Saturday, December 8, 2012

Busy at Rest

Happy Advent!  I pray God is blessing each of you in every way during this beautiful season of anticipation and expectation.

It's still funny to me how comfortable I feel despite a lifestyle that so unlike the one I have been living for the past twenty-four years.  I am shocked to not be craving Panera Bread or Dunkin' Donuts.  The cold shower doesn't even faze me.  The mosquito net over my bed has become second nature.  It's hardly odd that as we move deeper into December, the temperature hasn't plummeted, but in fact grows warmer every day.  But knowing that I have stepped out of the known, the comfortable, and entered into God's Will so entirely, I am certain that it is solely and completely by His grace that my heart feels more at rest than I can remember ever before. The moments of consolation and confirmation of this call often come at the most unexpected times.  One evening, after attempting to scrub my feet clean for five solid minutes, at the recognition that they have become as rough as sand paper and inconsolably dirty, I could do nothing but smile at how much more perfect they have become in this place.  The day when I felt like a total mess and really wanted to put on some "normal" clothes, blow dry my hair, and look like a girl again, exactly then did one of the boys pass me by and tell me I was looking nice today. Even a better day was receiving the most rare and ultimate of compliments, "Sister, I think you are an African," once because of the crazy braiding in my hair and again due to the scarf I had thrown haphazardly around my head for shade.  God's heart has been revealed in the most simple, unanticipated moments.  Just yesterday, I found myself in a pitiful mood for a variety of reasons, and one of my smallest friends, a boy called Anbeko, having only three years, came sweeping past me in a full sprint, and shouted over his shoulder, "Sister Gracie!"  The day I started hearing the boys call me "Gracie" was a big hug from God, telling me I’m home.  

When I daydream, night-dream, think about the kids at any random point throughout the day, I sometimes catch myself mid-thought, forgetting color in my mind's eye.  When I recall the memories I’ve made with the children, I subconsciously see no distinction between us.  There have been several moments when I have been among and interacting with the children, gotten a quick glance at my arm, and been genuinely surprised by the color of my skin.  The eyes of my heart has become blind to the worlds that separate us.  I forget that they have been through war, that they’ve all tragically lost parents and siblings, and that they aren’t going home to electricity, a toilet, or enough food.  I am not ignorant of their many needs, but when we play, they are simply my friends.  I feel so much a part of them, a member of their community and family, that the lines dividing us have so beautifully blended together.  It's a strange realization in these moments that I am coming from a completely different world than my sweet little friends, because our hearts are so much the same.

"You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, 
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." 
-St. Augustine

Let me next apologize for the lapse between entries, blogging has been ever on my mind these weeks, but a free minute to accomplish the task has been impossible.  So many BIG things are happening at Manguo Mission in Maridi, keeping us all so busy!  I will attempt to take you quickly through all of them! 

Our Beautiful Sisters!!!
The sisters have finally arrived! They are a perfect addition to this family here in Monguo Mission.  Three sisters have joined our ranks, all of them young, energetic, personable, motherly, affectionate, tender, nurturing, adorable, and deeply holy.  I love them so much!  Our laughter is constant.  One more sister will join us before Christmas.  

The Hospital here at our mission was inaugurated with a massive celebration on November 20th.  We had government leaders and politicians from all over the state and even some from Juba and Khartoum travel to Maridi for the event, in addition to the 1500 villagers who gathered for the event.  If blessing our beautiful, new health facility wasn't enough, as Bishop Eduardo was celebrating the [five hour long] Inauguration Mass, he took a moment to administer the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation to ninety of our school children- twenty-two of whom were anointed and brought into the Catholic Church from the Anglican rite.  What a gift for our Church!  The whole day was beautiful and profoundly impressive.  Two moments of greatest impact for me occurred as the dignified guests gave speeches after mass.  First, the Minister of Health shared a powerful message, commenting on the health care statistics in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State being among the worst in the entire world, and he then praised the Salesian order for being part of the “solution to this problem.”  He continued on to parallel the new nation as a “one-and-a-half year old child with a handicapped mother” and called the Salesians “the good neighbor, who comes to aid the child in his time of great need.”  I was overwhelmed with gratitude and profoundly humbled to consider myself among the Salesian family after hearing this strong word of praise.  
Receiving the Sacrament of 
Confirmation during the 
Hospital Inauguration
The second most exciting moment occurred during the Governor’s speech, when he responded to the request of our Rector by promising before the whole assembly, "Within seven days, Monguo Mission will be given land for building a secondary school!"  You can only imagine the cheers and applause that poured from the audience.  The children are elated, both to attend a secondary school as awesome as their primary, and, of course, also at not having to walk the six miles daily to the nearest secondary school in town.  We cannot wait for the new project to begin! 
The hospital is now inaugurated, but it will not function for several more weeks.  We are still in search of a doctor and laboratory technician, and all our medicines and equipment need to be purchased from Uganda.  Slowly things will come together, in God’s timing!

