Sunday, July 28, 2013

New Chapter

Well, after giving thousands of high-fives, eating millions of grains of rice, spending hours preparing lesson plans, and countless hours in prayer, my time in South Sudan is coming to an end.  As I have only 3 days left here, I have been reflecting on the time here and would like to share just a few of the thoughts and highlights that have been racing around in my head as I transition to the next part of my life.

1.  The people, especially the young people.  Being a part of a different culture has presented it's challenges, especially with the different customs, unfamiliaritity, and whole different language thing, but it has also probably been the greatest part of my entire time on mission.  While I was still discerning if mission and the SLM program was right for me, I was often asked if I had any preferences where I wanted to go, and my response was always I will go where God calls me and wanted to have a unique experience and experience God in a different way than in America.  I definitely got that in South Sudan.  The people here are in a very dire and desperate situation.  War has been a part of their entire lives, most are struggling to eat one meal a day, disease is everywhere you look, families have been dispersed, broken, and torn apart.  They are oppressed by a government that is very corrupt and provides almost no support and there are almost zero jobs.  Despite all of this, when I walk around the village, play with the young people at oratory, pray with them at church, I am instantly filled with spirit, hope, and joy, because they are filled with it in abundance and share it with all they encounter with every smile, laugh, high-five, heartfelt prayer, and warm greeting.  As I've said before, probably the greatest lesson I've learned here is the importance of living life to the fullest every moment and opportunity, simply because you are alive and we all have joy in us from God, and it needs to be shared with all by a zeal for life and for others.

2. The power of prayer.  I remember on orientation we were helping at a soup kitchen and after having lunch and chatting with some of the homeless, we met with Deacon Billy, a fiery old man with a huge heart.  When he was talking to our group, he stressed the importance of prayer while on mission.  Very bluntly, he almost screamed, "prayer every day and make sure your lives are centered in and around prayer, because if you don't, there is no way in hell you're going to make it."  There have been many ups and downs over the last year and when my prayer is coming from my heart, things went well.  When I went through the motions, things didn't go as well.  Also, it is because of the prayers of everyone else that has helped me to carry crosses this year and given me strength just when I needed it.  Thank you.

3.  Community life is a beautiful Picasso painting.  If EWTN were to make a Real World series, our community would be a great first season.  We have people from all walks of life- priests, sisters, brothers, lay missionaries, volunteers, all ages 22-73 and from 10 different countries.  We disagree, we get frustrated with each other, we don't understand why, we make mistakes.  But in the end, all of us crazy fellows all work for these fantastic young people and for His Kingdom.  The entire crew comes together as one, each with their own specific role and personality to get closer to our goal of serving the people and poor the best we possibly can.  We come together to do things that can't be done individually and can only be accomplished when we are working together as one and towards the same goal, and it's a messed up masterpiece

I will post more once I return to the States as I want to keep this short, but I wanted to share one last thought.  One of the most common ways to describe my time here is as a missionary, or being on mission.  However, that won't ever change.  My "mission" here has been to help lead the young people here in whatever way I am called, and that doesn't change.  We're all called to be missionaries and spread the Good News, regardless of there we live.  South Sudan has changed my heart and my life and I can't wait to see what happens in the next chapter.

“I am a little pencil in God's hands. He does the thinking. He does the writing. He does everything and sometimes it is really hard because it is a broken pencil and He has to sharpen it a little more.”
-Mother Teresa



Sunday, July 21, 2013

The beginning of the end

As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun.  Wow, it is surreal that I only have 10 more days left in South Sudan.  Time has surely flown and I have definitely had a blast.   After accepting a new job as the youth and young adult coordinator for St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport, which I will start when I return to the States in August, I have been thinking a lot about my time here and my future when I return.  Mainly I have been thinking about how I have changed, what changes are permanent, and what changes were a result of being a part of a different culture and community. 

This also was intensified after reading the Pope’s new encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei.  In it he talked about how faith changes your perspective on things and when you have faith, you see things completely different.  Same event, different perspective. 

Do you know what, change of plans.  I had plans to take a completely different perspective for this blog, but as I have been typing this, I have had two noises in the background.  One is rain.  Heavy rain.  The other is 4 little children playing basketball outside.  So, I’m off to play in the rain.  Faith is supposed to be fun and these children always have faith and hope and joy no matter what the circumstances are.  I hope and pray the joyful faith they have taught me stays with me forever.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Power of personal touch

First and foremost, Happy Mother's Day to all of the mama's out there!  There are many things in this world that only a mother can do- a motherly touch, motherly love, a motherly concern (my mom's really good at this one), motherly sacrifice.  I love you mom!

