Africa: accompanying refugees in the Eucharist
03 December 2014

celebrating the Eucharist
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Agulupi, Kakuma, Makhado, 3 December 2014 – Drawn from his years of pastoral work in Uganda, South Africa and Kenya, Gary Smith’s reflection vividly describes how celebrating the Eucharist can be an act of accompaniment for Christian refugees. Celebrating Mass in refugee settings – with song and dance, drama and dialogue – the Good News of the Gospel is broken open, faith is expressed, and God’s people are accompanied. Likewise, Christian members of JRS find in the Eucharist the accompaniment needed to continue being present to and supporting the refugee communities they serve.

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).

It begins here. It always begins here. At the Eucharist. Here the individual, with his or her community, touches those sacred inner regions of the heart where one is fed, in which faith is claimed and from which one is empowered to touch the world. In celebrating the Eucharist – an act of accompaniment – in the countless locations of its ministry, JRS brings forward both the opportunity for refugees to be transformed by the intimacy of Christ and to bring a God-centred transformation to the world they live in. It has always been so. In the Eucharist we are nourished and become the yeast that will embolden the world.

Accompanying the heart of faith: JRS, Rhino camp, Uganda. On Christmas Eve, as darkness came, I celebrated Mass in the refugee village of Agulupi in Rhino camp, northern Uganda. It was a hot night, and there were maybe 70 people in the little thatch covered chapel. Dust covered everything and I could smell the sweat of the people who were crowded cheerfully into the room. A kerosene lamp hung on a wooden pillar to the right of the altar. Huge moths periodically crashed into the lamp, and once in a while, I could hear the slap of a hand as a mosquito made its move. The village people sang the liturgy's rich music, and 20 grade-school girls danced around the altar.

Agulupi was home to many Sudanese who had fled to Uganda via Congo. After communion the singers began a Christmas song in Lingala, the language of eastern Congo, which featured an imitation of the wailing baby Jesus. The dancers sighed while folding their forearms over their foreheads in a gesture of weeping. It cut straight to my heart: a cry heard down through the centuries from God-become human; and, too, an echo of the wailing of refugees who have endured a long road of flight and suffering. As with that birth in a barn, there is a sense – in all this stinking poverty – of hope being reborn and faith embraced once again. I needed to be there, to accompany the hearts of this little community in their Christmas hope. After Mass, the people, flashing smiles and tired eyes, sang traditional Christmas songs in their mother tongues.

Accompanying the expression of faith: JRS, Kakuma camp, Kenya. Like one of those huge steam driven piston trains, wheels whirling, St Stephen's chapel roared – full speed ahead – into the final thanksgiving hymn of the Easter Sunday liturgy. Celebrating Mass, I was swept along in the wake of that last song, led by the Rwandan and Burundian singers and dancers. It was a bubbling, overflowing pot of spectacular formation – dancing children, ululating women, rhythmic hand clapping, and an irrepressible singing congregation of several nationalities that, with each verse, increased its volume and that brand of joy which mysteriously attends the African Church. It was electrifying. Always is.

Here was expression of faith: contained in the moments described above. JRS was present, affirming it, accompanying it. But it went further. It occurred as we broke open the scripture in drama.

I learned early in my time in Africa that homilies, in translation or not, can become lost, and become the occasion of those awful moments when the celebrant knows that people are looking but not hearing. Words signifying nothing. But if one invites the congregation to create a drama to illustrate the Gospel then one is on the way to breaking open the Gospel, like cracking an egg. And this is because the people do it, expressing in their own way their understanding of the Word. Don't just talk about the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son, bring forward a father or mother, have someone play their wayward son. Let them dialogue themselves right up to the clincher when the prodigal son, having blown everything in Nairobi, falls on his knees and asks for forgiveness. The long-suffering mother of the son forgives, raises up her son and tells everyone we are going to have a party, my son was dead, now look: he is alive. All applaud, lots of smiles. I ask the mom, why she forgave. She looks at me in disbelief: well, because he is my son. And to the son: why did she forgive you: Because I am my mother's son; I shall change. I ask the congregation if they approve. There is dialogue, commentary on the dramatic expression of what has transpired. They get it. Better than I get it. At that point it is not a stretch to point out the connection between the forgiving heart of the creature and the forgiving heart of the Creator. People love to express their faith in drama. The Eucharist becomes the moment when that happens. Expression of the faith is a tough nut for the church to crack but it can be done with drama in unity with all the other Eucharistic expressions: prayer, dance, song, gestures.

