Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Africa

Eventually it had to happen.  I had to leave my beloved South Sudan.  At the time of my departure (I can’t believe it was a year ago!!!!) I wasn’t able to write a post about leaving.  The following poem is my “goodbye”.

1 billion people, 11.5 million mi2 of land, 58 countries
Countless cultures
Jammed together into a single word
What do people think?  What do they see?

Skin and bones, distended stomachs
Machete-wielding warlords and child soldiers
Mosquitos killing people, AIDS-ridden children, Ebola Ebola Ebola
Mud huts, voodoo magic, tribal ridiculousness
Uneducated people, uncivilized lives, undeveloped societies

My Africa
600 students, a few thousand villagers, a couple acres of land, 1 brand-new country
2 cultures – mine and theirs
Melded together like peanut butter and jelly
What do I think?  What do I see?
Children thrilled with tires and sticks for toys
Feeding visitors a 3-course meal while they go hungry themselves
Work ethic
All day every day in their fields/at home/at school
Everywhere you look, yours = mine = ours

Rich experiences, National Geographic made real
The entire village sprinting to someone's home upon news of a death,
“It takes a village to raise a child”
A kid quits school so his little brother can afford an education,
kids sharing everything
Songs about Jesus, accepting God’s will, purity of heart, an example to us all

A child’s hug after an unfair punishment, a friend saying “let’s start over”
Little boys 'stealing' my shoes only to return them spotlessly clean
A teenage boy who’d rather pray with me than play with friends
A 6yr-old’s loving embrace when her teacher sobs about having to leave

Language rendered meaningless, speaking with the heart,
Two separate worlds collide under the influence of a simple smile
The whole school coming to support the girls’ football team instead of “keeping them in their place”, girls having the opportunity to enjoy themselves and build each other up, kids slowly realizing that they too matter
Children professing Mary as their role model, crowds gathering for rosary each night
Standing in the presence of a real angel, giving up oneself for God,
The last shall be first

Silence during adoration, never feeling homesick, sunrises and sunsets, 
God’s hand upon my shoulder
People kindly educating an outsider’s ignorance
Children sprinting towards me, endless laughter, cross-cultural games, common sports, kung fu, mud fights, dancing dancing dancing
Physical/mental/spiritual, pushed far beyond my limits
Everyone fighting the same battle against the devil
For the first time in a lifetime, not having any doubts

Love, Love, Love
Every moment of every day
40,435,200 seconds of ‘agape’
What it was all about
                 Dear Africa
My heart pounded your name before I knew you, and I’ve loved you more every day since we met.  You are my soulmate, my best friend, my mother, and my child.  I will never forget you.  Please don’t forget me.
T.I.S.S: This Is South Sudan

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Music Feeds the Soul

In the few days before Gracie and I left our beloved South Sudan to come back to America, we shot tons of footage for a music video.  It has taken six months to edit it all, but I am happy to report that the finished product is finally ready!  The kids worked so hard on this, from learning the lyrics to choreographing some killer dance moves.  This video is meant to be more than just entertainment;  it is designed to give all of you a little glimpse of what African life was like with our beautiful children.  So without further ado, I present to you the South Sudanese version of What Dreams Are Made of.  I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Serenity is a funny thing.  The more I chase after it or try to grasp at at, the further away it flies.  I have an energetic, goofy, active, and slightly-scattered personality.  There are a lot of good things that come with being that way.  Inner peace is not one of them.  Body and mind always moving, you could call me restless or fidgety.  Sometimes it’s hard to even have coherent thoughts.  But recently, things have changed.

