Fr. Edward: Witness of Faith in Central African Republic

Bishop Pates in Central African Republic

Bishop Pates in Central African Republic

In July, Bishop Richard Pates, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice & Peace, traveled to Bangui, Central African Republic. He visited the campus of the Major Seminary of Saint Marc on the outskirts of the city.

The tree-covered campus is normally a quiet place for religious study and peaceful reflection. But when rebel forces overthrew the government in March 2013 and serious fighting in Bangui broke out in December 2013, that all changed.

Near the seminary, the fighting started in a Muslim neighborhood and Notre Dame Fatima parish. Thousands streamed into the seminary compound seeking shelter, according to Fr. Edward Tsimba, CICM, a missionary priest from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the seminary’s rector. He said they housed them as best they could on the seminary grounds, in classrooms, dining rooms, dorms, the chapel, and even the piggery, to provide shelter from the rains.

They had urgent needs for water, sanitation, food and tents for temporary shelter.  “I have always believed that if you act with whatever you have at hand, God will take care of the rest”, said Fr. Edward. “I used all the money I had to provide water and food. Soon money ran out. That was when humanitarian organizations came to help.  They brought food, medicine, kitchen materials, tents, and helped us with our water supply.”

Then people came with illnesses and small wounds. The seminary had to search for medicines and first aid supplies to deal with malaria, diarrhea and minor cuts.  Fr. Edward bought what he could, and outside organizations helped set up a small clinic.  Fr. Edward is not a doctor, but learned a lot of simple medicine from this experience.

The displaced filled classrooms for three months. Classes were suspended for the 34 seminarians who also worked to provide for the needs of their new guests. Other Catholic orders offered the seminarians space where they could pursue their studies until the end of the school year.

Fr. Edward found the enormous workload tiring.  He and the seminarians worked from sunup to sundown scrambling to care for the 10,000 people who came to their doors. At times he was awoken in the middle of the night by an urgent knock on the door to resolve a fight that had broken out or to get help for a woman in labor. One sad night a delivery went very badly. The mother lost her child. They had to bury the poor child during the night in secret by the light of a motorcycle.

There were days when the crowds of people, constant noise, stress, fatigue and even discouragement overwhelmed Fr. Edward. He would escape to his office and turn on the air conditioning to block out the sound of distressed humanity outside. He would get up the next morning barely refreshed and go outside to his veranda. There people who had slept on the concrete floor would smile and greet him with a hearty, “Bonjour, Rector!  How did you sleep?” The greeting stirred him from his sadness and gave him the courage to carry on.

Children flocked around Fr. Edward as he walked among the camp tents. He has taught the kids the fist bump and the kids love it. “They hit my hand hard. I blow on it as if to cool it down and invite the kids to do the same. One day a new mother came to me to tell me that she was going to name her child ‘Rector.’” He told her that his name is not Rector. “Then what is your name?” she asked.” “My name is Edward.” “Then it is Rector Edward,” she said. He laughed heartedly. The child is a girl.

Six months later, the number of people sheltered has dropped to about 9,000.  Classrooms and the chapel are being cleared so classes and masses can resume. “When I asked people to help clean the chapel, they went to work immediately and right after we held mass to thank God for the improvements in the situation and for the grace to continue on.”

“This experience has taught me, the other teachers and the 34 seminarians lessons we could not learn in class, like how little it takes to be happy,” Fr. Edward shared. “Many of the displaced have lost everything, yet they remain welcoming to each other. I have learned how resilient and strong the human spirit is. When people of God call on their faith to deal with their terrible losses and find the courage to move on, it is an inspiring thing to watch.”

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy on the Central African Republic.

Let us go forth, then…

 Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 49

No person ever walked away unchanged from a moment spent with Jesus. When he looked into the eyes of someone suffering, Jesus did not first see a problem or injustice, he saw a person. His encounter with them was always a personal one that left no doubt that the one before him was deeply loved. How often in the Gospel we see Jesus providing us an example of true encounter. Can we ignore that most of these encounters take place outside the temple, often with those who would never have been welcomed or interested in worshiping there?

“To go forth.”  We have chosen this title for our new blog with great intention. Our mission, taken from Jesus himself (Mt. 28:19), is to go forth to all who are in need, who while they are on the margins of our society, are in fact at the center of the heart of Christ. But when we go forth, we go forth the way Jesus did—to meet people, to encounter them.

Our present age encourages transactional relationships –in buying or selling, seeking greater levels of productivity and efficiency, running from meeting to meeting in endless activity, even in our charitable works.

And yet, we have all met at least one person in our lives who made us feel as if we were the only person that mattered in the world to them, even if for just a moment. No doubt every person who left an encounter with Jesus felt this, even if they were not ready to follow him. To encounter others means to be more than transactional about transmitting God’s love. If we end an encounter without knowing the other more deeply, have we encountered them at all? Pope Francis uses this word encounter repeatedly. It is always coupled with his exhortation to go to the margins. In a speech to the bishops of Brazil, Pope Francis asked the simple question: “When you give alms to someone do you look them in the eye or do you simply toss them some charity and walk away? If you do not touch them, you have not encountered them… We must build a culture of encounter.”

As difficult as it can be sometimes, we are called to truly engage with others every day of our lives. We must not miss God’s image and likeness in the person before us. Every person we meet is due a love and respect equal to their high dignity as a daughter or son of God.

We have many hopes for this new blog. This will be a forum that explores the Church’s teaching, while at the same time considering very practical issues that confront us as individuals and at the level of the greater common good. It will allow us to consider issues that affect U.S. concerns, but also to tackle ideas and challenges with global and international dimensions. Even with heavy doses of reality and challenge, we will try to achieve a balance with the hope that comes from sharing ideas, stories and inspiration. This blog will be the product of numerous voices, expanding our vision and creating conversation. But these goals all serve a higher purpose: it is our sincere desire that this blog will encourage all of us to go forth and to truly encounter the other; and, in encountering the other, to come to know and love Jesus himself in ever deeper ways.

Reyes photo GuadalupeDr. Jonathan Reyes is executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Going Forth…

“In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.”

~Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium