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