Loving my students
The school year has ended!  I walked proudly out of my last class period with the seventy rambunctious fifth graders, having survived the chaos, and wistfully from my class six students, who have really loved me and taught me to love the teaching profession over the past few months.  Exams passed smoothly last week, and now I am left quite sad that all the children have gone.  Holidays will go on until the last week of January.  We are used to a compound packed with children from day to night, and now it’s become significantly quieter around here, of which I am not particularly fond.   I can’t wait for the next school year to begin! Though, I don’t quite know in what capacity I will be serving Don Bosco Primary when the 2013 school year begins.  God’s will be done!

Sister Grace at work in the office!
Our Diocese is preparing to celebrate a Centenary of Faith.  It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 100 years ago that the Catholic Missionaries of St. Daniel Comboni arrived in Western Equatoria State to introduce the people in this place to the person of Jesus Christ.  A massive week-long celebration is taking place in a city called Mepoi, within our Tambora-Yambio Diocese.  The community here will be traveling the 9+ hour journey on Monday for the celebrations.  I don’t know what to expect, but it should be a once in a lifetime experience!  When will I ever again experience a place that has only known Christianity for 100 years?

Thank you for your continued prayers, and know of mine for each of you.  On this great Feast of Our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception, may she wrap you in her Immaculate Mantle and send her holy angels to guide each step you take.  Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Being Here

I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, without question.  I find it still to be a bit of a mystery that God has called me to such a radically glorious life.  My days are full of smiling faces.  From across the compound I hear, what feels like one hundred times each day, the children calling out for me, “How are you, Sister Grace?!” and “Good morning, Sister!” or also the popular line, “Sister, look at this one!” (pointing to an injury that needs care) or the ever frequent arm-tapping as a child walks by wanting to shake my hand and say hello.  Each greeting is paired with a massive smile, and joy bubbling from the heart, written plainly on the face.  It’s incredible how loved they make me feel. 

My roles have shifted slightly in the past two weeks, and I’m finding my daily lifestyle to be absolutely perfect for me.  There is no doubt that Our Lord picked out each individual task for me; from time to time am overtaken by amazement of this very fact.  He planned this journey for me as a gift of love from the moment of my conception, even from the beginning of time.  Here's a glance at what is going on in my life. 

I am surrounded by the students of Don Bosco Primary School from the time the sun comes up in the morning until it sets in the evening.  Morning mass begins at 6:45 am, and each day the church is filled with children, and almost exclusively children.  It is a beautiful sight, and with each passing day it continues to move me.  Their faith is inspiring.

I teach an average of four class periods a day, but the school schedule changes daily.  I continue to teach English to the Informal Class of students that cannot pay school fees. (These fees, I should add, total about 33 US dollars for the entire year, but their families are far too poor to pay this amount of money.  Additionally, a majority of the children in the school work after school and on the weekends to pay for their own educations.  They value their schooling so much.)  I am also still teaching Scriptures to Class 6, and I have added Class 5 Scriptures to my duties.  The 70 rambunctious, talkative students in the Class 5 make teaching Scripture a bit more of a challenge than the 35 *generally* well-mannered, eager-to-learn pupils in Class 6.  As I see it, I am learning as much about being a teacher as they are about the Scriptures.  It evens itself out in the end.

One of the teachers has begun her maternity leave now, so I will pick up an additional six periods each week, teaching Arts and Crafts to Class 5, 6, and 7.  I’m excited for this one!  While I’m well acquainted to teaching 5 and 6, the students of Class 7 happen to be phenomenal  so I’m really excited to spend some time exclusively with them.   

Last week we completed our second term examinations.  Written at the bottom of the test paper of my Class 6 student, Emmanuel, was the message: "Sister, thank you for being happy."  No words in the English language could have said so much. 

My students and there many ailments!
In addition to my classes, I have now distinctly taken on the role of school nurse.  Father John Peter has now given me my own office, which becomes a small clinic during morning break and lunch break.  Somewhere around two dozen students stop by my “medicine room” during these times, and 90% of them are for the purpose of wound care.  So many of the children have wounds for various reasons, some are very large and deep, and they have a very difficult time keeping them clean.  Band-Aids are definitely not a household item around here.  Almost all the wounds I treat are on the ankles and feet, and they quickly become infected because they are walking miles to school in sandals and playing football in every free moment with bare feet.  I’m trying to do as much education as possible with them for keeping their wounds clean, and so far I think it’s working a bit!  They are learning not to come to my office until they’ve washed their dusty, dirty feet and legs at the water pump. 

Making friends!
I’ve been making South Sudan my home for two months already!  There is no way to describe how fast the time has gone.  I feel like every time I stop to think, it’s already Saturday again, another weekend to wait eagerly for school to start on Monday.  The most gratifying part of being here for two months, and in Maridi for six weeks, is the relationships that each day become a little deeper and more meaningful.  A glance around my nurse’s office the other day to find the patients gone and the chairs filled with little friends is all the affirmation I need.  I love these kids with my entire heart, and I want them to know how true that statement is. 

