Gabe Hurrish is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in South Sudan.
Pope Francis has urged Catholics to leave their comfort zones to search for “lost sheep.” He calls us to go in search of the Lord in our neighbor and in our lives. Like the Magi celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany, I left my home and have been following a spiritual star, which has led me to where I am today – working as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in South Sudan.
Pope Francis urges Christians to avoid “a tired and routine way of living the faith,” and resist “the temptation to withdraw into pre-established patterns that end up closing our horizon” to God. “We must not be content to remain in the enclosure of the 99 sheep; we have to step outside, to search for the lost sheep,” he says, referring to Jesus’ parable.
Pope Francis encourages Christians to live with suffering people and enter into their lives, to share their joys and sorrows and experience their highs and lows. He uses the expression, “the shepherd should smell like the sheep.”
What does it mean to “smell” like the sheep? Does one have to sweat? Does one have to touch them? Does one have to get dusty and dirty? One thing is for sure: in order to “smell” like the sheep, one must be pretty close to them.
The South Sudanese have suffered through countless decades of war, violence, conflict, and famine. It seems to be a never-ending cycle of violence, and the anger surrounding it builds up over generations. It is not only tribalism which bedevils this country, but it goes deeper, with clannism and even revenge killings within family units.
Just as Jesus was born in a land of war, violence, and oppression, I have worked with people who have literally never known a true peace. They have grown up with violence all around them. They are traumatized. They carry the wounds deep in their souls and many are not even aware of how this has affected them. They tell stories of rape, torture, stealing, pillage, and burning of villages. Listening to them quietly tell these stories almost in whispers begins to affect one’s senses. How can this be? Where is God? Why does God let this happen? This is the same cry of the ancients in the Bible.
Pope Francis has said, “…I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security….”
Working in South Sudan has certainly put me in touch with the traumatized people of this tortured nation. Our hearts are touched with pain and sorrow as our friends and neighbors retell their dreadful stories. Somehow, this exchange of telling stories of fragility and human frailty is healing in a mysterious and spiritual way. We come closer as a world community as we reach out across the oceans of culture and history. There is no other place I would rather be than with these sheep of South Sudan. We begin to smell like the sheep. We begin to smell like Jesus. I see how true it is that we are members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
“No one is so poor as to be unable to give what they have, but first and foremost what they are,” says Pope Francis. The most important aspect of mission is not to do anything but rather to be present to the people. We tend to judge others on how much they do and how much they have. But Jesus looks into peoples hearts, and this is what we should try to do.
“If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks…..” Pope Francis has said. Being far away from home, family, friends, familiar culture and common beliefs makes one rely upon God. By leaving the comfort zones, one truly understands St. Paul and the Apostles and their missions of going out to those who do not know Jesus.
In a country of corruption, violence, abuse, economic wreckage, and physical hardship, I find my soul laughing with joy to be present to these forgotten people. They can have such a positive outlook on life despite the decades of misery they’ve faced. The South Sudanese I know still have hope and courage. This can only come from the Holy Spirit. It is a spirit that I want to be close to. As the psalmist says in the readings of today, "He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor (Psalm 72: 13)."
Though the hardships are many, the steadfastness and determination the South Sudanese continue against all odds. What an honor and a privilege to be with them and, like the Magi, to journey in search of Jesus with them.
Photo: Gabe Hurrish with South Sudanese children, courtesy of Gabe Hurrish.