In South Sudan, Catholic sisters are beacons of faith, hope, love

In the midst of human suffering, spirituality seems to be the best means to cope with trauma and difficult situations. It is a dynamic and fundamental way for us to connect with something bigger than ourselves, helping us to have meaning and purpose in life, as well as hope for a tomorrow.

Catholic sisters are planting the seeds of faith, hope and love as they walk with the people of South Sudan — the youngest country in Africa — one step at a time. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Juba, South Sudan, and see the effects of the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to higher education for Catholic sisters in Africa. Since 2014, ASEC has supported Catholic sisters in South Sudan through higher education and training in leadership development.

In Juba, I met with two ASEC partners, the Catholic University of South Sudan and the Religious Superiors Association of South Sudan (RASS), stakeholders and beneficiaries of ASEC programs the war-torn country. The visit provided me with new perspectives, understanding and hope for the future in spite of uncertainty. It renewed in me the meaning of Saint Paul's passage, "And now these three remain — faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is Love" (1 Corinthians 1:13). Faith, hope and love strengthen and sustain sisters, missionaries and expatriates serving in South Sudan.

I met with Catholic sisters and people who are tirelessly working to transform South Sudan into a place of hope, aptly symbolized by the river Nile flowing through the city of Juba. But despite the fresh water provided by the river, many are starving. I thought of global newscasts providing, time and time again, details of the issues facing South Sudan. But the sisters are working on the margins of society, creating schools, hospitals, social and pastoral care centers.

In 2016, for the first time, 34 sisters working in South Sudan, including some congregational leaders, participated in two four-week training sessions through the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI).  (Both the SLDI and the ASEC are funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.)

In prior years, sisters had to travel to either Kenya or Uganda for this; now they have training on their own soil. It is a dream that has come true, a hope I  always had for South Sudan. Meeting and interacting with these sisters in their own country and with the missionaries from other countries who work with them, was a real learning opportunity. It was a time to see, listen and make sense of the challenges they have to endure in rebuilding broken lives and giving people a hope for the future. They, too, need the same gifts they are giving.

As mutual trust and friendship developed, sisters from a variety of congregations interacted with and learned from each other. Observing them, I learned that to rebuild a nation, the first step of the long journey of the healing process is to have faith in those living and serving there; this has yet to occur in South Sudan. But the sisters' presence is a sign of that to come! To continue being in solidarity, ASEC staff formulated a prayer that they continue to use: a prayer for peace and healing for the nation, and for a future full of hope for the people living there.

Both local and missionary sisters are serving hand in hand, building people's faith and hope for the future yet to be realized. Trauma is one of the challenges they face each day as they support the communities there. I keep wondering what keeps these sisters ministering there amid challenging uncertainties, but the answer is simple; it's love. One sister told me that despite the fragile environment, walking out and leaving those who have nowhere else to call home is not an option. Daughter of Saint Paul Sister Ann observed, "You cannot know what is happening in someone's mind, yet you have to keep hope alive; yes, hope that there is a future."

I think having an open mind as we encounter and immerse ourselves in a new culture is important. The African proverb, "He who has not traveled widely thinks that his mother is the best cook," illustrates this well. It encourages us to travel, to be aware and to explore other cultures with an open mind and heart — and not to interpret or judge those cultures through our own cultural lenses. If we have open minds and are ready to learn and engage effectively with the local people, new cultures will shape our opinions. It is easy for people who live in peaceful circumstances to tell others living in volatile and vulnerable regions to "just leave;" but for those working in those regions, providing essential services to the sick, poor, children, women and elderly is a priority.

I was deeply touched by the faith, hope and love demonstrated by the Catholic sisters as they navigated difficult terrain to provide desperately needed services. The sisters' commitment and desire to make a difference in the society and lives of the people they serve is nourished by faith and hope for a better tomorrow. Above all, it is love that leads them to wake up each day to serve.

Each day that we travelled in the South Sudan, I thought of St. Paul's letter to the Galatians: "My children," he wrote, "I am going through the pain of childbirth all over again, until Christ is formed in you. I wish I could be there with you and find the right way of talking to you. I am quite at a loss with you" (Galatians 4: 19-20).

We have a duty not only to pray but also to be active for these people — for the women, the girls, the boys and the elderly in this troubled country. Peace is indispensable for sustainable human development in South Sudan; and there is a dire need for humanitarian assistance! The need for trauma healing cannot be underestimated. It is essential to develop mutual trust and to impart positive values to the next generation. The road to recovery is long and precarious, but we must not lose faith and hope; the people there are depending on us!

Are you ready to walk with us?

[Jane Wakahiu is a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis and is the Executive Director of the ASEC and SLDI/HESA.]