The other day I was sitting and watching the school boys play (yet another!) football match at recess.  It is certainly the most popular pastime in this place; they can never get enough!  I have, without a doubt, watched and played far more football in the past 6 weeks than I have in my entire life combined- and probably doubled!!  Truly.  I still really don’t even like it that much, if I’m being honest, though it is growing on me.  While sitting with a group of girls watching the boys play that day, I had a moment of realization.  I experienced real joy watching them play.  I began thinking about my parents, sitting through hours upon hours upon hours of baseball, soccer, American football games, etc over the years.  I’ve always admired their perfect attendance record at every one of our games, and I didn’t know how they could do it!  I love my little brother, Ben… but I can only sit through maybe one of his baseball games in a week.  Enthusiastically, Mom and Dad watch those games with joy always, proud of our achievements and supportive through our mishaps.  As I sat watching those boys play, I had a glimpse of understanding in the motivation my parents have-- in loving us so much they are able to value and enjoy the things that make us happy.  In that moment, I felt like I could begin to understand that affection and motivation.  I’m certainly not a parent to any of the children here, and my relationships with them are only a few weeks strong at that.  And of course, my love for these South Sudanese children is not even close to the love I have for my little brother!  What I am realizing is the gift that God has given me in being an authentic part of these children’s lives.  God sent me here for one reason, and that reason is to love.

Today, Father Stan, one of the Salesian priests here, commented that this situation at the school is ideal for me, knowing how much I love both teaching and nursing.  My response sprung from my heart, “I don’t think I could be happier!  It’s perfect.” 
His response countered, “…Only in heaven.” 
I laughed and told him he was absolutely right, but right now heaven seems to be the only possible scenario that could trump this one.

What’s Next?
As good as things are right now, transition is ever approaching!  We have some great things coming soon.  We are awaiting a group of three religious sisters to arrive next week!  Some of them will be working with me in the new hospital, which is set to open on November 23rd with a big ceremony and mass.  At the mass, the whole student body will be present, and many of the children will receive sacraments of First Eucharist and Confirmation!  The bishop will be coming, along with the governor and several other official people.  It should be a great event, and lots of planning is going on in preparation.  Also, the school year will come to a close the first week of December, just in time for me to start working in the hospital.  I’m excited to start this new work, but also a bit nervous to experience the intensity of illnesses here in South Sudan, and I’m so deeply going to miss the constant interaction with the school children.  I trust God’s plan will continue to be as joyful and fruitful as it has been thus far!  I’ll take one day at a time.

Prayer Intentions!
--For the children here, especially those in formation to receive sacraments.  
--For the sisters as they travel from India to South Sudan this coming weekend! 
--Please keep me in your prayers through the upcoming transition from teaching to hospital nursing.  -- I’m still working at learning Zande language, and my progress is so much slower than I would like.  Any prayer for my language studies would be greatly appreciated! 
Know that each one of you is on my heart in prayer each day!  All of the children here are praying for God's will in America's presidential election.  We thank you for all your prayers for us here in South Sudan!  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Turning 24

Adorned in flowers thanks to
some very sweet girls!

I celebrated my 24th birthday this past Thursday in my new home in South Sudan.  I had in mind something small and humble- this was not the case.

The celebration was a daylong event and as far from simple as you can imagine.  During the morning school assembly, two of the girls from class 7 each made me these beautiful flower necklaces, which were simply gorgeous.  After they all sang to me, I addressed the school briefly, thanking them for loving me and making this place feel like home for me. 

Fr. John Peter cancelled school after 10:20 am for the festivities to begin!  The first event was a girls’ football match.  I addressed the players, inaugurated the match with the first kick, I sat in the seat of honor, and every couple of minutes the student announcer (whose commentating was literally hilarious) would exclaim, “Today we celebrate the birthday of Sister Grace!”  I am not used to so much attention!

One of the most beautiful parts of the celebration was the opportunity for the students to eat lunch together.  Despire the hour long “lunch break” the students take each day, no food is consumed during this time.  They simply do not eat all day.  Many students have an hour walk from home to school, the school day lasts form 8 am until 3:20 pm, and additionally many students remain for sports’ practices until 5pm.  They consume nothing during these hours.  As part of my birthday celebration, a group of girls spent two days preparing the meal from food grown and harvested by the students in the school gardens.  They ground maize to make asida, a pasty, starchy food that is a mix between mashed potatoes and bread.  They also cooked African peanuts, ground them, and prepared them for peanut butter.  The food was delicious!  I was so happy that on this day each child left school with a full meal in their belly.
But that’s not all!  After lunch was the Teachers vs. Pupils football match!  Some of our teachers are really intense, and the student players are amazing- they’ve made it to the semi-finals already.  The game was so much fun, and the teachers played incredibly well!   The whole student body stayed to watch.  Unfortunately, the game ended in a tie (1:1) a bit earlier than anticipated when one of the student players collapsed, unconscious, from heat stroke.  Did I mention that the day was really hot?!The excitement ended with a trip to the hospital and a few bags of IV fluid later, he was responding again and doing ok.  

When I returned home a few hours later, the celebration continued in our Salesian community!  The fathers and brothers prepared a big meal and we ended the night with a community viewing of Shrek 4. 

I have to thank my beautiful and amazing partner, Cait, for everything she did to make the day amazing.  I am so blessed to call her my mission partner and friend!  I could not have felt more loved by my African family this day.

