It’s been seven months since I arrived in South Sudan. To be completely honest my last blog post was titled It’s Been Six Months, but it sat blank in Microsoft Word for a month, so you’re left with an extra month of events. Many things have changed over the months, and yet many things have stayed the same. My duties started as a teacher and webmaster, and have evolved into stints as a summer camp leader, football player/coach/referee, parish assistant, computer specialist, nurse, sacristan, and now a big new position (read on). Community members and visitors have come and gone. The weather has changed from rainy to extreme heat, and back to rainy again. Clothes are dirty and stained. But overall, my mission is still the same.

One of the big reasons I have not written lately is because of my big news. About a month and a half ago I was asked to be the Head of the Computer Department at the Vocational Training Centre (similar to a technical college in the US) on our compound that is opening next week. It’s no coincidence that was the last time I blogged. To say thing have been busy is an understatement. I have been organizing the computer lab and doing administrative work in preparation for the school year. In addition to being at VTC from 8-5, the prenovices had exams three weeks ago, so during that time I created and graded the exams. Starting Monday, I will begin teaching classes in basic computer operations, Word, Excel, etc, and my prenovitiate teaching responsibilities now belong to Luke.

Though I have been very busy at the VTC, I have really enjoyed my time there. It is so amazing to have prospective students come in and tell me how excited they are for the opportunity to learn a skill and advance their life. However, there have been plenty of heartbreaking stories. Many have no birth certificate or identification, and have no idea when they were born or how old they are. The vast majority has school certificates from Uganda or Kenya, often from refugee camps. Still others don’t have the money to pay for the school fees, which is only about $100 USD for the entire year. It is a constant, and much need reminder of where the country and people have been in the past, and where they hope to be in the future. It has been very difficult to find the balance between being compassionate with them and their situation, and upholding the same standards of admission for everyone.  

The new and exciting is gone for the most part, and I have really settled into the daily routine. Things that once were part of being in a new culture have turned into difficulties and frustrations. But no matter how challenging some of the days are, each day there is a moment where I am filled with pure joy and from the children, whether it is from a smile or a shout from across the grounds. I am always reminded of the reason I came – to “Find Christ In the Face of a Child.”

I will hopefully do another mailbag in the near future, and maybe it will push me to write something sooner. Some upcoming questions to be answered include: What is your favorite food over there? & In many areas of poverty you see many homeless dogs running around. Are there a lot there? What other animals roam the streets?

On January 29th I departed for Maridi, one of our other Salesian sites about 150 miles west of Juba. I went to represent our community for the ordination of Fr. Paul Tung, and was expecting to stay just two days. After eight long hours through the rough terrain of South Sudan, we finally arrived in the cool and scenic Maridi, the place I had been hearing about for five months. It was truly a beautiful place, with rolling hills filled with green trees and beautiful landscape. Though I was hoping to catch up on a bit of rest while away from Juba, I was quickly put to work the first day helping prepare for the ordination (I didn’t really want to rest anyway). The ordination day was much of the same busyness as well, as I was in charge of the soundboard and videotaping the ceremony. I finally got to relax in the evening as we celebrated Father’s ordination, and the festivities ended around 10:30pm. As I was saying my goodbyes and getting ready to head back to Juba the next morning, Grace (one of my fellow SLMs) realized that she was going to be all-alone in the dispensary for the week. One of the Sisters that worked in the dispensary was going to a conference for the week, so Grace made a last second push for me to stay for the week and help her out. The Fathers talked for a while and decided I could stay.

In my time in Maridi, I mainly worked in the dispensary taking patient registration and helping in the pharmacy, however, my duties did not end there. I helped clean-up Father JP’s computer, facilitate land transactions, played a song for the school morning assembly, and refereed a football match. Though it was certainly a working vacation, I felt surprisingly refreshed when I left. The change of scenery and lifestyle was just what I needed, but more importantly it was the visiting/conversations with Grace, Cait, and the whole Maridi community that restored me. They were so welcoming to me and made me feel like a part of the community, and I was saddened when the time for goodbyes came. In the morning assembly when Father JP said I was leaving, the kids let out a collective sigh, which was quelled when Father said I would be spending the next year volunteering in Maridi (we will see about that).

The time in Maridi also confirmed that my home is in Juba and how much I missed everything about it, from the kids to the community to the work. After two weeks I was really longing to sleep in my own uncomfortable bed, eat the same meals, and sweat all day long in the heat. The saying, “You never know what you've got until it's gone” never rang truer in my life.

