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2/11/2013 3:10:00 PM
Jesuit shares stories of love, sadness from African refugee camps
Photo contributed by Fr. Gary Smith
Fr. Smith sits with a refugee family.
Photo contributed by Fr. Gary Smith
Fr. Smith sits with a refugee family.
On Monday, Feb. 25, Jesuit Father Bob Grimm will share about his experiences visiting Jesuit missions throughout Asia, including India, Cambodia and China. Jesuits are establishing parishes and spirituality centers and partnering with locals to provide education and social services to some of the world’s most economically vulnerable people. In many Asian countries, however, Christians are a very small minority of the population, and Jesuits face several interesting challenges to collaboration.  The presentation will be at the Loyola Jesuit Center at 3220 SE 43rd St., in the Center Maria della Strada Conference Room.

The talk, which is sponsored by the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, is free and open to the public. For more information, call 503-221-2313.

Clarice Keating
Of the Catholic Sentinel

A question that closed the lecture gave Jesuit Father Gary Smith pause: “Did you learn anything about God [while you were in Africa] that surprised you?”  

Father Smith, who spent the past decade working in refugee camps in Uganda, South Africa and Kenya, shared reflections of his work to a standing-room only crowd on Feb. 4. He was the first speaker of a “Jesuit Ministries Around the World” lecture and discussion series, sharing stories and photos of his years working with the Jesuit Refugee Services.

After a moment of thought, he answered the question.  

“There were moments when I was very lonely and discouraged,” the priest said. “But even in my darkest moments, it felt like God was very near.”

He also experience joy like he’d never known; when you’re so deprived of creature comforts, he said, love and laughter become more pronounced.

During the lecture, Father Smith shared slides of photos of friends and people he met during his time in the refugee camps.  During his time in Africa, he trained catechists and celebrated Masses under the trees in areas without chapels. He ran small Christian groups, where people could discuss passages of the scripture.

He offered counseling and training to the people who would run the refugee camps.

In 2009, Father Smith celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit, serving the poor. He ministered for eight years in the Old Town section of Portland.

During Father Smith’s work in Africa there were scary times, such as encounters with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The violent rebel group led by Joseph Kony abducts Ugandan children and has brutally attacked thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central Africa Republic. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

At times, bouts of malaria wreaked havoc on Father Smith’s body and mind.

He also spoke of remarkable encounters — witnessing the birth of a baby girl. The priest (the only one in the village with a vehicle) and midwife couldn’t get the mother to the far-away clinic in time, so the baby was delivered on the side of the road.  The mother, Mary, cradled her newborn, and asked Father Gary: “What’s the name of your mother?” “Eunice,” he said. That would be the baby’s name, too.    

There was an 11-year-old girl who had lived her entire life with a face deformed by a cleft lip, a birth defect common with malnourished mothers. Father Smith arranged the simple surgery for the girl, and afterward the mother was so overjoyed she repeated, over and over, “It’s a miracle.” He gave the little girl a mirror and watched as she gazed at her new face during the long drive back to their village. “When we got back to the village, it was like we were astronauts coming back from the moon,” he said.

“I thought at that point, I was meant to be there at that time.”  The love he felt for that mother and daughter was the Holy Spirit flowing through him, he said.

“Forever now, I have the inner icons of refugees,” Father Smith said. “I can pull up their faces and their names.”

The Spirit works in all cultures, the priest said, and the Church discovers who she is in the presence of the poor.

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