Twenty-four is a year I have been anticipating for a long while.  Why?  My dear St. Therese died at age 24, as did many other great saints, such as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (soon to be Saint!), and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  No, I’m not hoping to die this next year, and I don’t think it’s in the plan.  But I do believe there is a great grace associated with this age, and I want to make this a year of sanctity.  These young saints accomplished such great things in their 24 years.  I am so far from the holiness they achieved during their days on earth, but I hope that, by the intercession of these beautiful saints, I can become a stronger, more virtuous, more loving woman in this next year of my life.  I’m so excited to be 24 here in South Sudan!  I don’t know what exactly this year will bring, but I am confident that it will be unbelievable.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Little Successes

Success in missionary life is almost impossible to actualize.  Especially in the process of transition, it is difficult at times to determine which way is up and down, much less whether or not any of the activities of daily life can be deemed effective in any small or large way.

After two full weeks of settling into Maridi, I started getting used to the rhythm of life here, teaching a few classes and participating in daily oratory, living a life packed full of smiles and handshakes, name learning and games.  I thought my efforts were going relatively well-- though of course their results were in no way tangible.  It was mid- last week, that Father John Peter exclaimed to the community during evening announcements, "We should all be very proud of Grace and Caitlin, they have really begun their mission work today!"

I was caught off guard in the moment and thought to myself, What does he mean?  I've been teaching and playing with the children so much in the past weeks.  Hadn't I done everything he'd asked of me since I'd arrived?  I couldn't even recall what I had done new or different that day.

And he continued, "Today they taught songs in the school and played football with the girls!"  Oh, right- we had taught a new song to the Class 6 and initiated the girls' soccer team that day.  The whole community clapped.  And then it dawned on me.  Yes, just like we learned in orientation: Mission is not about doing, but about being and loving.  Yes.

Featuring my amateur guitar and vocal abilities and less-than-impressive soccer skills that day, while definitely some of the most enjoyable parts of the day, were far from what I considered the epitome of being a missionary.  The Gospel story this morning of Martha and Mary becomes all the more applicable.  I am Martha- my mind has been focused on what I was assigned to do- becoming the world's best English teacher or never missing a minute of any scheduled event.  No, what Father felt was most the most important thing that I could do for these children was to be Mary- to offer simple moments to just be with the children and to love them.  Skill and expertise were not the aim, but the amount of heart I could pour into my work.  This is where true "success" lies,  not only in mission but in the very essence of life.  Once again Mother Teresa's voice echoes in my heart, "You can do no great things, only small things with great love."

Some new friends from Class 6
This week I have also begun teaching a Scripture class to Grade 6!  I never anticipated teaching, but it's quickly become a highlight of my time here.  A few days ago, I asked one of the young seminarians in the community, Emmanuel, how his classes were going and if he enjoyed teaching.  His response was: "Yes, Jesus was a teacher, and we are called to follow him."  This has stuck with me ever since.  The nursing will come in its time, but meanwhile, I get to love children, help them learn something, and follow in the footsteps of the Perfect Teacher.  I teach one 40 minute period from Monday through Friday to 42 students, ranging from ages 12 through 19.  Only three classes in, and honestly, I already love them.  A lot.

I must admit that despite the language barrier and the moments of frustration and hesitation that naturally come each day, I am so deeply and peacefully happy here.   I strive to live simply and intentionally in every moment I'm blessed with here in South Sudan.  Jesus, help me to love.
"We must begin with love, continue with love, and end with love." -St. Francis de Sales

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Feast of St. Therese!

Today was a day of great joy- the feast day of my patroness and dear friend, St. Therese of Lisieux.  This was, perhaps, the best day I've had in Africa thus far.  I need to highlight some of today's sweetest blessings in order to thank The Little Flower for her most generous intercession.

--- I found a new and great contentment in the classes I taught today.  I may grow fond of this new ministry!

--- At school this morning a student jumped off a desk and sliced his head open.  I know how sadistic this may sound, as listed among my day's blessings.  ...But I got to be a nurse!  I've missed nursing so much!  It was a rush to clean and dress his wound, and then send him off to the hospital for a few stitches.  I was smiling while taking care of him; it's kind of cruel that I experienced any small amount of joy in this poor child's suffering.  I was glad to be present in his moment of need and to have been able to help him.  I pray for his quick recovery!  

--- This afternoon Cait and I taught a song to the 6th grade class, one that we'd learned in Juba during our stay.  The words are: "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I love you.  I want to love you, Jesus;  I love you," repeated a few times.  You can't imagine how much of their hearts these children poured out into singing this song.  We had so much fun!  It was absolutely the highlight of the day.  Never did I ever imagine standing in front of any group of individuals, singing a solo to teach lyrics, and feeling completely comfortable.  I guess African culture will do that do you- if you have a voice, you use to praise God, plain and simple.  I expected to spend 10 minutes in the class, but the entire 40 minute period was over before I had realized what happened.  We were singing so loud to the guitar and dancing so crazily that by the end of the period half of the school was standing in the doorways and windows, listening and singing too.  Perfect joy.

--- With a mild amount of success, I made chocolate chip cookies on the stove today.  We don't have a oven, and I needed to satisfy my desire to bake.  The priests liked them!

--- Cait and I taught our new friends the hand-game, Miss Mary Mac, and then played about 1000 rounds with all of the girls, over and over again!  We had so much fun.