I will try to get some pictures from the trip uploaded soon!

You mentioned that the community was poor, but they called you Messi - do they have TVs?

The community is very poor, but they are surprisingly very in tune to the world football (soccer) scene. They don’t have TV’s, let alone electricity or running water, but there are a few shops/bars in the village that have a small TV and satellite that are generator powered. You will see tons of people huddled around the screen for a big match. Wearing a jersey is also a must while playing football here. We are in the middle of a 16-team tournament for the feast of St. John Bosco, and the games are taken very seriously with huge crowds and intense play.

What are some of the creature-comforts from that states that you miss? Doritos? Chips-Ahoy? Big Mac?

All the above! There are many things that I miss from the US -- cheeseburgers, cold cut sandwiches, my Dad’s BBQ. You name it and I probably miss it. Overall the lack of variety in food is what I miss the most, but I enjoy the special dishes such as fried chicken or beef that much more special because of the rarity. I surprisingly have had pizza a few times and ice cream as well, though not quite the same as I was used to in the States.

What is your oddest food that you have tried over there?

To be honest I really have not tried too many odd foods. The oddest would probably be Crocodile from the Nile River (it was very good). I guess the only other odd food that I eat is bread with ants in it. Sometimes ants invade our bread for breakfast, and about the only thing you can do try to shake it out hoping most of them leave. Lets just say there have been a few extra crunchy bites.

Is there anything that you've discovered in Juba that you're excited to bring back to the states?
What one thing of their culture would you like to bring back (does not necessarily need to be a tangible or material)?

Since these questions are very similar, I’ll combine them into a super answer! There are a few things that I am excited to bring back to the states. The overall joy the people (especially the children) have in life despite the lack of material items. It is a constant reminder of all that we have in the States vs. what we really need. I also like the problem solving and ingenuity of the people here. Anything can be made and everything can be fixed.

I also hope to bring back the faith and friendliness of the children. During Friday Adoration and Saturday Mass, the church is filled 95% by children. They are there not because they have to be there, but because they want to be there. After Friday Adoration we usually sing songs or play until the sun goes down. It is probably my favorite time of the week. The kids are also always so excited to say hello at anytime during the day, and always have something fun or interesting to talk about.

These questions got me thinking a lot about the good and the bad, and though I don’t want to be too negative, one thing I am not planning on bringing back is the sense of time. For anyone who knows me, I am always on time and even get frustrated when others are not, so the keeping of time is a big thing that I have had to adjust to. I have sat alone many times waiting, as the 10:00am meeting often doesn’t begin until 11:30am.

What's the grossest bug that you've discovered (Pic please)?

Oh man! There are so many gross bugs here. In general, the bugs are massive, and the grossest one was literally the size of my hand. While I don’t have a picture of that, I found one here that is not only big, but its antennae are longer than its body.
Were you hot in your Santa suit?

Yes, I was very hot in the Santa suit. In December, temperatures were in the high 90s daily with a scorching sun that made it feel like being in an oven. We are entering into the extremely hot season now, and this week it reached 105°F. It is so hot here that I don’t bother flipping over my pillow anymore because the other side is just as hot.

What kind of a community is Juba? Farming?

The city of Juba is a government/NGO community. In South Sudan, about 80% of people are employed in the Public Sector, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the makeup of Juba as well. The village of Gumbo, across the Nile River from Juba (see the map on my homepage for a better idea), is where our compound is located. Most of the people rely on subsistence agriculture for living, but farming is not done at a commercial level yet. Only 4% of the country's arable land is effectively used, and therefore, despite the fertile land most food is imported from Uganda.

What did the kids get for candy?

The kids got some small hard candies, caramels, and suckers as a Christmas gift from the parish. They enjoyed the sweets very much!

Did the snow Audrey sent work?

My sister and Advent Pal Audrey sent a nice little gift to me for Christmas, including my favorite candies (Snickers and Swedish Fish) and some Snow in Seconds. The snow worked better than expected with a very real look and feel. I’m excited to use it for the feast at the end of the month.

Besides the obvious friends and family response, what do you miss the most about America?

The thing I miss most about America is the freedom to go wherever you want and do whatever you want. In the States I loved going new places, seeing new things, and having new experiences. Though I enjoy the occasional downtime, I wish I was able to see more, do more, and go on more adventures, but the lack of things to do, unpaved roads, and safety issues make these difficult to do. However, the free time has allowed me to take up a few new hobbies such as reading and guitar.