As I have said many times before, the children here in South Sudan have taught me so much more than I can ever teach them.  One of the the priceless lessons I learned recently is the power of personal touch and how much meaning and affection it can have.  It's in the sincerity of a handshake, that extra second hold in a meaningful hug, the cupping of a sister's hand on the cheek of a newly ordained priest as she says "God bless you and your ministry", the holding of a hand.  Holding of hands is much different here in Africa.  It is seen as a sign of companionship and friendship.  It is very common for men to hold hands with men, women to hold hands with women, and men to hold hands with women.  It is a reaching out of a hand as a sign of friendship and an acceptance of that friendship that is signified by a new bond of bringing the two hands together.  This was one aspect of the culture here that took me a little while to get used to.  To walk down the road and hold  hands with another guy was the definition of an awkward moment.  I still remember forcefully pulling away the first time somebody tried to hold my hand expectantly 

While I have gotten used to holding the hands of people and men here, I haven't reached that deep of a connection here yet with everyone.  I have a student, and he is THAT student, when the teacher and student just don't click at all.  I have a tremendous relationship with all of my students, except this one.  I've tried many things and things have slowly gotten a little better over time, but there was still a pretty long ways to go.  He always tells me "teacher I don't know English" and he refuses to do work most of the time.  He came into the office wanting me to mark his exercise book and had a question about yesterday's lesson.  I again explained reflexive, possessive, and personal pronouns, and he said thank you and went back to the class.  After school that day we were walking along the road together talking and he thanked me for helping him as a huge smile broke and his hand reached out for mine.  I smiled and graciously accepted his simple but powerful gesture.

There is a lot of power in simple human to human contact and make can make a world of difference to somebody.  Reach out and touch your mother today.  God bless.                     

Sunday, April 14, 2013

St. Ann Marie Ebener

Greetings from Gumbo!  It has been a roller coaster couple of weeks here.  I recently started teaching the 5 pre-novices, and we have finished testing and interviewing all of the incoming students for our secondary school, which starts tomorrow!  The incoming students will have 2 weeks of classes in the morning to make sure everyone is on the same level, since they come from a variety of primary schools, before classes start full time May 1.  The students I taught last year moving from S1 to S2 (basically freshman to sophomores) begin May 1.  It has been a nice balance of teaching and administrative work getting everything ready for Opening Day.  Amid all of this, I found out last Thursday that my saintly grandmother passed away, which is where I'll start.

Before I left in September, I had mentally prepared that my grandma probably would pass away during my year on mission and that I would not come back for the funeral if it were to happen.  It was a great blessing to see her and visit with her in the living room on Trexler while both of my grandparents sat in their famous chairs one last time and a moment that will never leave my heart.  While I had hoped I would be able to do it again at the time, in reality, it was a true goodbye.  Being away from family during this time made it extremely difficult, but again, I was blessed to play such a big part of everything thanks to technology.  I skyped all of my cousins the morning of the wake, and skyped again during the wake to be able to "see" everyone, including my grandpa and grandma.  The greatest moment out of all of this was being able to pray the rosary with everyone at the wake through skype.  Just awesome.  For the funeral, we weren't able to skype, but my uncle gave the eulogy and included some thoughts I had emailed him and the video was posted to YouTube so I could watch it.  Again, it was so helpful to be able to be "present", despite being tens of thousands of miles away.  It was and continues to be a very difficult process and time, but I have grown a lot from it and I can't help but smile from ear to ear when I picture my grandma in Heaven.

Throughout the interview process for the secondary school, there is one story I would like to share.  The day after the exam date, there was a girl that came in all by herself that suffers from cerebral palsy.  We had her take the entrance exam and she did pretty well.  We discovered she lives here in Gumbo and had studied at our primary school.  Then a part of the interview went like this:

"Do you live with your parents?"
"No, I live with my siblings."
"Where do your parents live?"
"My father passed away and my mother is mad"
"Who supports you?"
"My uncle sometimes gives us some money and we work (cultivate)"
Then there was a moment of brief silence as she could sense our concern, before she said.
"I just want to learn."

This was yet another moment that made me appreciate all that I have and how these wonderful people have been such a motivation to me and how I think about life.  She has no parents.  I have two absolutely fantastic parents (the best parents in the world in my slightly biased opinion).  She has extremely little support, nobody to really look up to, cerebral palsy, and all she wants to do is learn and improve herself.  Side note- we will be paying her school fees this year.