--- The girls requested me to play football (soccer) with them, and I played a full game, and really enjoyed it!  It's the little things.

--- It rained all during Oratory this evening. After the girls' football game ended, I sat down under some cover and watched the boys' game.  As the rain poured down upon them while they played, I recalled St. Therese's promise that after her death, she would continue her mission on earth by showering little flowers upon the world.  Today, on her feast day, I could put tangible reality to the floods of spiritual showers Therese was pouring into our hearts.  

--- Salesian tradition includes a daily "Good Night" talk, a short message given to the children at the end of the day.  With only a few minutes notice, I was asked by Br. Peter to offer a few words to the group tonight.  What a way to end the day, by sharing a little bit about my girlfriend Therese and her Little Way of Love.  

The day was simple, nothing extraordinary happened, but throughout each small moment I was overwhelmed with love.  How appropriate- this is exactly how St. Therese teaches us to live.  If you haven't already, especially in light of the feast we celebrate today, I'd encourage you to read the tab I've posted at the top of this blog, The Little Flower.  It talks in a bit more detail about who St. Therese was and gives an explanation for the namesake of this blog.  I'd also encourage you to ask for her prayers today as we grow evermore in the virtue of Love.  Therese is an amazing role model for us all.  St. Therese of Lisieux, Little Flower, pray for us all.

"Let us Love, 
since that is all our hearts were made for."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Goodbye to my Juba family!
This has been a week of goodbye songs and welcome songs- I have departed from my temporary home for the past three weeks in the village outside Juba to Manguo Mission in Maridi, which will be my residence for the next year.  It's good to finally be here!

There were some sad goodbyes this past week leaving behind the beautiful community in Juba.  The Kindergarten class I was able to assist over the past few weeks gave me the most beautiful send-off.  After I addressed the class to tell them I would be leaving the next day with the help of the class translator, they spontaneously erupted into a song of "Thank you, Sister Grace," and then a handful of students came to the front of the class one-by-one to give me their farewell wishes, which were also translated for me.  They said the dearest things: they would pray for me, they thanked me for playing with them, and one little trouble maker said she wished I didn't have to leave.  It was so very touching, and do I ever miss those sweet faces!  The goodbyes with the Salesian community were also very heartfelt and appreciated, a highlight being the Pre-Novices rendition of "You Raise Me Up" to send us on our way.  Each and every heart I encountered in Juba was a pure gift.

Our 10.5 hour journey from Juba to Maridi was slightly eventful- with the tremendously poor roads we had a few small delays, pictured below.  I never anticipated the car ride to Maridi would end up with us each covered in head to toe dirt, dust, and mud!  But we made it safe and sound, and that is all that really matters!

Maridi has welcomed us with open arms, to say the very least.  These are some of the most affectionate and loving children I have ever encountered, they are very respectful and are all smiles.  The children here speak a bit more English than in Juba, so our interactions branch from a bit of English, to my baby-Arabic skills, to them teaching me Zande, the local tribal language here.  The climate here in Maridi is beautiful!  It's cooler than Juba, dipping into the 60s at night and up to the 90s at the highest in the peak of the day. It is SO lush and green- unbelievably so.  Other than sky and a few homes, the complete 360 degree view is entirely green!  It's beyond picturesque.  My pictures absolutely do not capture the beauty!  It's all rolling hills and cool breezes.  All the sand covering Juba has been replaced by foliage and life here in Maridi.  It's awesome.  What an unexpected gift!
The hospital is not yet open, the final construction efforts will be completed by the end of October. Caitlin and I are doing odd jobs around the primary school (Grades K-8), and really at this point just taking it all in and getting to know the children.  We will also together be teaching 2 classes in the morning, one informal class for the children too poor to attend the primary school, and the other for the nursery school class!  They'll be 40 minutes each of Christian religious education.  All my teacher friends- send your activity ideas my way!!  I'm also taking my particular mission at the moment as memorizing names.  I'm retaining them really slowly, because the African names are really hard- like Zumie and Adembu and Pascarina, for example! (But hey, I at least I could remember those to type them just now!)  Hopefully with some persistence they will stick. Thankfully the children are really patient with me and will repeat their names for me every time I ask without making me feel bad for not remembering.  They have also been incredibly helpful and patient in teaching me Zande.  They let me repeat simple words over and over again until I can remember them.  I need to learn to have as much patience with others as they show me!

The kids here are seriously hard workers!  Fr. John Peter has a beautiful system in place, where he has given the children a large area of land and allowed them to cultivate it themselves.  They have sown rows upon rows of maize, and every week they pull weeds and till the soil.  When the children harvest next December, the food will belong to them, and they will all share the fruit of their labor, which they worked hard to earn!  They are showing me how to also weed the fields, which has been really neat for me.  I have always wanted to learn how to grow fresh vegetables!  I so appreciate the few compliments I receive from the children while I work, which are generally pretty sparsely given in this culture.  Yesterday, I was weeding beside about fifty children in the middle of a sun-shower, which is one of my heart's absolute greatest joys, and I was able to experience tangible gratitude for this life I have been offered here in Africa, which is more than I could have ever asked for or imagined.

