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Mission Stories, Re-Entry Workshops, Testimonial

“Three Weeks that Changed My Life” by Salesian Lay Missioner Catherine McNeal

Catherine McNeal returned in 2016 from a year of service with Salesian Lay Missioners in South Sudan where she served as a nurse. Catherine attended From Mission to Mission workshops in preparation for and again after returning in March 2017. This is her story.

catherine mcneal in south sudan
Photo credit: Catherine McNeal, Salesians of Don Bosco

In preparation for my mission, everyone told me that the transition back home after mission would be harder than the transition into my mission. It doesn’t seem like that would be the case, but it is so true. Going to South Sudan as a Salesian Lay Missioner, I expected everything to be different, to be uncomfortable, to be challenging. Coming home, though, should be familiar and comfortable, right? I lived here for 22 years of my life. I know what life is like in America. The challenge in transitioning home isn’t that your home has changed while you’re away, but that you have changed while you’re away.

The challenge in transitioning home isn’t that your home has changed while you’re away, but that you have changed while you’re away.

I was reflecting on this about a month before it was my time to leave South Sudan. I realized that I didn’t really feel like my time there had changed me. I felt like the year was full of many blessings and a lot of growth, but not a lot of change into who I saw myself being. Little did I know what was in store for me during my final weeks, God, of course, in His infinite wisdom, had a completely different plan for me.

I have touched on the story of my last few weeks in Wau in other posts I have written, and have shared the long version with some close friends, but never put it all in writing. About a month ago, I attended a workshop called From Mission to Mission. It was a time of reflection for past missionaries-a time to process the experience and integrate it into our lives now.  Julie, the wonderful leader of this workshop, encouraged me to write about this experience and share it with others. So, here I am, after blankly staring at my computer screen for an hour, attempting to write about the most challenging, fruitful, beautiful, sorrowful, intense and incredible 3 weeks of my life.

South Sudan has been experiencing civil war since they became a country in 2011. It is all based on tribalism. Each tribe wants to have power over the other and does not honor the lives of people from other tribes. The people of South Sudan have not experienced true peace in their lifetime, but for most of the time that I was in Wau, it was relatively stable. It was never an incredibly safe place, but with some extra precautions, things were always fine. There were isolated incidences of violence in Wau as well as problems with inflation and food/medicine shortages. We heard about other areas of the country that were experiencing much more instability than we were. There were many challenges in Wau, but I had gotten used to most of them and found so much beauty in the ways that the sisters’ mission helped the people.

An excerpt from my journal on June 26, 2016:

“I feel like the life that I’ve lived for the past few days couldn’t possibly be mine. Tensions have been rising in Wau all week. Each day we heard about something or another happening in the market, shops closing, a few gunshots each night. Friday evening, I was sitting in my room reading when I heard gunshots. There were many. God was fighting back with thunder, but the big storm never came and the gunshots continued. We navigated the night with no lights because they can be seen from the street. I went to sleep, but was woken up many times by gunshots. We woke up Saturday and prayed it would be over. We had mass in our compound and it was quiet, but as soon as mass was over, so many gunshots and what sounded like bombs. After mass, the stories started to come. So many people had to flee from their homes. We currently have about 1000 people at St. Joseph’s campus [the parish and school run by the Salesians.]”

I was sitting in my room reading when I heard gunshots. There were many. God was fighting back with thunder, but the big storm never came and the gunshots continued.

When something like this happens, we are responsible for contacting the coordinators of our program and letting them know. Ania and Marta (the Polish volunteers who were serving with me) were able to contact their coordinator first. After a couple of phone calls, she told them that they have to evacuate from Wau as soon as possible. They made arrangements to go to Juba, the capital city, the following day and wait for their respective flights out of the country from there. In the evening, I was able to contact Adam, the coordinator of my program, Salesian Lay Missioners. I explained the situation to him, told him that the other volunteers were being evacuated, and asked him if I could stay in Wau. Now, it’s usually at this point in my story when my audience is like, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to stay in that kind of situation?” I have a few reasons why. I want to be very clear, I did not stay in order to “be cool.” If I had no way to help the people, then there would be no reason to stay. If I was just going to be an extra mouth to feed, I would have left with Marta and Ania the very next day. The reality though, was that the people who I came to help needed the assistance now more than ever. As a nurse, I had a very tangible skill that could help them. With many health facilities closed and people now staying in cramped, dirty quarters with no mosquito nets in the middle of malaria season, how could I leave? Many of the children I know were staying in the school, experiencing the most terrifying time of their life. They had to flee from their homes, are sleeping on the floor in the school, and hearing gunshots every day and night. When all the volunteers leave, it adds another level of fear. They see us leaving and think, “wow, even the people who came to help us are leaving because our country is that unsafe.” These kids don’t have the option to leave. I did not feel okay leaving them in the time when they needed me most. Adam agreed to let me stay and the next 3 weeks changed my life.

