Thursday, March 09, 2017

I first came to SMA in 1993 with the intention of returning to Africa, where I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer.  This time I was going to Africa as a missionary, which would be giving a different motivation to my presence, freeing me in some ways, and focusing me more in other ways.  I never planned to one day end up in Rome, working in “Administration” for the Generalate.  

Every 6 years the SMA Fathers have a General Assembly (GA) when they elect the General Council of SMA (the 4 leaders of the Society) and make decisions about the direction and focus SMA will have for the following 6 years. In 2013, I was invited to attend the General Assembly in Rome to represent the lay missionaries.  SMA has lay groups in several countries – USA, Argentina, France, Italy, Holland, Benin, Nigeria, Ireland, Philippines and Spain – each with varying forms of attachment to the SMA fathers. 

One of the decisions made at the GA 2013 was for the fathers to make efforts to have lay missionaries involved at a variety of levels within the Society’s structure.  A few weeks after the meeting, I received a call from the newly elected General Superior, Fr. Fachtna O’Driscoll, asking me to come to Rome to be the Assistant General Secretary for the General Council for the next 3 years.  My initial thoughts were, “YES!! I want to live in Rome for three years!!”  But, realistically I knew I had no training in this area – I’m an occupational therapist with almost all of my experience having been working with people in Africa who have a range of disabilities.  I love working with people in the field, and if this turned out to be a bad fit, it could be a long three years for all involved.  For these reasons, I told Fachtna “no.”  He then suggested we try it for a year and see how it goes. 

Who knows why God takes us in different directions at different times, but it’s about trusting that we aren’t being taken where we shouldn’t be, and remembering that we won’t be alone wherever we end up.  Now, 3½ years later, I’m still here in Rome as one of the assistant secretaries to the General Council.  Last year I was asked to stay for the time remaining in the General Council’s current term, so until 2019.  

me renewing my agreement in November, with Fachtna (L) and Antonio (Vice-Superior)

I still know my passion is working one-on-one with people, in the field.  Yet, it’s eye-opening to see this side of the picture – to get a fuller view of the entire process, to see the decision-making going on and the level of administration, of which I’m now a part, that is needed so that things can continue in the field – for example what I did over the years and what Joe is doing now, as well as what other lay missionaries and priests have done and are currently doing.  I’ve been very fortunate to still have close contact with Joe, and even to have seen him in the field a couple of times since I’ve been here.  When I see him and his passion and dedication to the people he is working with and for, I am motivated even more strongly to continue what I am doing.  It’s like that Bible passage, where we are many parts, all of us needed to make the whole possible.  Without the Administration, what all of the “Joes” are doing would not be possible.  Without all of the “Joes”, there would be no administration.    

the meal after my renewal, with Fachtna and a couple of others in the house

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It seems that for the past few years I have only been doing yearly updates on the blog.  When I was in Ghana, there was a lot to inspire and motivate me to write.  Since then, I seem to have lost that “muse” that inspired me.

In the past year I had a few promises from people I’d been involved with while in Ghana, saying that they would send me an update about what they are doing now and how it’s going.  They said I could share the updates on the blog, but I’m still waiting for most of them.  William sent me an update back at the beginning of November, but I wasn’t able to work on the blog at that moment – or at the next moment – or even the moment after that.  So, I think I will just do a personal post at this time, and then I have a few other updates in mind, and later I will update with William’s story (once I catch up to my November emails). 

This past June I was able to get back to Ghana, but it was primarily for a meeting.  I didn’t have time to see a lot of my friends, and didn’t even tell many of them I was in the country since I knew it wouldn’t be possible to see them.  We had a couple of days off and I used some of the time to go see Joe on the refugee camp (I think I most recently mentioned him here and previously here).  I’m so grateful every time I get to see Joe in action – he keeps me inspired and motivated. 

Joe has been devoted to Yama (aka Sharon) since he first came

I was also able to get to JB, one of the first Hope for Life (HFL) members.  Since I was first with HFL in the ‘90s, JB has been a good friend, even, at times, an advisor.  We also used to have some nice arguments and differences of opinion.
  Since I didn’t have much free time during and after the meeting in June, I suggested that some of the others I wanted to see should come to JB’s and we could meet there on my last day, have lunch together, catch up with each other, etc.  Alice, who I wrote about in the past and who was also one of the original HFL members, was able to make it, along with a few others.  However, time is never enough when we have these moments.  The most important things in life – when we can get together with loved ones, share a meal and talk – seem to pass so quickly.  After lunch that day I went back to the SMA house, took a quick shower and headed to the airport.
JB is on my right (looking like he is getting his head licked), and Alice on my left
About seven weeks after that lunch, when I was back in Italy, I received a message that JB - - a wise man, a kind man, a generous man, a gentle man, and normally I would not mention this next part, since his religion is not the issue, but with what’s happening in parts of the world today, including the US, it seems important to make it clear that this role model for us all was also a Muslim man - - had died.  He was a respected man in his community.  Over 30 years ago, as HFL was beginning, he got his first wheelchair which he used to take him out of the house where he could sit under the tree and type people’s letters and envelopes for them.  He began to hear about some children with disabilities in his area who were unable to go to school due to their disabilities and the family finances.  He sent for them to be brought to him and he started to teach them under the tree.  Gradually, the school built up through the years to over a hundred students sitting under that tree and in an open-air classroom that was put up near the tree while JB and his teachers prepared them to enter the public school system.  I have no idea how many students passed through JB’s classes over the years, but former students and others from the community regularly passed by simply to greet him and show their respect, and he was able to see some of those students graduate from the University and become doctors, lawyers, police officers and other respected citizens.  (I have a couple of other pictures of JB and also Alice and a brief reference to them at the end of this other blog post.  A longer story of Alice is here.)

I'm so grateful that we all shared that final lunch together.  These are the things that matter and that too often get rushed or overlooked.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

It has been feeling like spring here for the past month or more – I think since January.  When I began work again after the Christmas break there were a couple of articles to translate (for which I do the work on the computer) and two or three chapters for something else in English for me to edit.  Somehow, I have lucked out and am one of the two people in the house to have a balcony – and over the past 2 1/2 years I’ve done cuttings from almost every place I’ve been.  It’s all hit or miss – and fortunately, there were a number of hits.  My room and balcony face the east, so on many mornings I was able to sit out there in the sun in a t-shirt and shorts (with sunscreen and hat……) and do the editing (and then, as the sun shifted and my balcony fell into shadow, I would move inside and add a couple of layers of clothes). 
my balcony, when I open door from my room

looking back at my room

where I edit, with an electric espresso maker a friend gave me

I kind of love my balcony.

I am not sure if I ever wrote about William before now.  I thought I had, but I have just spent a pleasant hour+ skimming through blog posts from the past 10 years and didn’t see anything about him.  Maybe it was just a mention in one of the rambling posts or maybe his story was just something I’ve intended to write over the years and never got around to actually completing. 

I met William back when I was on the refugee camp and involved with the school for the deaf and also with other people with disabilities (so, over 10 years ago).  He was a friend of some of my Liberian colleagues at the school who asked if maybe I could help him and his family out.  His mother had gone through some serious trauma during the war and had never recovered psychologically.  The children were working hard to take care of their mom and each other as well as complete their education. 

I had received an “open” donation (meaning I could put it to the use that I thought best).  William and his sisters were struggling especially to get the medicine their mother needed, so she often went without it.  I asked them to figure out what they could do to bring in some income, so they prepared a small business plan (selling cold, “pure” water) through which they could earn enough money to keep the business running, pay a few bills, and get their mom the medicine she needed.

I’ve stayed in touch with William over the years.  He has been trying to continue his education.  Things have changed on the camp in many ways and for a variety of reasons, it has been hard for them to go back to Liberia.  I was able to introduce him to Joe (I most recently wrote about Joe about half-way through this entry), who has since been able to make the arrangements necessary for William to continue getting his mom the meds she needs. 

William’s goal is to continue his education, and over the years he made some great efforts to save up some money and begin university.  Since then, some donations have come in a couple of times which also helped him to continue.  About a year ago, he and a couple others I know who were also trying to pay their way through University were all trying to look for the funds they needed. I had no idea where to turn, and suggested that since many of them have connections through Facebook and other sources that they write their stories.  I suggested, no matter how difficult the story might be, to keep it positive – “this is my goal; this is my dream” – and then they should share it with the people they are in touch with, and ask 15 people to help with $50 (for example), rather than looking for one big donor, and it could add up. 

