The Mission Promoter of “Solidarity with South Sudan”, Father David Gentry, paints a a fresco of a nation in dire need of comfort, closeness and hope, as Pope Francis begins his Apostolic Journey to the East African nation.
By Linda Bordoni
“Solidarity with South Sudan” has been providing basic services to millions of impoverished South Sudanese, even before the nation became independent in 2011.
It’s a project and collaborative effort that brings together men and women religious following a request from the Sudanese Bishops’ Conference in 2008 that saw the need for support and training programmes for development.
Thus, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), and Union of Superiors General (USG) have since been involved in training primary school teachers, nurses and midwives, farmers and pastoral agents, of bringing the closeness and solidarity of the Church to millions of people who struggle to work, to learn, to grow their crops, to live in peace.
As the Mission Promoter for “Solidarity with South Sudan” told Vatican News, the long-suffering people are in dire need of the Pope’s comforting presence and closeness.
Father David Gentry also painted a picture of daily life for the majority of the people in South Sudan and reiterated their excitement as they prepare to welcome Pope Francis.
Listen to the interview with Father David Gentry
Asked what country the Pope will find upon his arrival in Juba, Fr Dave chose to quote his friend and associate, Sr Patricia Murray, the first Executive Director of Solidarity with South Sudan before being appointed UISG Executive Secretary.
“She often uses an image from an American novelist by the name of Willa Cather who wrote a book called O Pioneers! about settling in Nebraska, which is one of the Western states in the US:
“There was the raw material for the building of something, but there was really nothing there.”
Father Dave said he first visited South Sudan in the fall of 2021 and was able to travel to all “Solidarity” sites and meet the religious and priests working with the project.
“I just saw the extent of the poverty.”
A resident walks on an unpaved road in Juba
A divided nation
He explained that one of the biggest challenges for the young nation is the fact that the population belongs to “64 different tribes, all of whom speak their tribal language, have their own cultural, social, linguistic horizons.”
“You also have 85% illiteracy, so the vast majority of people don’t read or write.”
This means, Fr Dave added, that for many “their world is their tribe, and is very difficult to “help people transcend that, so it’s very challenging to build a nation without education and a common language.”
In fact, he continued, the official languages of South Sudan are English and Arabic, but a large number of people do not speak either.
So, he commented, “how do you begin to build a nation where people have that sense of ‘I belong to my tribe and that’s all well and good, but all of our tribes are a part of something larger,’ and try to create a better future for all of us?’.”
“That’s a very challenging issue when you don’t have a good educational system and education [in South Sudan] is in pretty abysmal shape.”
Of course, Fr Dave continued, political strife has been one of the main problems in South Sudan.
“I think that what that country needs, what many of the countries in Africa, need are visionary and prophetic leaders who put the interests of the nation ahead of their own interests,” he said.
In 2018, a new peace agreement to allow for the unification of the armed forces, the creation of a new constitution, and time to prepare for elections to avoid a return to war was signed. However, that process is encountering many obstacles and the people continue to suffer far from the international spotlight.
Fr Dave expressed the belief that the Pope’s presence in a nation will elicit a lot of international attention, and said one positive effect of the visit is that “it will bring the spotlight back on this country that falls out of the news cycle,” but above all, he added, “What I see coming out of the visit is a great source of comfort and encouragement for the people themselves who are suffering to such a great extent.”
South Sudanese displaced by floods
Need for a conversion of hearts
Reiterating his view that “what really needs to happen is a radical conversion,” he said, “There needs to be a way of bringing all of those tribes into the conversation about the future of the country and helping them all to feel that they have a stake, and that their voices and their own cultural and legacies are being respected, that they are all building something together.”
Compounding the serious political issues and their devastating impact on the people, the country is also dealing with the effects of climate change, with a lack of adequate and enough food, with an almost total absence of infrastructure.
“Solidarity with South Sudan”
Faith-based groups, including the Catholic Church, are the main providers of services in the country. It’s what “Solidarity with South Sudan” does following the request by the Sudanese Episcopal Conference to the UISG and the USG in 2008, which sent a fact-finding mission to the country and picked up the challenge to help the neglected and impoverished Christian south, known as southern Sudan, before its independence from Khartoum in 2011.
“After that fact-finding trip, the group came back here to Rome And on May 29, they met with the larger group of leaders from these two unions (male and female) and took the decision to do something to address the situation,” he explained.
So the numerous religious congregations that make up the union “started making substantial contributions of money and personnel,” and then set out a plan to establish institutions and projects.
Solidarity with South Sudan project
Teachers Training College
A Teachers Training College was the first institution to be set up in the city of Malakal. It was destroyed in the civil war, Fr Dave said, but “Solidarity” didn’t give up and since then they have started another in Yambio that is still functioning.
“It’s a wonderful place,” he said.
“We’re training teachers there and graduating 50 to 75 young people every year who are then being deployed in schools around the country.”
Health Care Training
In a town called Wau, Fr Dave continued, “We have the Catholic Health Training Institute that trains young South Sudanese men and women to be nurses and midwives.
In that same town, the Comboni Sisters operate a hospital, which is the teaching hospital, so the students are getting their on-hand experience there.
In a town called Riimenze, “Solidarity” has an agricultural project that is designed to teach people sustainable methods of agriculture.
“Because the people have been at war and have been traumatized for so long,” Fr Dave explained that “even the very basic kinds of things that we would expect a rural people to know how to do, have been lost, or they haven’t been passed on because of the state of conflict and anxiety: the normal patterns of life have not carried on.”
In Kit, near Juba, the “Good Shepherd Peace Centre” trains catechists, provides ongoing formation for deacons, offers workshops in trauma healing, and offers retreats and conferences for Religious.
An extension of that pastoral project is the service “Solidarity” has for displaced people in the camp for IDPs in Malakal.
Reflecting on how the Church – in many instances – is providing the infrastructure in place of a sorely deficient state, Fr Dave said “Solidarity” is operating its projects, using and implementing its budgets thanks to the funds received from religious congregations, Foundations, and so forth.
“We are held accountable for it and we provide very good financial accounting, and we’re very good stewards of those funds, very careful about how they’re spent,” he said.
Lack of future
But, Fr Dave continued, even when provided with training, there is no tomorrow for young people who may find jobs but struggle to be paid, and this inevitably causes them to flee the country in quest of “places that are more stable, where they can build a future for themselves.”
Lack of infrastructure, he added, also means there are no roads, and criminality is rife.
“In a country rich in natural resources, a lot of it’s being extracted and taken by wealthier nations.”
It’s being taken out of the country,” he said.
Last, but not least, the local currency is worthless, and except for fruits, vegetables and some “meat, beef or chicken” everything else – all manufactured products like coffee, sugar, and flour – are imported from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, China.
“And so the money is, all going out of the country. It’s not being used to build up the country.”
Young pilgrims and spiritual leaders walk 400 km for peace from Rumbek to Juba on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit
Fr Dave concluded with a request to continue to pray for the people of South Sudan, noting that “One of the greatest challenges in the spiritual life is learning to see God in people different from ourselves.”
“Learning to see the image of God in the people of Congo and South Sudan, looking for ways of trying to affirm that, and trying to create a better situation for them, so that they can enjoy God’s blessing not only in the life to come but in the here and now.”
A South Sudanese Catholic awaits Pope Francis in Juba