– I was walking back to school after the team’s last football game of the year.  The African air was misty and cool, the sun was dipping beneath the horizon, and my footballers were walking arm-in-arm in front of me, seeping love.  I felt uncharacteristically tranquil. Life was perfect.
– A week later, I was riding in the back of a pickup truck jammed with 25 football girls after a picnic.  There was movement all around me – dust kicking up, the truck bouncing and buckling, people shouting/singing – yet my soul was still.  A single tear gently rolled down my cheek as I looked deeper, beyond the noise.  In all the excitement, I was calm.  I had inner peace because I saw life as I imagine God must see it – as evidence of love, nothing more nothing less.  Life was perfect.

These moments of powerfully comforting feelings are gifts from Above, little “flowers” sent to encourage, guide, reassure, or reward us.  They are wonderful.  But they are fleeting.  They do not represent or promise personal serenity; they only point us towards its existence.

This morning's sunrise
I have suddenly become a morning person.  This is a big deal, as I’m sure my mother will attest to.  I am normally incoherent before about 9am (which is a full 3 hours after our day begins), and even the bishop is aware of my aversion to all things morning.  I’ve been this way my whole life.  Yet suddenly and inexplicably, I am naturally up before the Sun, patiently waiting for him to join me in prayer.  I soak up the stillness of the early morning, breathe in the crisp pure air, and notice everything around me for the beauty of being God’s creation. I marvel at every tiny detail of life.  Looking through new eyes, I start each day with an hour of isolated calm that’s devoted to dwelling in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It is absolutely incredible.

I have serenity, the kind that’s impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t know it first-hand.  The best attempt I can make is to say this: instead of feeling emotional bursts oriented towards recognizing bits of the Divine in my life (like the feelings with the football girls), I have the delight of feeling how Amazing God’s universe is.   It sticks with me throughout the day.  My highest emotion used to be happiness, then it became joy, and now I experience ecstasy at the simplest of things.  But it’s more than that; I am connected to Christ.  Inside, for the first time in my life, I am calm, at least when I wake up.  And I need that holy reassurance in the mornings, because my soul is deeply troubled to be leaving Africa soon.

This is what I’ve surmised thus far from my encounters with dawn:  Serenity is more than a sprinkling of blessings.  It’s a full-on grace bestowed from Heaven.  It’s more than a feeling; it’s a state of being, a mindset, a way of embracing life.  I used to think it could somehow be attained, but I realize it has to be given to us.  Our part consists of being open, really open, to receiving it.  God delivers His grace when we have the perfect storm within our souls – the proper desire, need, willingness, and awareness.  It's granted us when we most need it, if we consent to fully dwelling in it when it comes.

A friend once told me about a priest Bible-battling a bigot who was misusing God to support his hateful platform.  The priest was not silently meditating or softly whispering.  He was active, engaged, and loud.  But he was still at peace because he was being who God made him to be and he was living The Way the best way he could.  That’s the kind of person I want to be always.  Engaged and at peace.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tears of Joy

Today I had one of those days where I felt like crying most of the day.  No, I didn’t have an emotional breakdown or a bad day.  Nothing went wrong.  It was that everything went so right – that it always goes so right.  There is profound beauty in my everyday routine.  Each and every day, my life is filled with more blessings than I could have ever thought possible!  Here are a few of the things that brought the satisfying sting of tears to my eyes.

The African Sun
When I start drinking my coffee at 6 o’clock each morning, it’s still dark.  Then just as my eyes are starting to work (thanks coffee!), the sun starts to emerge in all its majesty o’er the top of the convent, and the sky lights up in soft yet brilliant shades of pink and purple.  Before I came here, I had never seen such a beautiful sunrise, and now I start every single day with God smiling at me through the sky.  It takes my breath away every time, still, after a year here.

I say the rosary with the kids outside each evening as the sun sets behind the school.  It’s stunning!  Captivating.  The colors are indescribable.  Such a magnificent sight either elicits an inspired reflection on life or washes away all my thoughts entirely.  I end each day in peace, with a visible reassurance of God’s hand on this place.

