners Michael Gotta and Patrick Sabol were commissioned in August 2013 to serve at the Salesian secondary school, parish, and youth center in Gumbo, a suburb of Juba, capital of South Sudan. They’re both alumni of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

December 2014: Mike Gotta, Tom Kelly (finishing a year and a half as SLM),
Pat Sabol, and another volunteer named Robin
They arrived in Gumbo on August 30, 2013, with two other SLMs, Ariel Zarate and Theresa Kiblinger, who were to go on to the mission at Maridi. They remained until mid-July 2014 but had to be evacuated for a month to Kenya at the height of South Sudan’s civil war in January 2014. (The Salesians remained, but both they and the SLM directors back here thought it prudent for the young volunteers to get out of harm's way when the war seemed likely to come to Juba.)

Both Pat and Mike (no, this is not the start of a joke!) assisted with an SLM discernment weekend in New Rochelle on April 11-12 (preceding post), driving up from Washington and Philadelphia. They enjoyed their reunion with SLM batch-mate Manny Mendez (Bolivia, and now at Holy Rosary in Port Chester), Adam Rudin, and Fr. Mark Hyde. The warmth of their reunion made a big impression on the seven SLM candidates.

I had a few minutes (too few) to get them aside for a little interview. No direct quotes here, but the substance of their answers.

What were your responsibilities in Juba?

Mainly we taught in the secondary school, which enrolls youths and young adults of both sexes between the ages of 14 and 30. That spread comes from the unavailability of schooling in much of the country, and its interruption by years of war. So when some teens or adults get a chance to start or return to school, they come. There’s no GED program!

Some of the students and the staff early in the school year
When the school year started, we had about 65 pupils, but when the fighting broke out in December, refugees flowed into the city and the Salesians welcomed everyone in our compound—which not all places did. Consequently, our school enrollment went up to 180.

We also had administrative duties; in fact, just two weeks into the school year the principal, Fr. Patrick, died very unexpectedly. Fr. David was named principal but was so busy with his other responsibilities that a lot of the administrative work was delegated to us. One of our particular duties was to interview prospective students. Entrance criteria weren’t very strict, but the kids did have to know English because that’s the language of instruction.
We helped out in the parish and ran the attached youth center. The parish has three Masses each Sunday, one each in Arabic, English, and Bari, the local language. The Bari Mass got the biggest crowd; altogether, about 1,000 people came to Mass each Sunday, and of course on major feasts like Easter there were many, many more.

What was your most rewarding experience?

Mike: Learning to love the people. They came from many different places and brought a great cultural diversity, which we got to experience. And we shared some of our own culture with them. This displayed the universality of the Catholic Church.

Pat: Seeing the relationships of the people there, the struggles they went through, and walking alongside them in their daily lives and seeing them grow.

Celebration of Baptism at the SDB parish
What was the most difficult or most challenging part of your mission?

Pat: Seeing the suffering, particularly when the fighting began again. We had so many IDPs (internally displaced persons) in our compound. When we arrived, they were still experiencing the joy of their newly won independence [after about 20 years of vicious civil war against the Sudanese government]—and then in December it all fell apart.

Part of an encampment for IDPs near the Salesian compound
Mike: Seeing the hardness of heart of the leaders (who instigated the war), and of some of the people too. Some members of the two main tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, display great hatred for the other tribe, based on very deep hurts caused by injuries inflicted upon them or their families. It’s deeper than any racism or anything we can fathom as Westerners.

What’s been challenging about readjusting to life at home?

Pat: It’s been a big change to shift from living in a Salesian community to living on my own; from working with the Salesians in ministry to working a secular job in the Philadelphia area. My life is no longer so church-focused. I have to find different ways to bring my faith into my daily life.

Mike: I have to make an internal attempt to live more selflessly in my daily life, as I saw and was so much encouraged to do on mission. I have to try to understand the struggles others are facing here. I have to try to be intentional about what I do and why I do it. Living and working in the mission was much less distracting because there was so much less materialism around us.

Photos from Pat's blog.

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