"Be not afraid of life.  Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact." -William James

Prayer Intention: Please pray that these weeks become fruitful as I develop a new routine.  I am eager for work to do and especially to start nursing again, but in the meantime, I need to be content with the simple life I have been given.  Thank you!

***Check out the newly added "Picture of the Day" tab at the top of the page!  I will be documenting my year through one meaningful daily photo, posted here on my blog.  A picture tells a thousand words!  Give a look!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Angelic Sweetness

I spend every evening of my weekdays playing, singing, and dancing with so many children.  We toss stones, draw pictures in the sand, clap to hand-games, and skip down the paths.  Life is so simple and so joyful.  The time we share is called "Oratory", a practice initiated by St. John Bosco in Spain in the early 1800s.  The children are invited into a safe place to play and make friends, while their interactions with the Salesian community hopefully help build them into better citizens and more faithful Christians.  This Oratory structure has been successfully functioning across the globe since the time of Don Bosco, wherever Salesian priests and sisters are located. Of the plethora of interactions I've share with the little ones over the past week, one so distinctly stands alone in my mind.

As I was walking down the path last Tuesday during Oratory time, I was intercepted by a sweet little girl in a pink dress, and her four siblings.  The smallest member of the group was hoisted upon the little girl's back, a baby of no more than six or eight months, weighing close to a third of this tiny girl's weight.  She was responsible for caring for her baby brother that day.  I walked up to the group and greeted them in Arabic.  I was introduced to each one and asked for their ages: the leader of the pack in the pretty pink dress was five-year-old Wasuk, accompanied by her six-year-old brother Samson, four-year-old sister Yvonne, and Boy the little one-year-old.  (In reference to the similarity in their ages: Polygamy is still very prevalent in South Sudan, so it is likely that these children have the same father and different mothers, or they could also be cousins and relate as siblings.  Either way, they looked very similarly and acted like brothers and sisters.)

After the initial interaction took place in Arabic, basically exhausting my ability to communicate with them, surprisingly, the children continued to speak to me in Arabic, perhaps thinking I actually knew something (haha).  Wasuk kept asking me, over and over again, "Issm tachy munu?"  Every few minutes she would ask, with an unbelievably beautiful smile across her face, gazing into my eyes, and genuinely wanting to know the answer with the the greatest sincerity.  I suspected at the time, and later confirmed, that she was simply asking me for my name, that's all.  The classical Arabic greeting for "What is your name?" that we learned in class was a slightly different translation than the local Juba Arabic this child was speaking.  I answered the question, telling her my name several times, but because my response translated in the classical as, "I am Grace" instead of the local Arabic words for, "My name is Grace," and also their unfamiliarity with the pronunciation of my name, she couldn't comprehend my answer to her question.  And I wasn't even sure if that was what she was asking me in the first place, so we were left with a vast chaism between us, which we both wanted so badly to bridge.  So she continued to look into my eyes and ask, "Issm tachy munu?" with such genuinity and with the most precious smile.

As this attempt at communication was taking place, I walked alongside them, hand-in-hand with Boy (who wasn't the best or the fastest walker), as they were clearly moving with purpose on their way somewhere.  So I asked in Arabic where they were going, and they exclaimed, "Sister Rosaria!" and pointed in the direction of the convent.  I didn't feel like the sisters were expecting a swarm of little ones in their house that evening, but I followed along because they were moving like they really seemed to know what they were doing.  They continued to communicate with me in lots of simple ways on our journey down the path, even though our language skills were so far apart.  We journed together, all the while Wasuk was carrying her baby brother on her back, and hoisting him up every couple of minutes, and continued to ask me my name, and to share things with me in her native tongue.  Despite the collision of two completely different worlds, I felt like a part of their family throughout those moments we shared.

The sisters did not answer the knock on their gate, so we turned around to go back to the church grounds.  I took the baby with one arm and the hand of my slow and silent friend, Boy, in the other, allowing Wasuk to run ahead and play with her siblings.  I watched the little ones in the yard for awhile, letting the older three played with the large group, and then after several minutes they collected their young siblings and headed home.

As simple as was that interaction, it was indescribably heavenly.  For days I couldn't stop picturing the face of that sweet girl in the pink dress.  Those children were truly angels.  It took a few days to process why this interaction was so profound, why it was different from all the other friendly encounters I've had since my arrival.

There are certain people in the world who have an innate, gifted ability to love like Jesus.  When you greet them, you capture His fragrance.  This sweet, South Sudanese child loved me with the profound affection of Our Lord that day, and I understand now that this is what made that interaction so deeply meaningful.  Jesus loved me through the sweet eyes and warm smile of my new little friend.  Like her, Jesus doesn't settle when walls baracade us from Him.  He continues to pursue our hearts until they are penetrated.  He invites us so sweetly into His family and on a journey that will lead to life in abundance.  Wasuk truly desired to know me, my name mattered to that child.  They cared for my companionship on their journey, though I had nothing to offer them in return.  Angelic sweetness is a virtue that St. Louis de Montfort described Our Blessed Mother as perfectly emanating.  I was blessed to experience that day one of the many little flowers of St. Therese, showered on the hearts of this beautiful people and culture through my dear little friend Wasuk, and her sister and brothers, flooding my soul with Mother Mary's virtue of angelic sweetness.  As members of the Communion of Saints here on earth, those darling five drew me one step closer to the Kingdom that day.  To God be the glory.

"Thus says the Lord, I have called you by name: you are mine.  Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you.  Everyone who is named is mine, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.  Fear not, for I am with you." -Isaiah 43:1, 4-5, 7

Prayer Request for My Little Heart: If you could keep me in your prayers as I transition from Juba to Maridi this week. On Thursday morning, I will depart from this beautiful, life-giving community which I have grown to love so dearly to Maridi, the town where I will spend the next year working. God's will for me is in Maridi, so I know even greater joy awaits me there, but it will be so hard to leave- this place is already like home and the Salesian community like family.
Prayer Request for South Sudan:  Pray for peace here.  This is a country of millions of broken hearts and wounded spirits from over twenty years of civil war. Please also offer a small prayer for oil, as there has been none exported from the Sudan for over ten days.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Overwhelmed & Overjoyed

Reality check: I live in Africa.  

In preparation for mission, I wasn't sure when this reality would all hit me.  That moment came in a rush of tears as we drove in from the airport, through the village surrounding the Salesian compound where I now live.  Roads made of dirt and sand were lined with mud huts one after the other, with families gathered around outside, and many, many beautiful children, smiling and waving as we drove past.  I looked up at the most breathtaking sky and understood, with my entire being, that Jesus is here- in the perfect scene that enveloped me.  He lives here, and now, so do I. 

I have spent my first week in South Sudan in the village of Gumbo, right outside of the capital city, Juba.  My departure for Maridi, the village I will live for this upcoming year, has been postponed for a few weeks while the priest in charge of the Salesian community Maridi is on retreat in Kenya.  Right now my site partner, Caitlin, and I have joined the ranks of Tom and Luke, our brothers in the Salesian Lay Missioner (SLM) program, in their site in Gumbo.  The other two SLMs in South Sudan, Dan and Steve, traveled in with us and left earlier this week for their sites in Wau and Tonj.  The community life here in Gumbo is exceptional- living here on the compound there are three Salesian priests (though two are gone for retreat at the moment), one deacon, three brothers, five  Pre-Novices, one volunteer from another program, and the four SLMs.  On the neighboring compounds live nine religious sisters.  In such a short amount of time, we are like already one big family!  Laughter is shared constantly.

While I wait to leave for Maridi and begin work in the clinic, my responsibility here is to study Arabic and tropical medicine.  Fr. Ferrington has found us two great teachers from the local community!  Mr. Michael is a secondary school teacher here, and is teaching us Arabic for two hours a day, six days a week.  It's is really challenging!  Your prayers have been all channeled into graces to learn how to communicate here.  It's a very slow process, but it's been fun and beneficial to be able to practice with everyone around me- especially the kids.  I think they are tired of me sharing the same few phrases- "Hello! Good morning! How are you? What is your name? How old are you?"  They are the best teachers though!  Michael's wife, Miss Cecelia, is a medical doctor, and she is teaching me about how the tropical diseases are diagnosed and treated here. She has been an invaluable resource. Plus, I get to play with her three month old baby while I learn!

The children here are as full of life and energy and joy as you can imagine.  Singing can be heard across the fields and plains at almost any time of day, and a great amount of dancing consequently ensues.  Every day after school lets out, literally hundreds of children gather in the fields front of our home for oratory.  From toddlers to teens, they play anything from soccer to volleyball, and they do a lot of singing!  It's a perfect opportunity to spend time with the kids.  They laugh pretty hard at my attempts to dance like they!  As my studies this week have allowed a little extra time in my schedule to spend with the children than I may have once working in the dispensary in Maridi, I have elected another apostolate here in Gumbo- aiding Sister Antoinetta, the teacher of the "Little Angels Nursery School".  I love it so much!  The fifty Kindergarten-aged children in the class are learning their letters and preparing a performance of songs and skits for parents day at the end of September.  I have been to class every morning, and then to the convent for Pepsi and a snack with Sister Antoinetta after class.  It's a joy.

A hodgepodge of other things you may want to know:  
*The food is fantastic- I really love it... and am possibly gaining weight?!  No major sacrifices yet in that department.  It's definitely different than American food, but quite good.  
*There are a lot of bugs, but they're just kind of around and not really a big deal.  Two spiders stand guard in my bathroom and keep the little bugs at bay.  I might name them soon.  
*I have been informed that I will have malaria within the month; everyone gets it frequently here, and treatment is usually uncomplicated.  My health is perfect at the moment, but I assume this will be short-lived. 
*The fruit is heavenly- papaya, passion fruit, guava, bananas (unlike anything in the US), apples, and more to come I'm sure.  All these things grow in the yard and we eat them at the end of every meal. It's amazing.  No mangoes yet, but I cannot wait for that day. So far the passion fruit wins favorite.  
*The weather is nice!  It's technically their "winter"- I've even heard some joke about it being so cold it might snow.  It's comfortably 75-90 degrees during the day, a little cooler at night, and it rains a bit every few days.  I have seen winter jackets on some, and mothers keep hoods over their babies' heads this time of year.  Supposedly 110 degrees or higher is normal in the summer months of December through February, so I'm enjoying this while it lasts! 
*Many people speak some English, but everyone here speaks Juba Arabic.  While English is spoken in school, many of the children really don't understand us Americans because of our apparently "heavy" accents. While I am working on my Arabic, I have really taken to Mother Teresa's quote: "Every time you smile at someone it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing."  I have shared a lot of smiles, because many times it is all I have to give.      