Santo’s Affection
Santo has mental disabilities that prevent him from going to school or having many friends, but make him one of the most special kids I know.  He probably spends 85% of his waking moments at Don Bosco, so I run into him at least 5 or 10 times a day.  Every time he sees me, he screams my name and sprints to hug me with his head cocked to the side and a huge sideways grin plastered across his face.  And I mean every time.  In 14 months, there has not been a single interaction in which he has greeted me with anything less than exuberant adoration.  I have sometimes disregarded him with impatience or even annoyance, but never has he returned the unkindness.  He is perfect at love.  Through him, Christ embraces me all throughout each day.

“Sister, MEEEE!”
This is whined at me day in and day out by hordes of small children competing with each other for whatever resource I am giving out (usually my energy).  I could do without the whining tone and the grabbing/pulling/poking, but I love that they want to be around me all day every day.  They see something in me that attracts their pure little hearts.  Each time I hear that whine, I remember how lucky I am to have the opportunity to give them the love that they seek.  It’s an incredible gift to be here for children who are reaching for me.

How could anyone get mad
at these little nuggets?
The Kids Take My Stuff
Camera, ipod, crayons, pens, shoes, keys, eyeglasses… There are many things I have that the kids are not allowed to touch without my expressed permission.  They take them anyway.  It’s happened multiple times this week alone that my camera has gone missing because a student walked off with it.  I tell them it’s not good to do that, but I can’t get mad.  I think it’s a beautiful testament to how free they feel with me, how close we are.  It’s inconvenient when I can’t find my stuff, but I love the feelings and friendship behind it.

My Office
Every time I walk into my office or look around when I’m sitting at my desk, my heart swells.  The walls are completely covered with pictures the kids have drawn for me.  What a wonderful visual reminder of the outpouring of love I receive from them!

All the kids passing my office see this through the open door.
“I love you!”
Where else in the world can a teenage boy publicly tell his teacher that he loves her from the depths of his soul, and everyone knows that it’s as innocent as it is genuine?  The special thing about Don Bosco is the free exchange of deep love.  The kids know how loved they are.  They know it all the way into their souls.  In turn, I am reassured of their love for me about 50 times a day, no exaggeration.  They shout it, sing it, whisper it, and dance about it all day long.

Christ’s Leadership in Others
I now have 3 site partners who teach me daily how to love.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than witnessing a tender moment between one of them and a child.  I am touched when I see Ariel sitting after school with a gifted student to give him extra challenging work and attention, or Theresa making a boy’s day by yelling his name in the special way he loves.  It moves me to see Grace with the Daughters of Mary, teaching them a prayer dance, laughing with them, or just holding one’s hand.  I am in awe of their patience, compassion, enthusiasm, and holiness.  They truly live this mission, and I am a better person each day because of them.



Of course there are challenges and frustrations in my life.  Difficulties arise sometimes that stop me in my tracks, and my attitude is not always 100%.  But the thing is, the little miracles that sprinkle each day make me realize how perfect God’s plan is for me and this beautiful place.  Because of that, because of His presence here, there is no exotic island that could compare to South Sudan, and no human creation that could rival this paradise.  I am living in Heaven on Earth.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Forgiveness.  That has been the theme of my life recently. 

I’ve made my share of mistakes this year, but last week was a doozy.  My old self (not exactly the holiest of persons) came out in a selfish, irresponsible act.  Then a week later, I did it again!  But this story isn’t about what I did.  It’s about what was done for me.

The first time it happened, I was expecting my relationships to suffer as a result of the trouble I’d caused, but instead I was treated gently.   I was forgiven, and all was forgotten because “everyone messes up.”  Finished.  The second time, I was deeply ashamed of myself.  I felt that my “sorry” would not be believable because actions speak louder than words.  I was sure that I’d done irreparable damage, and was convinced I would (should) be rejected for it.  Have you ever felt this way after doing something really bad?

In providential display of perfect timing, all three mass readings the next day focused on repentance.  In the first, God’s anger is justified, but He spares the people.  In the second, Timothy admits his sinful past and speaks of Christ’s “utmost patience”.  In the Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep speaks about Heaven’s rejoicing over any sinner who repents.  The message was clear:  Christ came to call sinners, not saints.  He came to purify, not to punish.  To teach, not to torment.  God spoke to my gloomy heart: “Your shame, that feeling of wanting to hide from Me, is the Devil tempting you to run from My Son’s merciful embrace.  Repent from deep within you, and you will be forgiven and loved. ”

That evening, we talked about what had happened.  I was very surprised by the tone of the conversation because again I received immediate forgiveness.  I received mercy and compassion.  Patience, tolerance, kindness, and acceptance.  LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.  Never before had I experienced that level and speed of forgiveness.  My feeble apology was accepted, no reparation requested.  Everyone just wanted things to go back to normal.  We decided to “start over” (what a magical phrase that is!).

When I looked into the eyes across from me, I saw holiness shining back.  I saw Christ, and felt the warmth of a mother’s pardoning embrace.  I certainly didn’t deserve this extreme act of love, but it was granted to me anyway.  Being absolved like that, it has the power to transform a life.  I am changed.  It has affected me in the depths of my soul, in the core of my heart.  Am I suddenly going to be perfect at forgiveness now?  Of course not.  But I have seen that it is possible for people to forgive like Jesus forgives, that perfectly.  I am profoundly aware of the grace I received and am deeply humbled by it.

The message that has penetrated my heart is one of action: “Go, Cait, and do this for someone else.  Be this for someone else.  Do not let it be in vain that I put this experience in your life.”  Thesaurus suggestions for the word redemption include improvement.  How true that is.  My job now is to move forward with a much better experiential understanding of Christ’s love and to imitate his compassion the way it has been shown to me this week.  C.S. Lewis put it beautifully when he wrote, “To be a Christian is to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven it in us.”   Jesus suffered torture and died to show his forgiveness to us.  We don’t have to go through nearly that much trouble.  We just have to act with love, even if (especially when) the other person doesn’t deserve it.

People have asked me why I became a missionary instead of volunteering with a secular organization.  Experiences like this is why.  Because others were so committed to Jesus, they had the strength, humility, and compassion to forgive me so quickly and fully.  Our role as Christians is to follow and imitate Christ.  That’s hard, but possible.  I became a missionary instead of a volunteer so that I could live with people who would teach me to love as Jesus loves.  Mission accomplished.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Circle of Life

Last week, I wrote about my first up-close experience with death in Africa.  Well it appears as though that was only the beginning.  God decided this week to give me several lessons about the circle of life (cue The Lion King instrumental).  Two days after the death of Nora’s mother, I held a brand-new-born baby, and five days later, there was a sudden funeral that hit very close to home.

The Tiny Miracle
After mass on Sunday, I tagged along with a group of girls to visit their friend Joice1 (my former student/footballer) and her newborn baby.  We crammed into her house and took turns holding the precious little angel who was – get this – only 24 hours old!  When I took her into my arms, I was completely unprepared for my reaction.  I was instantly captivated, entranced, and mesmerized, my gaze held hostage by the tiny (tiny!) pale face in front of me.  A surge of love rushed through me like an electric shock, and my eyes welled with tears.  A haze of awe surrounded me, and the other people in the room faded from my vision, their voices quelled into silence.  “What is happening?” I thought.  “I love kids and all, but babies have never made me feel anything like this.  This is amazing!  God’s craftsmanship is... I mean, just… this baby girl is pure perfection.”  Hercules with all his might couldn’t have turned my face away from the precious life I held.  I was intensely aware of the miracle that God had gifted to the world, and my mind swirled round and round thinking of the spiritual significance of what I was holding – pure potential for whatever God has in His great plan for the world.

Being exactly where I was, seeing/feeling/experiencing exactly what I was, was nothing short of sublime.  There was no doubt in my mind that a serious slice of Heaven had fluttered down into the tiny, cramped mud hut in the middle of “the bush” in Africa.  I was standing on holy ground.  While it is normally interpreted under the context of death, a Gospel passage I recently read sprung to mind.  “And Jesus said unto him, ‘verily I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43).  I felt the weight of Christ’s words in that moment.  It felt to me like I was in paradise.  Being in this place that I love so much, with these children that I love so much, paying tribute to all the glorious possibilities of the beginning of a human life, was absolutely perfection to me.  It’s not so surprising, though, is it, that a passage about the end of life brought to mind the beginning of it?  They are so intrinsically connected. 

A BIG Miracle?
Time-wise, we are never so close to Heaven as the moments we enter and leave this world.  A spiritual paradox, the time when a person leaves Heaven to become born on Earth is universally acknowledged as the most joyful time there is, while a loved one returning Home (after an arduous human journey) is seen as one of the saddest times.  You would think people would “prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) but since this is the only world we know, that’s usually not the case, especially for the loved ones left behind.  The pain involved in letting go of someone we cherish can be unbearable.  I had to witness this unspeakable pain in our kids for the second time in a week when Mary died.  Mary was a rock star of a woman with several children I am close with who are involved in our school/church/oratory/community.  When we heard the news it simply came as “Mariam’s mother died”.

By the time I found out, the body had been moved to a church so we rushed right over (community support is everything, people are what matter; the rest of my classes for the day would just have to ‘suffer’ through a free study period).  The experience was very different from when Nora’s mother died, and if you’re interested in the cultural details of what went on, dear reader, I’ll be happy to explain via email, but this post isn’t about that aspect.  After consoling the children for a couple of hours, and shedding several tears myself, I was gazing forlornly at the ground when an outstretched hand appeared under my face.  When I looked up to see who was greeting me, I came face-to-face with the living dead.  I blinked several times and stared in utter disbelief right into the face of, you guessed it, Mary herself.  It gave a whole new meaning to Jesus’ proclamation that “[s]he that believes in me, though [s]he were dead, shall live” (John 11:25). “Why isn’t everyone else reacting to this?” I thought.  “Why aren’t 200 people celebrating that she’s alive right now?  Or is this her ghost appearing only to me?”  I’ve witnessed an inestimable number of small miracles here, but this would be the one to top all miracles.  No such luck.  Long story short, apparently Mariam is actually the biological daughter of another one of her father’s wives (the people are polygamous), despite the fact that she lives with Mary’s family.  Big mistake to make, but actually understandable in this culture.

What a difference it is between someone being “dead” one minute and alive the next!   …But how much of a difference is it really?  After the whole experience, I was reading about the mortality of man and came across an intriguing quote from Romans – “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (14:8).  Certainly something for me to ponder more deeply.

The End.

1 Background: Last year, Joice was my student in P5, the leader of the Daughters of Mary, and a very promising football player.  Then she disappeared for the same reason droves of young girls in South Sudan drop out of primary school – she got pregnant.  There is no adoption and no support for a girl to remain in school or get a job, so when she gets pregnant, she becomes a full-time, stay-at-home, usually unwed mother, and that’s it.  In my time here, I’ve heard story after story of home abortions done to “escape” this reality, and it absolutely breaks my heart every time.  Sitting next to Joice, I was struck by her strength accepting her new role and the grace that surrounded her.  I was profoundly touched by how grown-up she felt to me.  Ten years my junior, this girl exuded Motherhood.  I thanked God for the gift of her to this world and to the new baby girl she brought into it.  The Bible speaks much better than I can about the perfection of her motherhood.  The same passage seems a fitting reflection for me on these last 7 days here in South Sudan -->

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the Lord is your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).  (Credit to Miss Rondon for calling up this passage for me to read in her blog and apply to my own recent experiences).

Friday, August 9, 2013

Death as a Teacher

Death here is a sadly common thing.  Yet despite the frequency of students being absent for deaths in the family, I still hadn’t had a terribly up-close encounter with how the people here deal with it in terms of rituals.  The closest I’d come was a couple of visits to the students’ houses in the days following their loss, as the family did what I would most compare to Jews sitting shivah.  Until yesterday.

During lunch, the entire student body suddenly dashed across the field towards the road because “somebody just died.”  We got to the road in time to watch a pickup truck fly past filled with people screaming.  All the girls took off sprinting after it like their lives depended on it.  One of the kids informed me that a student’s mother had just died, that the truck held her body, and that the people were going to her house.  I followed them to pay my respects and support my student.  During the experience that followed, I learned (or re-realized) a great deal about the culture here in South Sudan:

Word travels fast:  I have absolutely no idea how 100 kids simultaneously knew that a corpse was about to pass the school and exactly who had just died and how.  (Needless to say, they don’t have cell phones.)

People are what matters:  There were well over 200 people gathered at the woman’s home within minutes of the arrival of the body.  The adults and elderly literally ran from wherever they were, pouring into the compound from every direction of the surrounding “bush” (forest), and the kids didn’t give a second thought to immediately leaving school.  No one cared about anything in the world but supporting the family of the deceased.  They literally dropped whatever they had in their hands and came.

Dealing with death is personal:  In America, when someone dies, the next of kin are spared a lot of the “messier” aspects of dealing with the body.  Here, it’s strictly a family affair.  The family members carried the deceased around the property simply on a sheet while friends processed after it.  The women formed a circle to shield the body and used buckets of water and their hands to wash it, while the men constructed (out of branches) a tent to use for a sort of wake.  The men in the community dug a hole for burial in the middle of the woman’s yard to lay her alongside the others who’ve passed in their family (there are no cemeteries, so each family creates their own).

Community = family: The family of the deceased, obviously devastated by the sudden death of their loved one, mourned deeply, loudly, and with much movement.  As I tried hard not to stare, I thought to myself, “if my mom died, I would not want the entire town watching me just after I found out.”  In the States, the deepest mourning is done in private, alone or strictly with family.  Then I realized why it’s done here the way it is: everyone watching was family.  The whole community is family.  As I looked around, tears were silently streaming down most people’s faces.  There was a glaring difference between the sympathetic reactions I’d expected to see on the girls’ faces (as classmates of the woman’s daughter) and the profoundly sad tears I saw.  It looked as though the woman had been a real part of all of their lives as well.  Never before have I seen as tight-knit a community as we have here in our little village in Africa.

Afterthought –
I am definitely an outsider:  My mind was teeming with questions about the way they were doing things.  There was a lot that I saw that I didn’t understand, and I’m sure there was much more going on that I didn’t even pick up on.  I had the sense to keep my mouth shut (no one but immediate family spoke), but I was very very aware of my ignorance and out-of-place-ness.  I nervously questioned if I should even be there.  It didn’t help that I wore a sports shirt that screamed my name and favorite number, which I felt made me stick out even more (as if my ghostly skin tone wasn’t enough).  “I am not one of these people,” I thought self-consciously, feeling extremely insecure.
…who belongs?: Though I was trying my absolute best to stay in the very back background, the villagers’ respect for me (which I flat-out don’t deserve in my own right) still showed through.  One old woman came to where the kids and I were huddled under a small tree for shade, and seriously scolded them because I wasn’t being sufficiently sheltered from the sun.  Family members who were shooing others away from the body motioned for me to stay and pray.  Very few people gave me a second glance, and no one looked at me with judgment or questioned my presence.  On the walk back to school, I led the girls in prayer.  All of these things were obviously blessings from God, sent to ease my fears of being an unwelcome intruder into the lives of these people.  “They are allowing me to become one of them,” I thought gratefully, feeling (despite my unworthiness of such an honor) extremely blessed.