Mission is life; it is the encounter that is transformative. Here, we will recount the mission through the lives of three women dedicated to God and engaged in conflict-ridden Countries or in battles for human rights. In a church that is often wounded and confused, these women share their dreams, their daily work, starting from a passion for Christ that continually changes their existence, enriches it with new perspectives, and opens it up to new possibilities. These three are Combonian Sisters, and Combonian missionary life is aimed at bearing witness to Christ in the service of life, particularly to the poorest. It is an invitation taken up by many young women who put their faith and themselves into the field to build bridges between cultures, to weave relationships of peace, to support the cry for justice and dignity that comes from men, women, even entire peoples. In addition, with an attentive look at today, they are enterprising, open to interculturality, while working and confronting themselves with others.
From Mexico to the Middle East
Sr. Lourdes Garcia is from Mexico, but has lived in the Middle East for the past five years. She is currently in Israel working with the Jahalin Bedouin communities in the Judean desert. Through the listening to their needs ideas for training and education programmes come about that are then developed and implemented through a dense network of volunteers and collaborators from different religious faiths, and nuns from different congregations.
As Sr. Lourdes tells us, “this motivates us to feel like a bridge between two peoples, our intention is in fact to accompany this minority people but to be, at the same time, bridges of peace”. Therefore, “we are creating a small network, that is not only inter-congregational, but also inter-religious, to go out and meet our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. I am very hopeful that we can live and work together for a common good, by joining forces, each living our own faith, be they Jews, Muslims, or Christians”. This is a faith that is proclaimed through daily gestures and actions, where the values of the Gospel become reality, be that through a welcome, respect, an encounter, or generosity. “Bonds of closeness, dialogue, brotherhood and affection have been created with our Muslim brothers and sisters. By experiencing the significant moments of their lives together, I was able to get to know them; in addition, their culture and traditions, the intimate reality of these communities, the difficulties, the problems women face, for example, who marry very young and do not continue their studies or acquire any other education”.
The missionary work also continues with the small Christian community in El-Azariyeh, the town of Lazarus, the Palestinian area where they live. “A small Christian community of about 10 families. We meet every day for the recitation of the Rosary with the women, organize prayer times and visit the sick”.
From Portugal to South Sudan
Sister Joana Carneiro is from Portugal and has been living in Wau, the second largest city in South Sudan, for five years and working as a doctor at St Daniel Comboni Catholic Hospital. A catchment area of about 5,000 patients a week. An important health centre in a Country scarred by war.
The hospital has 110 beds divided between the four departments: surgery, general medicine, maternity and paediatrics. In addition, there is a radiology service that is the most advanced in Wau. Joana is currently in charge of the surgery department.
She tells me, “Health care in South Sudan is very fragile. In the 21st century, there are still many people who do not have access to basic health care, and among them many children and women. Our presence, as Combonian missionary sisters, in a diocesan hospital is not simply a solution to the lack of health care in the country because this is a basic right that must be provided for by the social structures of the country. Our presence is a reminder and a sacramental sign. The South Sudanese, and of throughout the whole world, cannot forget and abandon the most vulnerable among them. It is a manifestation that God’s love is present, no matter how dark and difficult the situation may be”.
When Joana arrived in South Sudan, “my first impression”, she recounted, “was one of shock; I had never seen so much material poverty. The first impact was profoundly moving, the airport was made of tents, there was no infrastructure. When I got off the plane, I walked on the runway, I saw my suitcase under a tent, they put a stamp on it and that was it. A very disorganized people, a whole country without water or electricity. Not even in the poorest areas where I had been before had I found so much material poverty”.
Today, she says, “So, my dream as a Combonian missionary nun is not just to provide help for people’s medical needs, as far as is humanly possible, but to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who went around ‘doing good’. And as a Combonian sister, I follow our charism in concretely developing the apostolate, and mine is to be among the South Sudanese”. Daniele Comboni’s method is to save Africa with Africa.
From Chad to Peru
Some go on mission from lands that have always been mission lands. Sister Benjamine Kimala Nanga is a Combonian from Chad who, after a period in Spain where she studied and worked with pastoral care of migrants, youth and missionary activities, has been living and working in Peru for six years. While here she has been working on prevention activities to prevent human trafficking and has been living for about a year in an area, the district of Carmen (Chincha Alta), which is the cradle of Peruvian Afro-descendants.
As she herself writes, “I live the mission as a calling from God, this God walks with his people, in this case with the Peruvian people in their different life experiences. The mission for me today is to walk with and at the pace of the people who welcome us from their reality. My missionary service in the prevention of human trafficking led me to learn about the socio-political, economic and ecclesial situations of the Country. This learning has led me to live my missionary presence with my feet on Peruvian soil and my heart full of hope in Jesus Christ. The dimension of work in the permanent commissions of the Peruvian Conference of Religious (GPIC - Human Rights and Kawsay Network), with the Talitha Kum Network (inter-congregational) have been spaces of giving and receiving for me”.
Kawsay, a Quechua word meaning living, is a network of more than 38 religious congregations and some diocesan priests.
There are no official figures, but according to the ombudsman’s office, about five thousand people disappeared last year. Of these, 1,506 were adult women and 3,510 girls. On average, 15 people a day disappear, one every two hours. According to the police, disappearances are linked to gender-based violence, human trafficking, and family trauma. Moreover, there is a lack of a standardized system for the rapid tracing of missing women. During the lockdown, the human rights organisation in Peru mainly reported the disappearance of teenagers fleeing a life of violence who are abducted or end up being trafficked.
The mission these young women experience -who set out from various parts of the world, went out to other lands, other peoples and other cultures-, is a path of personal transformation as well as evangelization. That is why Lourdes can say, “Living here in the Middle East has enriched my being a missionary. I have learned so much from the different cultures and religions of this land, the way I express my faith has been positively affected”.
It is a journey that transforms the way one feels part of the Church. Joana tells us, “I cannot be a consecrated woman unless I am part of the Church, as a community of believers, as a ‘cenacle of apostles’. Being here in South Sudan calls me to walk together, not to look for a different pace, slower or faster, but that of the concrete Church that lives, incarnates and celebrates the very life of Jesus Christ”.
All this requires a new way of being consecrated missionaries, a methodology that, as Benjamine says, “Sees the centre in the Gospel as fullness of life, integral ecology in today’s language. It is important that we continue to evangelize and let ourselves be evangelized by the existential peripheries, by the new ways of evangelization, to combat injustice and the exploitation of people at the root, particularly through prevention. It is a transversal work to everything we do and live; it is taking care of life in its totality”. And she concludes: “I will continue to learn and share my being an African Combonian missionary here in Peru with the Afro-descendants, sons and daughters of slaves torn from Africa”.
by GABRIELLA BOTTANI AND MARIOLINA CATTANEO
Combonian Missionary Sisters