The title of this post entirely summarizes this experience thus far.  My heart has been so joyfully and beautifully overwhelmed by my present situation.  "I can't believe I'm here!" has been replaying over and over in my mind for the past week- in many ways it feels like a dream.  I still cannot believe I am actually here.  My heart might explode!  I honestly and truly could not be happier.  
Welcome to Juba!

Some children playing in the oratory outside our home
The South Sudan SLMs: Luke, Dan, Steve, Grace, Caitlin, and Tom

Our amazing view

With my new friend, Brother Jackson!

Passion fruit :)

The 5 Pre-Novices singing us the "Welcome" song
they wrote!

Little Angels Nursery School

In the village

Some friends!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pre-Mission Glory

Sunday, 8/19
Jesus loves me through the sky.  I see His love and His beauty most clearly through the way He illuminates the heavens for us to view from earth.  A beautiful sky always points my heart toward heavenly glory, always draws me into prayer through wonder and awe.  If he cares enough to create a flawless masterpiece across the dome of creation for me to gaze upon and enjoy for one particular moment, He cares infinitely more for my little life in the great and small happenings of each day.  

Two weeks ago, I arrived home from the month-long Salesian Lay Missioners orientation in Port Chester, New York, preparing myself mentally, spiritually, and emotionally for the adventure that is about to unfold.  The community of SLMs that joined me were some of the most lovely and inspiring people I have been privileged enough to meet.  The whole experience was a gift.

Saturday, 8/18
So God loves me and called me to mission in South Sudan.  If I had any doubts before, which I really didn't, let me tell you why my heart is now swollen with God's sweet peace.  In the past 14 days that I've spent at home in Perkasie, PA preparing to leave for Africa, there has not been a day that has passed without a perfect masterpiece in the sky.   They have been intensely intricate, some days with the puffiest, pure white cotton-ball clouds, other days with a thousand different shades of blue and white in brush strokes across the sky.  Each day has been exquisite, memorizing, and jaw-dropping.  Look at these pictures for proof!  Two of mornings last week, I woke up to an overcast, gray sky and was disappointed that the trend I had noticed had finished.  But no!  Undoubtedly, by 10 am the sun would break through and the sky would transform into a scene that would cause my heart to unravel in awe.  I honestly teared up one afternoon as I stared out at the grandeur of the majesty He portrays in the heavens for my simple pleasure.   

Monday, 8/27
I find myself this morning en route towards the adventure of a lifetime, to the place I will call home for the next year-- Maridi, South Sudan.  For those who are interested in the back story, here's how this whole mission endeavor began: For as long as I can remember, God has been whispering, "Africa!" into my heart.  With absolute certainty, for more years than I can recall, I have known that no matter down what path my life leads, one day I would be a missionary in Africa.  I never knew when or where or how it would happen, I just knew it would.  I diligently studied nursing for four years at Franciscan University with the intention of being able to share this much-needed skill with the suffering people of the third world.  As post-college life handed me a challenging, though greatly rewarding nursing experience at Lehigh Valley Hospital, I knew my heart desired more. 

Friday, 8/24
As I began to pursue this far-off dream to become a missionary nurse, I stumbled upon a Catholic mission organization called the Salesian Lay Missioners.  After my first meeting with the organization, I was sold.  Never before have I made such a life-altering decision so instantaneously or with such peace.  The Salesian ideals parallel perfectly with my ambitions in the mission field.  They work to serve the youth and the poor through being a simple, present, steady Light of love and joy.  The excitement, zeal, and profound joy of this order is simply inspirational!  I cannot wait to live and work more closely with these holy men and women. 

While in South Sudan, I will work as a clinic nurse alongside several Salesian religious sisters.  The healthcare shortage in this country is extreme, and I know my limited skill will be greatly valued.  While some tension still exists between the North and the South at this time due to their oil-rich borders and Southern Sudan's newly obtained independence from the Sudan in July 2011, I feel called to take a leap of faith and trust in God's perfect plan for my life.  I ask for your vigilant and continued prayers each day as I live and serve in this new capacity.  On my own I can do nothing, but with and through Him, all things are possible.  
Monday, 8/27
Through these skyscapes, I feel St. Therese showering her little flowers upon me in her promise to lead souls to Jesus.  In the most glorious of sunsets, I sense my dear friend and patient, Amy, who died of cancer in late July, sweetly shining down from heaven.  In the vastness of the sky, I see Jesus, my best friend and greatest love, calling me to boldly and radically serve His people in Africa.  If He cares enough to offer me the single gift that gives my heart the greatest peace-- a perfect mid-afternoon, glorious sky scene for fourteen consecutive days-- I know He cares enough to provide the graces to see me through every need and hardship I will face in South Sudan.  Here I am, Lord, to do Your Will.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I don't know what I'm in for yet, but I know my life is about to change forever.