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.