Now, it’s usually at this point in my story when my audience is like, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to stay in that kind of situation?” I have a few reasons why. I want to be very clear, I did not stay in order to “be cool.” If I had no way to help the people, then there would be no reason to stay.

As soon as I got to South Sudan, I saw suffering on a level that can’t compare to anything I have witnessed in the United States, but during those 3 weeks, I saw suffering on an entirely new level. These people who already had so little, had even more taken from them. Many of them lost the security of their homes, their possessions, their loved ones, or their own lives.

An excerpt from my journal on June 28, 2016:

“I think the past few days will shape my life more than any others. I’ve seen, heard and taken part in things that I never would have imagined experiencing. My days have been completely full of prayer, seeing the sick, visiting the displaced and loving on the little ones. My sleep has been interrupted by more gunshots than one should ever hear. My heart has been broken by the stories of others and the news that our own [pharmacist] Francis was killed. These days have been tough…I feel like a different person than I was 5 days ago, like I’m someone I never thought I would become. My future has never been full of so many unknowns, when I go to sleep at night, I have no idea what the next day will bring. I don’t know if it’s my last day in Wau or my last day on earth and I am at peace with that. I feel at peace with my decision to stay and let God use me however He can. I’ve never felt more reliant on God. These days have been so hard, but also somehow so fruitful.”

My future has never been full of so many unknowns, when I go to sleep at night, I have no idea what the next day will bring. I don’t know if it’s my last day in Wau or my last day on earth and I am at peace with that.

I think I felt almost every emotion possible during this time, but somehow through everything that happened, I never felt fear. I should have prefaced this whole post by saying that I am not a brave person. I don’t like climbing trees and I get scared riding my bike too fast. I should have been terrified; I fully expected myself to be terrified in a situation like this and without God, I absolutely would have been. I wasn’t scared, not because I’m some brave superhero, but because God is stronger than all fear. I wasn’t scared because I knew that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to completely abandon my whole self to His will. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of the unknowns. I didn’t know if there was going to be a tomorrow and that was okay because I was living today exactly as God wished. I trusted in the Lord in a way that I was always called to, but through my pride, had never been able to.  With this trust, I knew that if God had more planned for my life, that he would deliver me out of South Sudan safely. At the same time, if this was it, if it was my time to go, there was peace in that too. If this time in South Sudan was what I needed, if staying these three weeks was what I needed in order to make it to heaven, than that was worth everything.

I should have prefaced this whole post by saying that I am not a brave person. I don’t like climbing trees and I get scared riding my bike too fast. I should have been terrified; I fully expected myself to be terrified in a situation like this and without God, I absolutely would have been. I wasn’t scared, not because I’m some brave superhero, but because God is stronger than all fear.

Spoiler Alert: I made it out of the country.

I made it out of the country and I have been changed. God showed me what it meant to truly and fully trust him, what it felt like to completely abandon my own will to His. That is the level of trust I’m called to every single day. God is guiding me through each moment as I continue to transition into this life he has for me in Atlanta. It is not always easy, but it is absolutely beautiful.

Testimonial

Joyana Jacoby on FMTM Experience

“The From Mission to Mission Re-entry Workshop provided me space to continue to unpack and put into perspective the many struggles and joys I had witnessed and lived”-Joyana Jacoby

“I grew up in central Wisconsin and now live in Chicago. My heart has residence in many places including central Mexico. I served in Leon, Guanajuato for two years as a Good Shepherd Volunteer. I went ready to “listen exquisitely to another way of living on the other side of the border.” There, I accommpanied women in a sewing cooperative, taught English, and worked at a girls’ boarding school. I learned new depths of patience and human resiliency, how to work in a relaxed manner, and the meaning of being a woman in today’s world.

While ready to return ‘home’ after 2 intense years of growth I knew I would have a lot of unfolding to do upon my return. The From Mission to Mission Re-entry Workshop provided me space to continue to unpack and put into perspective the many struggles and joys I had witnessed and lived. It was a sacred space to honor my experience, including the painful and difficult parts, share stories with people who really listened and allowed for ‘my spirit to catch up with me.’ Having the opportunity to spend a weekend with kindred spirits was a pure gift and helped me as I moved to integrating what I learned in Mexico into life here.

I am currently the Service Immersion Coordinator at DePaul University where I have the opportunity to accompany students during transformational immersion experiences.”