I hope you enjoyed this first attempt at a mailbag. Let me know what you think and submit more questions for the next round!

My Christmas in South Sudan this year was a bit different than any of the others I have experienced. Instead of shopping in the mall, making Christmas cookies, playing in the snow, or visiting with family, I spent the days before Christmas preparing our program and decorating the church. We had Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and afterwards a small celebration with our community. In the morning I woke up early to set-up the sound system in the church, and later on attended the 11:00am English Mass that did not start until 12:30pm. Since Mass ended around 2:30pm, I was secretly hoping that Fr. David would not remember my promise to go with him for Mass in Mafao in the afternoon, so I could take a much needed nap instead. However, just about as soon as I finished my last bite from lunch, he walked in the door and asked if I was ready to go. With a smile I let out an exhausted “Yes” and hopped into the Land Cruiser.

Once we arrived, I rang the bell and waited for the people to come to our Hanging Church (tree). After a few minutes, we started the Mass with five people (three of them young kids) in the congregation. At first I was annoyed that we traveled all the way for such a small crowd, but I quickly realized this was what Christmas is all about. Despite being exhausted, I was filled with the Christmas joy sharing the birth of Christ with a few more people. In the evening we had a nice Christmas dinner with all the Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, and other community members. After dinner, I Skyped with my family, and was able to share in a bit of the Christmas celebration with them. On the 27th when Luke’s father arrived, I received a beautiful package from my family, including letters from all my siblings, a few small gifts, and even fake snow from my Advent Pal Audrey. All in all it was a unique, yet wonderful Christmas.
Joe opening his Advent Pal gift from me.
Though it was difficult to be away from my family during this special time of year, it was the first Christmas where I really focused on the birth of Christ. Maybe it was the heat, lack of Christmas Music, or absence of family, but it never really “felt” like Christmas here. But it all changed with that intimate Christmas moment with in Mafao. Around the States I would always see signs that said “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but they are just slogans that virtually no one take to heart. However, this Christmas is certainly one that I will never forget, not because of all the gifts I received, but rather the true presence of the One Gift we all received.

PS- My Aunt Kelly suggested that I do a mailbag for my next blog post, and answer any questions you (the readers) might have. I think it’s a great idea and will give it a shot, so if you have a question you would like me to answer, comment on this post, Facebook, or email me and I’ll do my best to provide an answer.

Happy New Year and God Bless!
Over the last week, I was busily involved in three big projects – the celebration and procession for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Christmas carols around the villages of our parish, and a Salesian Summer Camp for the local children. Though it has been by far the most demanding and tiring week, each night I went to bed feeling proud and fulfilled.

Last Saturday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and for it we planned a beautiful procession of Mary after Mass in the evening. Though the turnout for Mass was low, many people joined the procession as we moved through the village, and by the final blessing the number grew to a few hundred people. In a culture that does not hold women in high regard, it was a great ceremony to show love to Our Mother.

Two weeks ago we began traveling to our satellite parishes to sing carols and spreading the Christmas message. It is certainly a different Christmastime here than the ones I experienced in the US over the years. People here do not even know who or what Santa is, and most people do not speak English so they had no idea what we were even singing about. However, all the villages welcomed us and walked around with us as we sang, because they were there to welcome the Baby Jesus we carried. I got to dress up as Santa for a few days and give the kids sweets. While some of the children had fun dancing and playing, others were scared of the crazy foreign man. Unfortunately, there was no snow on the ground, but instead temperatures reaching triple digits.

The first Salesian Summer Camp began in Gumbo on Monday. Fr. David thought it was necessary to keep the children of the parish occupied, educated, and active during the summer. We had 80 kids registered the first day, but after word of the camp spread, the camp grew to nearly 300 on Wednesday. It shows how important the camp is to the children. I had such a fun week teaching the youngest group (6-8) basic English such as numbers, letters, body parts, and colors. Throughout the week, children would come up to me and sing “Yes Lord,” a song that I taught them this week. Last night, a couple kids enthusiastically asked (in Arabic) if they had school on Monday. It was one of my happiest moments not only because they were excited to learn, but also I was able to understand and respond in Arabic that we would in fact be learning and singing songs on Monday. It’s the little victories! I cannot wait for what this next busy week will have in store.

I have posted many snaps from these events in the “Pictures” section of the site. Enjoy!

Ps If you have any interest in supporting my mission here, we are looking for donations for the camp. God Bless.

