I cannot forget the amazing experience of my first arrival in the midst of my beloved people of Nyal, in South Sudan, on the past 3rd February 2017. When I got off the helicopter at the end of the trip all the way from Juba, my attention was immediately attracted by the songs and dances of so many people who were carrying nice flags: they were full of joy.

Immediately a young man called Koffin left the crowd and reached the helicopter. He pointed at me with his fingers and asked Fr. Fernando: “Is he the one?” After the positive answer of the priest, he hugged me with great energy and love. It was the first of many smiles and hugs that I have received in Nyal; it was the smile and the hug of my people; it was the smile and the hug of God for me.

Mario Pellegrino, a Comboni missionary, being welcomed by the community in Nyal, South Sudan

I feel in my heart the desire to thank the God of life for the gift of being in this mission to share my life with this people that, in spite of the great suffering they endure, due to the ongoing war and violence in South Sudan, are able to generate joy and to show an astonishing generosity towards one another and visitors.

In all my life I have never received such a wonderful welcoming. So many people have been coming and offered me their time to learn the Nuer, the local language; so many persons that I met on the street did not let me go on my way without taking time to greet me and to give me their peace. Recognizing the beauty of people such as this of “Central Africa”, once Daniel Comboni said to them that with a people like this it is very easy to be their pastor. It is very true that the people evangelize us, they teach us through their lives the Gospel of love, of faith, of hope. How can people who have been ‘crucified’ and oppressed by war for so many years can still be able to smile, to love, to irradiate joy and not to lose their hope? How much I have to learn from them!

It was for me a very striking experience to come to realize a bit more in which situation I found myself here in this part of South Sudan. After the strong appeal on behalf of the people affected by hunger, famine and war in South Sudan recently made by Pope Francis, I felt my heart pierced; it was something that really woke me up. The more I was coming to understand the reality in which I live, step by step even my way of living and of praying started to change; I have been praying for peace in South Sudan for several years, but, in a certain way, as a “foreigner” and as a person not directly touched by the people’s situation. Now, when I pray for peace for my people, I see coming in my mind the faces and the smiles of the so many that I have met, and the prayer becomes incarnated, it becomes a heartfelt cry to God asking him for the salvation of the South Sudanese people. Prayer becomes life, the only hope of life in the midst of violence.

A life in the middle of war, for most of the people of South Sudan, is not life; war, in fact, is the destruction of the dream of life that God yearns for all humanity: indeed, war is the anti-Kingdom, it is the kingdom of death. War is a blasphemy against the tenderness of God. War makes the people of God become a crucified people. The suffering and the fear of the people breaks my heart. Even if we have not been directly experiencing violence in these last few months, people continue to carry their painful wounds and many are afraid that the situation could suddenly change.

I feel my powerlessness and littleness. In being here with this people, touching this body of Christ that has been beaten, tortured and raped, I feel growing in me a thirst for peace as never before in my life. Indeed, Jesus’ words: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you”, become here a living fountain of hope. I firmly believe that it is in this crucified people that Jesus, the Lord of peace, continues to identify himself, to live, to struggle and to rise again.

Despite our littleness, the people are really happy about our simple being with them. They say that we are for them a tangible sign of God’s presence in their midst, of the Emmanuel that has not abandoned his people: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people […] and have heard their cry against their persecutors, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them” (Ex 3:7-8).

Mario Pellegrino sets home among the Nuer community in Nyal, South Sudan

Our presence gives people the certainty that the Abba has not abandoned them. It is incredible to realize how God acts through our simple being among the poorest and most abandoned. It’s marvellous to experience that the simple “sitting” with the suffering people generates life and new trust. I continue to believe in the living presence of Jesus among the South Sudanese people and especially in Nyal.

The condemnation of Jesus continues in the unjust suffering inflicted on an innocent people today. They are truly the Body of Christ. The God of the poor identifies, journeys and re-exists in the people of South Sudan, the people for which even Daniel Comboni dedicated and offered his entire life. At the end of this lent of hunger and violence, stubbornly we continue to hope in an Easter of a true life. The Risen Jesus is our hope and the light which we follow. I offer myself, my life and my simple presence for the salvation, peace, and life of my beloved people in South Sudan.

Mario Pellegrino, mccj

Leer and Nyal mission – South Sudan