This is a slightly shortened version of the story William wrote:


I am William, a Liberian refugee residing on the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana. I come from Lofa county, located in the northwest of Liberia. During the war in Liberia, Lofa had been one of the main battlefields, and unfortunately, my family and I found ourselves in the heart of the battle zone.  During the war, my father was the target of an attack.  While the rebels were searching for him, all the children found their way to hide in the bush.  The rebels ended up slaughtering him and three of them raped my mother, beat on her and left her helplessly bleeding in the room. When she gained a little strength, she managed to escape into the bush where some neighbors eventually came across her and took her to a nearby town for rescue. We got the information and quickly rushed there; unfortunately, our mother could not recognize any of us as her children. She was actually out of her mind. The rebels threatened that upon their return they would not spare anyone.  We had no alternative but to flee to Monrovia, where one of our uncles lived. Unfortunately, after one month, he was falsely accused of being a dissident collaborator from our county, arrested, jailed, and executed. The military forces began to secretly hunt his immediate family members.  Since we knew no other family in the city and we were being hunted as a family, we fled to a nearby town from where, within a week, we managed to find our way to the Ivory Coast border.  We were fortunate to cross the border and stay in Ivory Coast as refugees.  Due to the language barrier in Ivory Coast, we faced many challenges and finally decided to continue our journey to Ghana, since Ghana is an English speaking country. We arrived in Ghana on the 22nd of February, 2002, where we have stayed till now. Refugees in Ghana were responsible for providing for themselves (food, medication, and housing, etc.).  After a month with five family members in exile, we needed to do something for survival, so we engaged ourselves in gardening, growing potato leaves, garden eggs and other vegetables for consumption and sales.  The yield of our crops, however, was meager, so to supplement it I worked on a construction site by offering cheap labor.  I later engaged myself in voluntary community services, such as clean-up campaigns organized by the Sanitation Board in my community. I also organized extra classes for school children for little or nothing just to help sustain the family.

The Ebola outbreak also began in my home town in Liberia where many of my family members, such as nephews, uncles, nieces, aunties, etc. were victims of the virus attack. Worst of all was that my uncle, who saw me through high school by paying my school fees, was attacked by the ebola virus and died in a short time.  My sorrow and pain worsened.  In despair, my future looked blurry and uncertain and there was no one to look to for assistance. In the midst of the challenges I refused to give in or give up, so I decided to get a college degree. A big dream that seemed impossible to achieve! I took the university entrance exam, passed it and was given admission to study Bsc. Accounting.  A missionary was able to find assistance for the tuition for my first semester.  I am trying to complete a 4-year BSC course in administration, option Accounting. I believe strongly that completing this course will enable me to find gainful employment, allowing me to care for my family and to contribute towards the reconstruction and development of post-war, and now post-ebola, Liberia.  I also have a yearning desire to return home and establish a family, but this cannot be easily done without having skills or being educated. Liberia needs educated, trained, and skillful people, and I do not want to return to Liberia empty-handed.

Recently, William gave me an update:

I am left with three academic semesters.  I am studying Financial Accounting (BSC).  As usual I will not like to be afraid of the amount in question.  Whatever little or much that can be mobilized I will be grateful for it.  I will also continue to seek for help locally.  No amount is too small.  All I need is to complete.  There is actually a lot to do back in Liberia.  Many of my friends that completed with BSC in the same field went to Liberia but could not easily get job because they never had the technological aspect of the course.  If I have the opportunity, I will like to blend those soft ware courses with my study (like Quick book, Sage, and Tilly) to finish at once and go home. I hope and pray that my desires come to the expected end. 

I am actually ashamed of the numerous problems I have alone, but God knows why and all shall be handled at the appointed time by God….

I sometimes have the tendency to procrastinate.  A few years ago, I told William that I didn’t know where to get the money from, that I was tired of asking friends and family.  I had told him that at some point in the future I will be leaving the current organization I’m with and get a paying job and then could probably just help him on my own.  So, I advised him to just wait (yes, bad, but expected advice from a procrastinator).  I was afraid that he might start something and then be unable to finish it due to the lack of funds.  

But, I’m happy William didn’t follow my advice.  He used the savings he had, which were enough for a semester, and began studying.  Since then, it’s mostly worked out that he has been able to find what is needed, although he has had to skip a semester here or there.  I’m impressed by him.  He’s doing incredibly well, struggling, but not giving up on his dream.