Flabius's hope
Friday, February 01, 2013


There were seven men and two women in that tukul [building], and each one knew his or her own version of that dear man's agony. They too had lost children; they too had seen death slash into their lives and raid them in the night and in the day, stealing precious pieces of their hearts. This is part of the landscape of a refugee's life, Lobone, South Sudan (Christian Fuchs/JRS)
Brussels, 1 February 2013 – As we travelled towards Morobi, I was informed Flabius, the head catechist in the village, had lost a daughter, and she had been buried only the day before. "He probably will not be at the seminar, Father, because there is much grief. This was his last child".

Catechists receive no money for their work; they serve their people selflessly in a million pastoral ways from birth to death. In Africa, they are the heart of the day-to-day Catholic Church, the tall trees of faith. They serve out of a deep sense of commitment to and love for their people and an unyielding confidence in God.

This good man had lost not only his 21-year-old daughter – and his wife a few years earlier – but over time seven children to war and disease. Four died in Sudan at the hands of government soldiers as his family fled hostilities in the mid-nineties, and three of malaria in the South Sudanese border village of Morobi, close to Uganda.

As for his last child, Sabina, the cause of death was unknown. She became ill and died within 24 hours. This happens in the bush; one day a person appears healthy, able to perform daily tasks in the village and at home, and the next day she is gone, her body struck down by a swift and efficient killer.

At the Morobi chapel – a table and a few log benches under a huge tree – we were greeted by a group of young Nuer men. It was an uncharacteristically subdued greeting, a sign of respect for their catechist, who, although he is Bari, speaks fluent Arabic, a second the language of the Nuer.

Flabius appeared and took a seat off to my left. He is a frail, grey-haired man of about 50, small of stature, with a face dominated by huge gleaming eyes.

We proceeded with the seminar. There were lots of questions and answers, and dramas to illustrate various points. People looked to Flabius periodically, in part out of concern and in part seeking his approval of the teaching. He nodded thoughtfully.

Later after the seminar Flabius, who had sat silently as we ate, asked to say a few words. Speaking in his native Bari, he said something like this:

"I don't have much to say, my brothers, sisters, Father. I've suffered deeply this past week with the death of my last child, and now I'm alone, and there's no one to assist me, except yourselves, for which I'm grateful.

I didn't feel like coming to prayers today, but I needed to trust God, and to come and give him all my pain, and trust that the Word of God will heal me in these trying times. I came because God is great and His plans, though hidden from us, are plans of love for all of us. I'm here with you knowing that being with my brothers and sisters and you, Father Gary, I shall be given strength".

We sat in silence for a long time, letting the rain of his words soak into the soil of our hearts. He concluded, his heavy eyes catching us all in a single glance:

"I don't have much more to say. Pray for me and thank you".

It was heart-breaking. There were seven men and two women in that tukul [building], and each one knew his or her own version of that dear man's agony. They too had lost children; they too had seen death slash into their lives and raid them in the night and in the day, stealing precious pieces of their hearts. This is part of the landscape of a refugee's life. But none there had lost eight children. 

Flabius knew that all were grieving with him.

I was witnessing the Body of Christ suffering and ministering simultaneously. 

I found Jesus that day.

As we left, looking back past all the waving hands and shining faces, I saw Flabius, standing to the left and in the back of the crowd, bidding us farewell with a peaceful smile and a gentle wave. Behind him stood two watchful Nuer men, looking after their suffering Bari brother.

Gary Smith SJ, former staff member of the Jesuit Refugee Service who served in a number of African countries for approximately a decade.