Michael Bassano MM
15 April 2015
It was an unforgettable and memorable Holy Week in the United Nations Camp in Malakal, South Sudan this year, 2015. The population of this Camp for internally displaced people due to civil war is over 25,000. The Catholic Community has constructed a simple tent like chapel made of plastic sheeting and wooden poles as a place to gather for prayer as well as to celebrate.
During the Good Friday service something unusual happened. Due to recent fighting in areas north and south of the town of Malakal, many people left their homes out of fear and panic. They arrived at the United Nations Camp seeking refuge and shelter. Approximately 4,600 people came during the three day period from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
As the Catholic Community gathered together to remember the death of Jesus on Good Friday, I received a call on my cell phone (which is usually turned off during times of prayer) at the time of the reading of the Passion. It was to inform me that over 230 families who had just arrived in the camp on foot after walking many miles, needed to use our church as a place for shelter and sleep in this time of emergency. When the passion reading had concluded, I told the community that as we have just listened to the suffering of Jesus on the cross, so must we now embrace the suffering Jesus in the people who are coming to live among us. When I asked them if they would be willing to receive the people and allow them to use our church as a temporary shelter, the overwhelming response was yes! We then continued the Good Friday service with the veneration of the Cross followed by the Communion Service. As soon as everyone had received communion, I could see through the door of the Church that the people had begun to arrive. We concluded with a prayer and the community went forth to receive their brothers and sisters as they came to stay and sleep in the church.
As the people (mostly from the Dinka tribe) settled into the church laying down their mats and whatever belongings they had, I noticed an older man named Mayom Ataban at the far corner of the Church. One of his legs was amputated and he made this unexpected journey to the camp walking many miles on crutches. He told how grateful he was to be alive and to be here in the Church.
The Good Friday experience brought sadness to my heart seeing so many people forced to leave their homes because of the fighting and walking miles to reach the camp. Even though our Catholic community is composed of a unity of tribes, Nuer, Shilluk and Dinka, they went beyond themselves in responding to a compassionate call. An Easter hope was born that moment in the Risen Christ in showing compassion to our suffering sisters and brothers who came to us seeking refuge.