By Mario Pellegrino – I cannot forget what I have experienced the day I arrived in Nyal, the village where I live and work as a missionary in South Sudan. When I got off the UN helicopter that does humanitarian air service in the country, I was immediately attracted by joyful songs and dances performed by many people who crowded the local airstrip waving their colourful flags with great energy. They were all really full of joy!

A young man named Koffin left the crowd and pointed to me while asking my companion: “Is he the one?” When the other missionary gave his positive response, Koffin embraced me with great enthusiasm while his eyes were shining. This would be the first of many hugs and smiles and I was going to receive from the people in Nyal. It is the embrace and smile of my people and God’s embrace and smile to me.

Mario Pellegrino arriving in Nyal mission, South Sudan

Nyal is located in Panyijiar County, Unity State, in South Sudan, and is shouldered by a vast swamp. It has taken in tens of thousands of civilians who have been displaced by fighting in the neighbouring counties. The people living in this area belong to the Nuer ethnic community.

It was such an extraordinary thing for me to see how these people, despite being plagued by war and violence, are still able to generate and express joy and to show an amazing kindness and generosity towards me. This has made me to wonder how a people who have been ‘crucified’ by so many years of war and destruction are still able to smile and radiate joy, to love, to share, to resist and show resilience without losing hope. This makes me to say that I have a lot to learn from them! The poor and suffering are our masters, and always!

Life in Nyal is very simple. I live in a small hut which contains a bed, a small plastic table and a chair. There is no electricity and internet. A small solar panel provides me with enough power to keep a small lamp lit for a few hours at night. We eat the food that ordinary people eat. Toilet is a simple latrine. We use water from a nearby hand-pumped well for drinking and washing. The shower room is another small ‘tent’ with a bucket of water.

In this mission we do not have a car. We always walk, even for several hours or a full day, to reach out other Christian communities. Yes, I do not have many things here which I would have in another place, but I do have the love and embrace of the people that really fill my life and do not make me feel that I lack of other thing.

In this war context of South Sudan the people living here are often disregarded by the government. They are deprived of so many things. Our youth and children do not have a real chance to study. The only local school is made out of mud. The classrooms are tiny and there are no chairs. Students have to bring a chair from home or to sit on the floor of a crowded classroom.

Teachers are not paid by the government and so they teach free of charge as a service to the community. Some of them have done just elementary school and are often absent because they need a “real” job to feed their families.

Young people do not get any paper for secondary school even if they finish their school career. Because of this it is very hard to find a job. It is strikes me when I hear so many children on the street shouting behind me when they see me: “mathematics!” Yes, they ask me to teach them maths. We then sit down together under a tree and with a stick I start writing some exercises for them on the sand.

I have never seen children asking me to teach them in other parts of the world where I have been. They asked me for candies, soccer balls or other toys. In Nyal, children have a huge hunger for knowledge because they already know that education is the only way for them to get out of the misery they live in.

In general the people of South Sudan continue to experience war and hunger and a large portion of the population does not have access to essential goods, including food. About five million citizens – almost half of the population – were forced to abandon their homes. Three million are displaced within the country, while over one and a half million became refugees in neighbouring countries.

Mario Pellegrino in Nyal mission, South Sudan

UN agencies estimate that about half of the population suffers from hunger, among them a million children are ill and about 100,000 are virtually sentenced to starvation.

What angers me most is the fact that this dire situation is not caused by something accidental or natural scourge, but by the hand and will of a few people. It is the desired result of a war made by those who, in order to satisfy their inhuman thirst for power, do not care about the destruction of millions of innocent human beings.

It is hard to believe that most of the leaders in this country, who promote conflict and violence, claim to be Christians themselves. How on earth can those who profess the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord of Peace, be so much blinded by power and selfishness and cause so much blood shedding, pain and suffering to their innocent brothers and sisters? How is it possible to reconcile one’s faith in the God of life with the total indifference in front of injustices caused to so many human beings?

What we are experiencing here in South Sudan is a war wished and justified by the powerful ones. It is a crazy desire for death that is totally opposed to God’s plan of life, and life to the fullness, and for all his creatures. We need peace, and we need it today. Tomorrow may be too late! We cannot afford to allow even one child’s life to be lost because every single life has an incredible value in the Father’s heart.

The unjust condemnation and suffering of Jesus of Nazareth of about 2000 years ago is being perpetuated in the great suffering inflicted on these innocent people. They are the living Body of Christ. The cry of the poor is indeed the cry of God.

The God of the poor does not comply with such an injustice and continues to struggle so that the poor may have true life. The words God has addressed to the oppressed people in Egypt seem to resonate more strongly than the bombs among these people: “I have seen the suffering of my people and I heard their cry against their oppressors, I know well about their suffering. And then I went down to save them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Mario Pellegrino in Nyal mission, South Sudan

Our missionary presence among this Nuer ethnic community in South Sudan is meant to be a tangible sign that the ‘Abba’ of Jesus Christ has not abandoned them. No, these people are not forgotten! These people, poor and trampled, exploited and humiliated, are so precious to God’s eyes. They are equally precious to me too to the point that they deserve the gift of all my life offered to them.

The heart of a missionary is a heart in love. Mission, after all, is something very simple: it is to sit down with people around the fire at night and sing along with them. Mission is to promote life and to sow hope. It is to allow oneself to be nourished by the joy of their people, to be evangelized by their hope, to embrace them…

Mission is to contemplate with them the moon and the stars, with the firm and sure hope that after the dark night the sun will rise and shine again.

I feel the desire to kneel down before my people to worship and contemplate in them God, who has been oppressed and crucified by injustices and violence, but also to worship and contemplate the true living God, who is passionate and decided to give life and to struggle for the liberation of the poor of today.

I have nothing more precious to offer to this people than the treasure of my life, this Jesus of Nazareth who wanted to touch my heart, transform me and make of my life a wonderful gift by making me to meet and be touched by the poor of South Sudan. Definitely, life becomes more beautiful and full of meaningful only if it is lived for and given to others.

I say to my friends: have great dreams, do not live a “mediocre” or banal life. Do not passively accept the injustices committed to any human being in this world; choose life and to live life to the full! Give out your own life! Dream, risk and trust: the God of life will never disappoint you!

Dear Friends, I love you. Please pray for me and for peace in South Sudan. Be happy!!!

Mario Pellegrino, mccj