Accompanying those who accompany: JRS, South Africa/ Zimbabwe border. Thandi, the JRS project director, wept as she tried to utter – at the prayers of the faithful – her grief over a young Zimbabwean woman, whom she had interviewed yesterday. The woman, a mother of one young child, her husband murdered in Zimbabwe, was robbed and raped as she came into South Africa through the treacherous bush terrain between the two countries. Somehow, broken and bruised, she made it to our JRS office. Thandi's lament: "How can we help, how can we be present to her, how can I ever forgive the monsters who prey on our people? How do we find hope? It is why we are here, now, at this daily Eucharist."

Every morning during the week, the staff of the JRS project in Makhado, South Africa (about 80 kilometres south of the Zimbabwean border), would have Mass. There were seven of us: four South Africans and two Zimbabweans, myself. Frequently the prayers were spontaneous in Venda or Shona. The Eucharist became an instrument of accompaniment and nourishment for all of us as we prepared to launch into the intense days when often hundreds of Zimbabweans would arrive, fleeing the disintegration and persecution and nightmare of their country. It was not just a matter of interviewing and assessing, of helping them move on to a job and relatives in Johannesburg or Durban or Pretoria. It often involved intense and difficult moments with people who had lost everything, who were strangers in a strange country, who had been ambushed by a bunch of thugs on the way south. They had lost everything except their life: shoes, money, documents and critical contact phone numbers. And, of course, their fragile sense of self-worth and dignity. Such moments demanded enormous presence and strength of vision from a staff. It was at the daily Eucharist where those who accompany were nourished; we were accompanied, if you will, by Jesus, who had called us to serve the least of the brothers and sisters on that tortured frontier where the JRS office was located.

Accompanying love and suffering: JRS, Adjumani, northern Uganda. Near the conclusion of Mass at Obilokogno, a Madi-speaking chapel in a village refugee camp, a woman was carried up to me just after communion had been distributed. She had suffered from a seizure disorder and went down as she wobbled her way back from communion to her place in the earthen-floor, thatched covered chapel. She was in a catatonic post-seizure state, brought to me in the loving and care-full arms of the surrounding Christians. Their look was one of concern for her, and – deeper – the look of a people who had endured so much punishment in their flight from Sudan and seen the suffering of their brothers and sisters.

I anointed Rachel, praying for God's healing and blessed her in her mother tongue. She relaxed and her caregiver took her outside, where she was gently laid in a blanket and, a strong young man on each corner of the blanket, carried to the nearest medical clinic a kilometre away. Here the Eucharist again accompanies, being the occasion where people can bring their sick. And bring them with love. The Eucharist is a moment in time where individuals and community can share their love and suffering with others; for refugees are prey to sickness in their unstable condition. Some of the suffering of course is physical and some of it is the sickness that can pounce on the soul in the dark uncertainty of daily life in refugee camps.

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

Christ comes to us in the Eucharist, feeds us and accompanies us. We are fed and strengthened and, just as we are strengthened in the power and love of Christ, we accompany refugee hearts in their search and affirmation of their faith, in their expression of faith, in the daily hope and suffering and love that attends their life. Finally, the Eucharist accompanies those who serve refugees. The Eucharist is the centripetal force that takes one deep inside to relationship with the Heart of God, and it is the centrifugal force that sends all out, to accompany, to serve and to advocate with the message of that Heart, manifested in Jesus Christ.

Gary Smith SJ
JRS Africa (2000-2012)