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  All the sand covering Juba has been replaced by foliage and life here in Maridi.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.