Last week Fr. Ferrington, the Delegate Superior of the Salesians of Sudan and South Sudan, asked me to attend an Introductory Course of South Sudan. Since he received word about the seminar last minute, I represented the SDBs and will be presenting the material to the Salesian communities of South Sudan in the future (I will also try to share the information on this site when I put everything together). The topics of the seminar were all very interesting, and included history, media, ethnic groups, the church, the government, and women. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the country and people that I am serving, and it opened my eyes to many challenges and opportunities.

Even though the speakers gave great stories and information, the best talk was the impromptu anecdote of Br. Valentino, a 90-year-old Comboni Missionary. He first arrived in Sudan/South Sudan in 1949 when the country was still controlled by British colonists, and lived through two civil wars over his 63 years here. As you can imagine, he has quite a remarkable story. With many laughs intermingled with some amazing experiences, his words were great advice to me, a 22-year-old kid who has been in South Sudan for three months. Much of what he said was great guidance for life in general, so missionary or not, I leave you with a few lines of his that impacted me and might have the same impact on you.

“God, bless me to understand how to deal with the people.”

“It's all about the people.”

“Be brothers… we are all the same.”

“Pay wages honestly and respect the workers. Give them their dues before the sweat becomes dry.”

“There is no second class.”

“Be happy with the people and love them.”

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but Luke and I brought it to South Sudan today. We spent the afternoon in the kitchen preparing our version of Thanksgiving dinner. We made mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a small chicken that we pretended was a turkey. Every Thursday our community gets together for Mass and dinner in the evening, so we brought our “Thanksgiving Feast” over for everyone to enjoy. During dinner I shared my family's tradition of going around the table and saying something you are thankful for. I led saying a few words, and after I thought about all the blessings in my life and all that I have to be thankful for. Here is what I came up with.

I’m thankful for…
  • my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He died so that we may have eternal life. Remember, in the sacrament and sacrifice of the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving), Jesus becomes truly present in our lives. There is nothing to be more thankful for.
  • my family. They have shown me so much love and support throughout life. I would not be who I am today without my parents, brothers, and sisters.
  • my Salesian family here in South Sudan. Especially after hearing everyone tonight, I realized how lucky I am to celebrate thanksgiving such great people.
  • my relatives and friends. They share updates and laughs despite being 7000 miles away. Though I love it here, know that I miss and love y’all.
  • the people of South Sudan. They welcomed me with open arms and have changed my life.
  • the Salesian Lay Missioners program. Without SLM I would not be in South Sudan and would not be on this amazing journey.
  • being an American. Tonight Fr. Francis, a native South Sudanese, mentioned he was thankful for America for helping bring freedom to his country. Too often we take our country and freedom for granted.
  • anyone who reads this blog. I hope you get something out of it, and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. I thank you for your prayers and encouragement.

God Bless and Happy Thanksgiving!

Last year around this time when I decided I wanted to volunteer for a year, I began looking into many different programs. I was going on my eighth year of Jesuit education, so naturally I looked into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. However, since I was going to be a free agent again, I also explored the market of religious volunteer programs through the Catholic Volunteer Network. In addition to JVC, I looked into programs with the Vincentians, Franciscans, and the Salesians among others, and after a great deal of prayer and mutual discernment, I signed with the Salesian Lay Missioners in South Sudan.  My Jesuit friends, though very supportive of the program, jokingly wondered why I did not decide to continue with them. While on orientation back in July/August, whenever my past with the Jesuits was brought up, I would get heckled quite a bit by the Salesian priests (all in good fun). Being the second largest religious order behind the Jesuits, I think the SDBs have the little brother mentality. Anyway, while the Jesuits we mad about “losing” me, and the Salesians were giving me trouble about my previous coaching, I thought I was going to get away from the drama while in South Sudan. Not so fast.

Last week, we received word that a Jesuit priest was coming and staying with us for a year. Fr. Francis SJ arrived and is helping out as an administrator at the Don Bosco Senior Secondary School. Like many of the Jesuits I have encountered over the years, Fr. Francis and I hit it off. However, after talking about my past with the Jesuits, but now being with the Salesians, he lightheartedly said, “You betrayed us!” Not again I thought J.

Though I seem to be in the middle of a heated rivalry, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth. Not many people get to form such close relationships with these two great orders. While they love to joke about one another, the more I spend time with the Salesians, the more I see how similar they are to the Jesuits, and vise versa. At their cores, both focus on educating the youth and being missionaries of Christ. Seeing the two orders work together here shows me they are first and foremost Catholics serving the Lord, and that trumps any affiliation they have to their order. They both want to spread Christ love and bring people closer to him, and they rely on each other’s strengths for help. Think about it… with Jesuits’ strength in education and the Salesians’ forte in youth formation, the kids here with have no choice but to be amazing students and followers of Christ. Plus, now we all have both St. Ignatius and St. John Bosco watching over us.

Sunday was a packed day. It began with a trip to Mori (one of our satellite parishes along the banks of the Nile) after breakfast around 9:00am. I was asked to assist Fr. David with the baptism of about 20 children. About halfway into the journey, we picked up a few about 20 kids who were heading to the Mass.  We had 28 people in the car for 15 minutes as we traveled through the bush, following the dirt road over massive bumps and mud pits. We were no more than 200 meters away from the church, when suddenly one of the mud pits was too big and too deep for our Land Cruiser; we were stuck! After trying to push and pull for a few minutes, we decided to wait until after the Mass to worry about it.
How many people fit in a Land Cruiser? At least 28.
Stuck in the mud.
The celebration began at St. Dominic Savio Parish around 10:00am in the brick and mud church. Upon taking my seat, Sister Antoineta asked if I could be the lector for the second reading, so I quickly looked over the Letter to the Hebrews.  Young dancers led the procession and the choir sang beautiful songs in the tribal language of Bari. It was similar to the feast we had at St. Vincent de Paul a several weeks back. These people take their celebrations seriously! The Mass was said in a combination of English, Arabic, and Bari, and though I didn’t understand much (seems to be a theme), there is something to be said about being in the presence of the Lord in such a unique situation. After the readings, gospel, and homily, I helped Father with the baptisms. After each child was baptized, the congregation broke out into song, complete with drums, claps, and Africa yells. It was quite an experience to be a part of the celebration.
The Second Reading
Babies being baptized!
Step out of St. Dominic Savio church and you're on the bank of the White Nile.
After Mass, with the assistance of several parishioners, we were able to push the car out of the mud. We piled back into car and headed to Gumbo. Upon arriving home, I grabbed a quick lunch and took a nap so I would be well rested for our big soccer match. Our Salesian community decided to challenge my Don Bosco Senior team. I played with the Salesians for fear that I wouldn’t have a place to eat and sleep if I went against them. To be honest, I was worried about our Salesian team getting humiliated/injured, as many of our players had not stepped on the pitch in years.  Fr. Mathew thought we would lose “no less than 0-6.”  Our team was a ragtag bunch, consisting of two priests, one brother, five prenovices, three volunteers, one evaluator, and one solar technician, and we represented six nations- USA, South Sudan, India, Nigeria, Kenya, and Spain. We were outplayed in the first half and luckily only down 0-1, but at halftime we made a few adjustments and took the field determined to make a comeback. With the crowd on our side, we fought hard and scored three unanswered goals in the second half, and came away with a 3-1 victory. It was an amazing atmosphere to have all the sisters and villagers rallying around the underdog. I just hope I’m not kicked off of the Senior team for being a traitor. We celebrated the win with a feast in the evening.  For a nightcap, Luke and I played Gin and chatted about life over a cold beer, a rare treat. As you can see, it was truly an awesome day!
Baboo and I before the game.
On Friday, Fr. David, Luke and I went to the “Hope for a New Nation” Festival in Juba. Our parish was asked to come and bring 100 youth to the festival, which was supposed to “help lay a strong spiritual foundation as the world’s newest country faces spiritual, economic, social and political challenges.” We arrived at the festival grounds around 5pm, joining thousands of people gathered to hear music, prayers, and speeches. Despite a very lackluster talk by the headliner Franklin Graham (definitely living off of his last name), I was very impressed with the turnout and attitude of the people. The park was packed, and people were actually standing on cars in the street to join in the celebration. The whole crowd got completely silent for the moment of silence and prayer. They sang and danced during praise and worship songs. They demonstrated the importance of having that strong spiritual foundation during this time of hope.

And it really is a time for hope in South Sudan. In a way, I liken the feelings here to those of the United States of America in 1777, a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Our founding fathers believed that all people are created equal, and they hoped that everyone would have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They laid out the grounds of hope for others, and their hopes came to fruition in our great nation. The South Sudanese hope for many of the same things. In their national anthem they sing of peace and harmony, justice, liberty, and prosperity. Not only are they hoping for these things we Americans are so blessed with, but also they are putting their hope in Christ.

A few months back I read a great article on the hope of this new nation, and this blog post reminded me of it, so I figured I would share (