Itinerant missionary Christmas: A way of active non-violence
05 January 2017 – One of the missionaries in Nyal, Fr. Fernando Galarzza, and a group of people had been waiting for the arrival of a humanitarian air service of the United Nations. The helicopter landed onto Nyal’s dusty airstrip at 11:00 am on 21 December 2016. Among the passengers was Fr. Raimundo Rocha, a Comboni missionary, who would arrive in Nyal to join the war-affected communities in that region of South Sudan to celebrate Christmas with them over the coming two weeks.
Fr. Raimundo Rocha – Christmas mass in Nyal
To celebrate Christmas in a war context is an experience that Fr. Raimundo Rocha has been repeating over the last four years. He and his companions first celebrated Christmas with war-displaced communities in Leer in 2013, just ten days into the conflict that turned into a civil war. Christmas among war-displaced communities was celebrated a year later, this time in the capital Juba, in 2014, where tens of thousands of internally displaced persons are still held under the protection of UNMISS. While fleeing conflict and seeking protection, many of these people were not able to celebrate Christmas the year before. So, in 2014, the feast of the Nativity of the Lord was for them like a “double Christmas”.
Fr. Raimundo Rocha kept his itinerant missionary Christmas also in 2015. This time he joined the war-displaced communities in the protection of civilians site under UNMISS in Rubkona and Bentiu. The number of people held in that IDPs camp exceeds one hundred thousand. In 2016 the missionary joined war-affected communities to celebrate Christmas for the fourth time. This last Christmas he celebrated in Nyal mission, a relatively calm area in his former parish and mission in Leer, South Sudan.
Among some of the most common aspects of this itinerant missionary Christmas is joy. Christmas is always a joyful feast for South Sudanese people who assemble in thousands to celebrate the event of the birth of Christ. Besides this, the experience of such an itinerant missionary Christmas has provided Fr. Raimundo with the unique opportunity to meet again with many of the people of his former parish and mission in Leer. These encounters and the celebrations of Christmas have been moments of great joy for both the people and the missionary himself in his itinerancy.
Another common characteristic of this mission is the hope for peace. The Christmas celebrations held over the past four years in these particular places and context have been particularly privileged moments to strength the hopes for lasting peace. Not even hostile environments, threatens, tensions and uncertainties have prevented the powerful peace message brought by the Baby Jesus to be announced. Moreover, the welcoming, hospitality, generosity and sharing of the Nuer community are always genuine and constant, despite poverty, and make Christmas even more a special season.
Christmas mass in Nyal
This Christmas, however, has been very special to Fr. Raimundo Rocha. To be able to return to his former parish and mission and celebrate the birth of the Saviour of humankind is something priceless. Nothing can take this great joy away from him. The same is true for his formers parishioners who had a more joyful Christmas with a greater hope for peace.
The Christian communities in that area are located far from each other. The three missionaries in Nyal went to different places to better serve the communities. Fr. Jacob Solomon went to the furthest community that takes a full day journey to reach. Fr. Fernando Galarzza went to a community located about six or seven hours on foot. Fr. Raimundo Rocha remained in Nyal, the main outstation, and was able to assist the nearby communities, just a few hours walking.
Nor distance or hot sun, nor corns on the toes could prevent the joy of going out and meeting people to announce the Gospel to them in their own language. It is so beautiful to see young people marching carrying their flags, drums and songs in a proudly expression of their faith. Every time the missionary had to move to another community, dozens of youth would escort him as his guardians as they said: “let us walk up our priest to the next community”. It is likewise beautiful to see the large smile so many mothers wore on their faces as their almost seven hundreds children were baptised. Also, dozens of young people showed conviction and determination to follow Jesus Christ as they received their first Holy Communion and Confirmation.
Youth Christmas marching in Nyal
However, often armed youth were seen around as if they were ready for battle although there was no conflict in the area. One of them had a face that looked like a child, which reminds of the sad situation of child soldiers in South Sudan. War displaced persons arrived on a regular basis coming from other areas. Some looked helpless and exhausted after long hours walking or seating on a small local canoe that was pushed through the swamps. They were people looking for safety, food, medical care… or simply looking for a relative. Many would prefer to leave the country.
Each person has a story to tell. How many have lost their lives! How many women have been raped! How many houses burned down! All this for what? This is the action of greedy and evil hearts who seek power and wealth at the cost of innocent lives. Over these years of suffering, people have developed coping mechanisms that help them to deal with such a situation. They have acquired tremendous resilience which allows them to keep on moving. Also, faith in the God of life, mercy and peace adds a lot to their strength.
South Sudan began the New Year enjoying a relative peace, despite uncertainty and the threat of food insecurity. In this war context, missionaries continue with their missionary presence of solidarity among suffering war-affected communities. They help to promote peace, justice and reconciliation. Itinerant missionary Christmas not only announces the birth of Christ the Saviour and is source of lasting joy and hope, but is also a way of active nonviolence in war and conflict situations. People learn that true peace is not imposed through arms and military action, hatred or persecution. True peace comes in the frailty of a Baby Boy, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace.