Africa, September/October 2019, Vol. 84 No. 7
Going to the other side…
When missionaries like the late Bishop Shanahan and Monsignor Patrick Whitney came to evangelize Nigeria in the 1920s, the idea of going on mission was primarily centred on going to convert the ‘pagan people’. While the need for evangelization is as urgent as it used to be in the past, we need to ask how has our understanding of going to mission changed for our generation? The reality is that, most places where we go on mission today have experienced the Christian faith at some level and have an ample knowledge of God from their own experience of God in their lives and cultures. As a young missionary, I have constantly grappled with the question of what it means for me to be a missionary at this time in history. I have had to ask myself what have I to offer as a missionary priest that the diocesan priests working in my area of mission do not? Or what am I doing differently from them as we all have to celebrate Mass and the sacraments which pertain to the priestly ministry?
My first mission experience as an ordained missionary priest was in Turkana in Northern Kenya. After working in a parish there for almost two years, I was asked to come to work in South Sudan. When I visited our missions in South Sudan before taking up my appointment, I was preoccupied by the question ‘why should I leave Turkana – where I had settled, learnt the language, made friends and seemed to be doing well? South Sudan was not as organized as where I had been. The Gospel Reading of that Sunday was the story of Jesus retreating in the morning to a quiet place to pray after a successful ministry of preaching and healing the previous day. When Peter came looking for Jesus and telling him how much the people were in need of him, Jesus told Peter that it was time to go to the other side. In that, I found the answer to the question why I should move from Turkana. South Sudan became for me the “other side” which every missionary should constantly be looking for – what St Patrick’s Missionary Society in its 2014 General Chapter, regards as “going out to the least, the last and the lost”. This could be seen as geographical, cultural, or sociopolitical as well as religious boundaries where the values of the gospel of the kingdom of love and justice, that Christ came to build in the world, can be promoted. It is no longer enough to enrol people to the catechumenate, teach them the Christian doctrine and baptize them and have a full church. Mission work calls on the missionary, while being involved in all that, to proclaim gospel values wherever he finds himself.
I took up my appointment in Narus mission in South Sudan, ‘going to the other side’ like Jesus after a prayerful discernment of where the needs are. This has been for me the chance to take up the challenge of creating awareness around dominant male cultural practices like early and forced marriages and other gender based violence which are against the rights and dignity of women. This involved creating an advocacy programme alongside our parish child protection and safeguarding programme to encourage our parish community to safeguard the rights and dignity of girls and young women.
Another area where the call to mission has led me is to take on the challenge to witness to Christian communion and promote our common brotherhood. Due to the ongoing civil wars in South Sudan, most communities experience tribal segregation. Mutual suspicion results in people living in fear of one another. A few years ago our Christian community in Narus parish took on the challenge of addressing the problem. We tried to create a communion of all peoples through the formation of small Christian communities. People who live in different parts of the parish, irrespective of their tribe, culture or nationality, are encouraged to gather together in the spirit of mutual love. They pray and share about their lives and concerns with one another. This common brotherhood is based on the Word of God and on the Eucharist which we often celebrate together.
The promotion of equal access to education for both boys and girls through the establishment of schools where Christian values are promoted is another aspect of ‘going to the other side’. Through the educational institutions which we established and run in collaboration with other religious brothers and sisters in the area, we are constantly planting seeds for the future development of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom where every citizen is empowered through the light of education to contribute towards the development of peace, unity and progress. Missionary work is like farming. You plant, water and patiently wait for the seeds to germinate, take root and flourish. Such waiting demands patience, courage and enthusiasm. When we plant, not all the seeds may germinate and even when they do, sometimes crops can fail. But that does not mean the farmer will not go out the next planting season to plant again. That is how it has been for me with missionary work. We are sometimes faced with opposition and even when some of our programmes fail to yield the desired goals, it does not mean we should give up.
My greatest joy as a missionary is the experience of the transforming power of the love of God in people’s lives. This has given me the courage to carry on when I face challenges. The experience of a community which was so closed and divided and suspicious of each other, transforming to become a united, caring and loving community is very satisfying. This was brought about through the activities of the small Christian communities. It reminds me of the miraculous transformation that the power of the risen Lord brought about in the early Christian community of Jews and Gentiles. They were deeply divided before their experience of living within the community of believers. The need for mission today is as urgent as it has been in the past. Our own world is shrouded in the darkness of various cultural, sociopolitical and ideological divides. Our world is obsessed with the building of walls rather than bridges of love and common humanity. There is an urgent need for young men and women of faith to courageously take on the responsibility of carrying the message of the transforming love of God to the ‘other side’ – wherever that may be.
Fr Tim Galvin and Fr Emmanuel Obi during Emmanuel’s first visit to South Sudan in 2015.
Fr Emmanuel Obi from Warri, Delta State, Nigeria, was ordained in 2013. He ministers in St Joseph’s Parish, Narus, Republic of South Sudan.
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