Oregon Province of Jesuits photo
A refugee leans on Father Gary Smith.
Oregon Province of Jesuits photo
A refugee leans on Father Gary Smith.
A 76-year-old priest who once served on the streets of Portland has just left Oregon for a missionary assignment in South Sudan.

Jesuit Father Gary Smith spent years after leaving Portland as a pastoral minister and mentor for refugees in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Now he will aid South Sudan residents returning to their fledgling nation. Braced to live in a quonset hut and have an outdoor latrine, Father Smith will specialize in teaching English and writing skills.

He will be helping another Northwest Jesuit, Father Mike Schultheis, who is establishing a university in Juba. Father Schultheis has served for more than 30 years in Africa.

South Sudanese voters opted for independence in 2011 after years of struggle between the region's residents and violent militias sponsored by the government in the northern part of the nation. The United Nations in mid-November expressed confidence that the new country can turn a corner. A retired Roman Catholic bishop in is leading an effort to get a rebel leader to lay down arms.  

Father Smith has written a book about his time thus far in Africa. Set to be published soon by Loyola Press, it's called Called Moments in the Breach. The book is founded on Isaiah 58:12 — "And you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell."

"The big breach is that countries are being internally destroyed," Father Smith says. "In the house of humanity there are these gaping wounds. And I think the role of Jesuit Refugee Services and the church is to step into the breach."

In his typical style, Father Smith does not portray himself as the hero; he tells stories of others and honestly describes his own struggles and "breaches." One part of his metaphor is this — when one works through a breach, one doesn't know what's on the other side. For him, it often means he did not know how to help someone in need.

"You have a gap in your life and you need to turn to God," Father Smith says. "In all these places, I always felt my shortcomings. I couldn't be smooth Gary Smith working on the streets of Portland."

But there have been moments of grace. He recalls meeting a tall lovely woman at a refugee camp in Kenya. To help her family, she had become a prostitute. But she did not like her life. She wanted to talk to the holy man and get re-linked with God. The priest and the woman strolled and talked for hours.

"She was experiencing the Holy Spirit," he says. "She was a wonderfully honest person. I was there trying to be a breach mender for her."

Father Smith is not sure what the rest of his life will hold. He could be back in Oregon in two months or two years or maybe he will die in South Sudan. It does not seem to matter much to him.

"I'm rolling the dice at my age," he says. "I trust God is going to lead me."