I have really been thinking about the two of these experiences and I really think about my grandma and how she was always praying, and always praying for others.  More than anything, she prayed for her family.  She prayed that her family would be protected, get the most out of this life, make a difference in this world, and essentially become saints, just like she was.  Like the girl, I have been thinking and planning ways to step my game up and learn and live life to the fullest.  That's the easy part.  Now for the hard part in making it happen.  St. Anne Marie Ebener from Oglesby, pray for us.            

Monday, April 1, 2013


After a trip back to the United States for my brother Nick's wedding, I am finally settled back in here in South Sudan.  The trip was a blast and it was such a humbling experience to be reminded of how blessed I am to have such a large and absolutely amazing group of family and friends.  I thank you all for taking the time to make it such a great memory.  You all rock.

Oh yea, HAPPY EASTER!  The past three days has been the most unique and amazing Easter Triddium experience for me to date.  It is definitely #1 out of 25!  Here's the daily breakdown:

Friday afternoon into evening we had a reenactment of the Way of the Cross that went all throughout the village.  The pre-novices and parishoners did an out of this world job and we had around 500 people (we started with around 30-40) that joined us as we processed throughout Gumbo.  We ended at the church and had a service after that.  What really stood out to me and made it special was that the stations really came to life for me.  After visiting the Holy Land in December and doing the Stations of the Cross there, I was able to visualize and combine the two and really feel like we turned the clock back 2000 years.  As we walked on dirt and not paved roads, as we walked up hills, as people knelt down with their arms and hearts open as we passed by, as the soldiers continued to yell and beat Jesus, as Jesus continued to suffer and pain filled his face, it all felt so real and was really powerful.

Saturday morning we started the day with a penance service.  I was one of the first ones to go and left the church and returned to my room shortly afterwards.  With 6 priests hearing confessions, the service was still almost 3 hours long!  The priests commented that a good number of the parishioners were going to reconciliation for the first time in many years.  What a wonderful sign and reminder of God's love and mercy at work!  At night, we started the outdoor Easter Vigil mass.  We began with a bonfire on the soccer field and had a very short candlelit procession from the field to the front of the church.  I loved that the people were surrounded by darkness, yet were being guided by a small flicker of light in front of them.  The four hour Vigil mass was attended by roughly 1500 people (kinda tough to estimate, but let's just say there was a lot).  We used every light, speaker, and watt of power we had to make it work and it was incredible to see everything come together and all work so well.  We also had 120 children baptized that night in what I called a "drive-thru baptism".  They were in a semi-circle around the church and the priest would say the prayer, and the 6 priests would disperse throughout and perform the correct ritual with water or oil (which, side note, was transported and stored in an empty water bottle from the Chrism mass and administered by putting it on a small South Sudan) as the parents would tell the priest the name of the baptized.  120 new members of the Catholic Church in about 45 minutes....not too shabby!  It is inspiring and energizing to see the Church continue to grow!  I hope to have some video soon, but it will take some time.  

Then there was Easter Sunday!  After a needed early morning monsoon, the first of 2 masses finally began, although it was a bit tardy.  I opted to go to the English mass instead of Bari, and Fr. John, an American Maryknoll priest did a fantastic job.  The place was packed and rockin with the Spirit like it only can and always is in Africa as we celebrated the Risen Lord.

It is amazing how God continues to challenge me and help me grow in a number of ways, especially during this Easter time, a time to be made anew.  May He continue to bless you all.   


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wooahh, We're halfway there, wooahhh living on a prayer

Over the last few days, I have really been thinking about the time I have spent here as I approach the halfway point of my year long commitment.  I've been thinking a lot about the things I've done, things I haven't done, and things I wish to accomplish during the 2nd half.  It has really been a great assessment process, especially during the season of lent.  I have been going back to orientation and asking the question, "why did I initially sign up for this and what did I want to accomplish, and how am I doing at accomplishing this?"

The motto of the SLM program is "finding Christ in the face of a child" and this is something that was high on my list of things to accomplish.  I wanted to experience the poor, life, and Jesus in a completely different way than in America.  I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor and try to gain an insight into what life is like for the least of my brothers.  This is something that I encounter on a daily basis, but it is always in a different manner.  Sometimes, it is in the beautiful smile of a child with missing teeth.  Sometimes, it is in a 6 year old girl teaching her 3 year old sister the proper way to genuflect and make the sign of the cross when entering into a church.  Sometimes it is in the gentle touch of a child's hand while praying the rosary.  Sometimes it is seeing the children play with such joy that you would never know that they haven't eaten all day.  Sometimes it is the children reaching out to me, other times it is me reaching out to them.  Everywhere I go, Christ is in the face of these magnificent children and I am surrounded by His love and feel it in everyone of the children here (even the troublemakers)

While at orientation, we wrote a personal mission statement.  While I could not find mine to get the exact words, it was something along the lines of "do not be afraid to love and be loved, to teach and be taught, to change and be changed, to give and to receive, to both be and do.  Do not be afraid."  Changing others while being changed myself have definitely been a part of my time here.  I think of the changes in the students at the school as they have improved each and every day.  Not just with their learning of book knowledge, but their learning of values such as discipline, respect, and ability to link the future with the present.  Just the other day, there was a student that was talking loudly in class.  Before I could say anything, one of the other students spoke up and said "you need to be quiet and respect the teacher.  We're trying to learn English."  6 months ago, that would have been unheard of.  I couldn't have said it better and the slow transformation of the students has been awesome to be a part of.  As far as changes for me, I feel I have definitely changed in a lot of ways, mainly with my views about life and how it should be spent, and I think those will really be revealed to me with my visit to America next week and will write on those later.

So far, things have been life changing in South Sudan and been an amazing journey.  There have been a fair share of struggles, frustrations and misunderstandings, but they have contributed to the growth process and are a part of life, especially life on mission.   The appreciation I have for basic needs, my definition of need and want, and gratitude for life will never be the same.  While I still have 6 months to complete my mission, continue to do and constantly get better at some things, continue to cut some things out of my life, it has been an unforgettable journey.  I'm living on a prayer for another life-changing 6 months.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Greetings from South Sudan!  Things here have remained busy and hot!  The past couple of weeks have included a vocation camp, youth seminar about ways to improve our oratory (where we play all of the sports and games), and also 3 different celebrations for the feast of Don Bosco!  As usual, every celebration and program we have allows me to deepen my relationships with the wonderful people here as they teach me more about their simple and joy-filled lives.

Since the school started back up almost a month ago, we have been having some issues with attendance.  We have 28 students enrolled and we probably average about 15-18 people a day.  There are also some students who haven't been back yet as they are still on their own personal holiday break.  For some, they have been unable to get transport from where their families are back to the friend or relative they live with in Juba.  For a very select few, they just don't want to come back.  However, it is the complete opposite for those who do come to school. as they are filled with a desire to learn and improve their lives.  Education is the only way they will be able to live a good life and help their family members and people of South Sudan.  This spirit has really gotten a hold of my heart and I have been spending a lot more time and energy in the school because of it.  My heart jumps when they want to know more about something, or they complete a crossword puzzle and throw their hand in the air with a huge smile and scream "I'm done!"  We have also started writing letters back and forth to students in America and it was such an amazing moment when the first replies came in earlier this week.  Their smiles, laughter and curiosity filled my heart with joy as the entire class gathered and read the letters out loud.  I also led a debate this past Friday and the topic I gave them was the death penalty.  They did very well and it was very interesting, as African culture is naturally VERY heavy on the pro side(as expected in a country that has seen nothing but war for the last 50 years).

Anyway, one of the students answers that opposed the motion really got me thinking.  She said "God has given us freedom and we have to forgive them.  He sent Jesus so Jesus can take away our sins, we must do the same."  She went on to also mention St. Paul, his past, his conversion and how everyone can change.  She concluded with "people are supposed to be a positive benefit and help our people of South Sudan and they need the opportunity to be able to do that."

While her argument struck me in a lot of ways, I've been thinking a lot about the last words "the opportunity to be able to do that".  I have been blessed with so many wonderful opportunities.  Some I have taken full advantage of, some I have taken but not given my all, others I have not taken at all and let them pass.  Every moment is an opportunity to make a difference in somebody's lives, both the lives of others and your own.  My students have taught me that each moment is an opportunity to change somebody's day (as they have done for me countless times) by a simple smile, asking how they are and truly meaning it, singing and dancing, just enjoying the life you have and using every opportunity to enjoy it.  There is no greater opportunity than the present moment, and every moment is an opportunity to truly love, truly live, truly learn from the blessing of education, and truly make both yourself and the people around you better.  Thank you students and people of South Sudan for this wonderful lesson and opportunity.

God bless!