A Lesson in Hope and Perseverance
Three years ago I traveled through southern Sudan. I arrived in July, five months before an election that would establish the new country of South Sudan.
Catholic Relief Services, who maintained a steady presence in the region during a half century of violent engagements, sent me to Sudan. The last Sudanese civil war lasted from 1983 to 2005. Nearly 2.5 million people were killed and over 4 million were displaced. With this violent history it took great faith to believe that peace could be achieved.
My photographic mission was both simple and complicated. I was to photograph peace.
On the surface this seemed straightforward. In my opinion, peace meant living without fear. Women could go to wells for water without fear of being brutalized, children could go to school with confidence and farmers could work their fields without being attacked or killed. In other words I was to photograph normal life.
But in a region shadowed by years of warfare, tribal distrust and hatred, life was not so easy.
As a journalist who has photographed post-conflict situations for many years, my view of situations like southern Sudan was a bit jaded. Societies emerging from conflicts often do so by taking baby steps, only to often stumble backward when larger steps are attempted.
But towards the end of my journey through southern Sudan, I met a man whose overwhelming sense of hope helped me to see that so long as there is hope there is also opportunity for goodness to prevail.
Meeting Paulstino Jada was a chance encounter.
Accompanied by CRS members I had navigated through a swamp of muddy roads before reaching the village of Palotaka to document a health program. On the way I stopped at a church run decades ago by Italian priests. I was intrigued to encounter what had once been an elegant building—now badly deteriorated—in this remote corner of the country. I had to go iA visitor looked inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict had scarred the building.
Soon the church’s manager—the catechist—a thin man in worn clothes, arrived with the key. This was Paulstino Jada. There are probably many people like Jada—unsung individuals who keep communities together and live their lives as best they can under unbearable circumstances. Known only to their families and neighbors, they will never win a peace prize, appear on Oprah Winfrey or be interviewed by the New York Times. Yet what they do defines our humanity.
As Jada showed me through the church, I could feel a powerful energy surrounding this man. I asked him about his life.
He had grown up in the village and attended the church when it was still grand. Then the conflict started. During Sudan’s civil war the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan terrorist group taking advantage of the conflict’s chaos captured him. He was tortured but remained prayerful. Jada said the LRA eventually asked him to be their spiritual leader but he refused. Finally escaping, Jada returned to his village, where he served the church and tried to keep the congregation together.
I’m not sure how much of Jada’s account was fact and how much was fiction, but at least he believed it and that belief sustained him as the church began deteriorating around him. Jada said that other enemies had tried to drop bombs on the church six different times, but all of them missed. When the bombings started Jada told the congregation to stay inside the church and God would protect them. Later, villagers showed me nearby depressions where the bombs supposedly landed.
Jada said that when the Italian priests left a priest from Magwi, a town four to five hours away, was assigned to the congregation. Yet with nearly impassable roads and travel limited by continual conflicts, his visits were few. Years would pass, Jada said, without seeing the priest from Magwi.
I asked Jada why he continued to manage the church without any financial support. His response was simple. As the church’s catechist he felt it was his responsibility to keep the congregation going, preserving hope that the Church leaders in Juba would eventually send a full time priest to them. Jada hoped that the forthcoming elections would accelerate their decision.
I was impressed with his perseverance in this difficult situation but I think it was his hope that moved me the most. Even as we spoke a part of the church’s ceiling fell to the floor about forty feet from us. If it had fallen on us or on the people around the church kneeling in prayer we could have been badly hurt. Perhaps there is some truth about the power of hope.
As a journalist my own profession is in decline. Many of my friends have lost their jobs. Freelance work is decreasing. Sometimes I lose hope and fall into a dark well of despair. But meeting someone like Mr. Jada brings perspective to such concerns. Jada thinks that keeping hope alive will make change happen. Is that naive? Perhaps, but then, what’s wrong with naiveté? That doesn’t make his story any less powerful, at least to me.
My life is not comparable to Jada’s. He lives on the edge. Each day he struggles to feed his family, to collect clean water for them to drink, to keep them safe from the political unrest all around them.
I won’t starve if I don’t get another assignment. I may need to change my profession or rethink my strategy, but my situation is not life threatening. As a privileged individual who can move freely and live without constant fear of physical harm, I feel it is my duty to pass on the sense of hope and perseverance that Jada conveyed to me. Telling his story is a small way to repay his gift of inspiration.
As a journalist it’s easy to get wrapped up in chaos—the big pictures of conflict, poverty and despair. Yet within those big pictures, individual dramas of great power and meaning can be witnessed. One has only to be still for a moment to see people like Mr. Jada.
South Sudan did become a country. People optimistically celebrated the birth of this newly formed nation. Sadly conflict continues there. I often wonder if we humans are hard wired to solve our differences with violence. It takes great faith and courage to meet an adversary face to face without a weapon in hand. Most people are not that brave.
Three years after my time in south Sudan I wonder if Mr. Jada and his small congregation still wait for a priest to arrive. Has he kept the bright flame of hope alive during this long time of darkness? I hope that his light will never burn out.