Missioner Tales, Spring 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sorghum is a most incredible plant. It can survive in South Sudan’s harsh semi-arid environment and resists pests and diseases that ravage maize or cassava. There is really only one predator that can damage an entire crop in a short time: birds.

If left unchecked, small sparrow-like birds that congregate in the hundreds will eliminate the farmer’s main source of food. With no access to advanced technologies nor government extension agents for support, Toposa farmers build rudimentary platforms in their fields and send their young children to stand there all day long. I call these children the “bird chasers.”

The boys and girls, 6 to 10 years old, stand in the hot sun from dawn to sunset, shouting and yelling every time a bird comes by. Many children have to miss school, especially when the harvest is almost ready. They are in those fields seven days a week for about a month. 

Bird chasers have to be alert and aggressive. Some use a willow stick as a weapon, placing a small ball of clay on the end that they whip at the birds. Others bang on pots or pans or blow a whistle, but most simply yell and shout. 

As I teach my classes in South Sudan where I work as a Maryknoll lay missioner, we hear the hoarse shouts of these children desperately protecting their valuable crop. I often wonder, what does the future hold for these children who must forgo school to prevent birds from eating their food for next year?

Gabe Hurrish, MKLM


Another sister and I served in Panama as pastoral ministers in a priestless area of 40,000 people. When a young husband, a jockey at the local racetrack, died in an accident, I visited his widow. She was inconsolable. She wept, moaned and wailed. After several visits, I thought maybe I was making it worse by reminding her of her sorrow.

A few weeks later, a group of women appeared at my door. “You have to talk to her,” they insisted. “She is neglecting her children. We have taken food to her, but she needs to pull herself together.”

I visited her again and asked, “Do you have a picture or a statue of the Blessed Mother?” She brought me a portrait of the Sorrowful Mother. I pointed and said, “Look, she lost her only son.”

The widow stopped crying. She sat up straight, glared at me and then snapped, “She got him back in three days!” 

This woman who had been crying for weeks — so distraught that she was neglecting her children — was angry. But, at last, she had named her anger and moved forward in the process of mourning. There was not much to say now. I embraced her and said goodbye. Just a few days later, she was back to caring for her house and her children. 

Elizabeth Roach, M.M.

Our students in El Salvador, where I served until recently as a lay missioner, sacrifice so much to attend high school. There is a lot of temptation to join gangs or to drop out. I find hope in the Resurrection through their perseverance.

I first met Raúl’s family 16 years ago. Raúl, then 9 years old, lived with his mother and older brother in a part of town that was controlled by gangs. His father had been murdered.

Raúl participated in our sports program. He had a passion for soccer and was an excellent teammate. In his first year of high school, he entered our scholarship program. He studied hard and went for tutoring every Saturday morning at the local Jesuit university.  

Raúl’s dream was to become a chef. After high school, he attended culinary college. Only about 9% of Salvadorans graduate from college, and Raúl and his family had to make many sacrifices to realize his dream. In 2020, he graduated with a technical degree in culinary arts.

Now Raúl gives back to the next generation of scholarship students. He joined the committee that organizes the scholarship program. Even though he works full time, he mentors students and leads reflections at meetings.

Larry Parr, MKLM

At the height of the civil war in 2015 in South Sudan, we gathered for the Good Friday service in our plastic-sheeted Catholic church in our U.N. camp. As the Passion reading was being read, I received an urgent communication. Many people fleeing the fighting were running to our camp, and our church was needed as a temporary shelter for them.

Just as our service ended, we could see the people coming toward us. I told the congregation: “Today we remember the suffering and death of Christ on the cross. Let us open our arms to now receive the suffering Christ in the people coming to us for help.”

The Church community immediately responded with compassion and accepted them as their brothers and sisters.

Michael Bassano, M.M.

 Featured Image: Sean Sprague/El Salvador

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Missioner Tales

Tales of life in the missions around the world.