Text: Sister Barbara Buckley, RSM | Photos: Paul Jeffrey
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Judgment of the Nations appears just before the passion narrative. Jesus speaks quite clearly about the actions necessary to enter the Kingdom: compassion for all humanity. “The passion that Christ felt for humanity, shown throughout his lifetime, and in a singular way on the Cross, is also not something of the past. It continues down through all of history, where we find clear signs of its fruitfulness. At the beginning of the XXI Century, Christ shares the crosses of millions of persons in various parts of the world” (“Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity,” International Congress on Consecrated Life, 2004). And we know that one of those places experiencing the Cross most acutely, and thus in much need for compassion, is South Sudan.
In the Nilotic folktales of South Sudan, the earth and sky were once linked by a rope. This rope gave the people direct access to God, the heavens, and eternal life. But the rope was severed, tragically, on account of human action. And forever since, the fate of the people has been bound to the earth and to the difficulties, suffering, and mortality that constrain the human condition. (“A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State,” Zach Vertin, Pegasus Books 2019)
For the reflections below, we take the directions of Jesus to feed, clothe, care for and visit, and consider them in light of lived experiences in South Sudan.
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you?
“It is cassava for lunch today, like every day. We don’t have anything else,” Mura Margaret explains while stirring the cassava porridge.
The locust swarms can contain so many grasshoppers that they resemble fast-moving dark clouds, an ominous sign of the destruction to come.
“When the desert locust came, they were in large numbers, so many that it could not be controlled. They ate all the crops, everything that was green was gone. There was nothing left on the farm,” Margaret says looking at her youngest son Daniel.
The large fields of Sorghum on her farm in Owiny-Ki-Bul was supposed to keep the family full for the dry season…But the locust didn’t leave a single grain alone.
“We have no food in the house except some cassava which is keeping us alive. We eat it every day and I use it for brewing alcohol so I can make some money for us,” Margaret says. (“They ate our food: The locust invasion in South Sudan has left families hungry””)
Lord, when did we see you thirsty and give you drink?
The smudge on the horizon gained color as Nya drew nearer, changing from hazy gray to olive green. The dirt under her feet turned to mud, then sludge, until at last she was ankle-deep in water…
…Nya took the hollowed gourd that was tied to the handle of the plastic container. She untied it, scooped up the brown muddy water, and drank. It took two gourdfuls before she felt a little cooler inside.
Nya filled the container all the way to the top. Then she tied the gourd back in place and took the padded cloth doughnut from her pocket. The doughnut went on her head first, followed by the heavy container of water, which she would hold in place with one hand…Nya knew that going home would take longer than coming had. But she might reach home by noon, if all went well (“A Long Walk to Water,” Linda Sue Park, Clarion Books 2010).
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you?
“We used to have a good life, but things started going wrong, we started to suffer, because of the war. This is why we moved from South Sudan, but it was a nice country before. There you see they are killing and raping people. They go from home to home and if they find you, they will kill you, they slaughter, just like that,” (Beatrice) says. When the different armed groups started to kill her friends and relatives in the village, she ran away with her family to the bush. Unfortunately, her mother did not make it because she never recovered from multiple rape injuries. Only her husband, her baby and she managed to survive the journey.
“When we reached the border, I was remembering what we had witnessed, what happened to us and to our friends, how we were running, stepping over the dead bodies just to save our lives. We arrived exhausted, with nothing” (“The life of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda on hold: Beatrice’s story“)
When did we see you naked and clothe you?
I live with my grandson in a camp in Juba for internally displaced people. This is my first time living in such a camp. Even during the decades of war with the government in Khartoum we used to escape the conflict and later return to our villages. But with the current conflict, that is not possible.
I live in a tent shelter. The hygiene is poor. It is very hot during the day and very cold at night, and I do not have suitable clothes. Life is difficult, and we feel cut off from the others outside the camp. The management restricts our movement and I find myself doing nothing most of the day (“Untold stories: Nyatuong Yok Madol, South Sudan“)
When did we see you ill and care for you?
(Koli) has been sick with fever and a cough for a month according to her mother, Nyachimach. Given we are in the midst of malaria season, this is the first thing doctors are checking. The test comes back positive.
The health worker and also everyone else can see that the four-year old is too thin for her age. He is doing a quick screening of Koli which shows that she is suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Malaria is one of the main causes of wasting in children in South Sudan. (“Double trouble: Conflict and floods are pushing people to their limits“)
When did we see you in prison and visit you?
I arrived safely in Washington Thursday after a harrowing journey from Nairobi, Kenya. I was forced into hiding after receiving word several weeks ago from senior government officials in South Sudan that President Salva Kiir had ordered the National Security Service, led by Gen. Akol Koor Kuc, either to abduct me from Kenya or murder me.
I knew this was no idle threat. Previously, I had been a political prisoner in South Sudan, convicted in a show trial for “disturbing the peace” and sentenced to two years in prison. My real offense: daring to criticize Mr. Kiir’s failed leadership. In January 2017, two other dissidents were abducted from Nairobi and murdered, leading the U.S. to impose sanctions on six South Sudanese officials. (“My Escape to America Shows the Price of Dissent in South Sudan,” Peter Biar Ajak, July 23, 2020, Wall Street Journal Opinion)
Good Friday continues; the story does not end. Jesus told us to take up the Cross and carry it along with him. And today we carry the Cross for the Mura Margaret’s, the Nya’s, the Beatrice’s and the Koli’s of South Sudan. We pray with them and for them, knowing we are all part of the same human family. In his recent Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis tells us, “Goodness, together with love, justice and solidarity are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day (p. 14). Let us stand in Solidarity with our brothers and sisters who suffer cruelty, especially at the hands of their own people. Let us recognize that we are one people and when anyone of us suffers, we all suffer; we are diminished; and we are less than what we should be.
And so, in the words of Pope Francis, we pray.
Lord, Father of our human family,
You created all human beings equal in dignity:
Pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit
And inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,
Dialogue, justice and peace.
Move us to create healthier societies
And a more dignified world,
A world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.
May our hearts be open
To all the peoples and nations of the earth.
May we recognize the goodness and beauty
That you have sown in each of us,
And thus, forge bonds of unity, common projects,
And shared dreams. Amen.