I met my first shepherd when I was 30 working as a doctor in East Africa. This picture shows Mount Naita and a path that leads to Good Shepherd parish in Nanyangacor in what is now called South Sudan. I worked there with Maryknoll Lay Missioner Marty Roers who painted this picture. One of these shepherds was a nine-year-old boy named Adimo who walked 120 miles with his mother to our parish, looking for treatment for a deadly illness that was slowly killing him. He recovered and when he was strong enough, he walked a short distance from the dispensary to the mission compound metal gate and was met by our pastor, Fr. Tim, who asked him what he wanted. “I want to go to school” his quiet voice begged the tall, white Irish St. Patrick missionary priest.
In the second reading Paul says that grace is the result of our call to suffer patiently for doing what is good. From that it follows that Adimo, and the Sudanese, must be full of grace. These people have known almost constant suffering and war for over 60 years. Our Bishop, Paride Taban, would tell people that the Sudanese offer their sufferings for the world because it is the one thing they can give to others.
Adimo is a Toposa shepherd and their ethnic group shelter the animals in corrals with only one small door for entrance and exit to protect them from wild animals and robbers who would steal them. Both the animals and the people need protection. There were many dangers and Adimo and his community were tricked and robbed by both government officials and rebel soldiers who made promises that were rarely kept. So, while he was sick, Adimo lay on a reed mat on the floor of a mud and wattle treatment hut, watching a bustle of activity in the mission compound and the first white people he’d ever seen. He already believed in God. Toposa revere Nyakuj, or God, as the one source of life. But he wanted more.
At the mission, he saw his own people and different looking people working and living together in relative harmony. Adimo was a bright boy but asking to go to school would cost him. His mother had to return to their home which was a three day walk away. She had other children and crops to care for. He would not see her again for seven long years. Going to school meant that Fr. Tim, and the rest of the community, had to provide for his basic needs to keep him alive. The life he had regained from his medical treatment became abundant life when he was welcomed by the community, finished grade school and became a community health worker.
John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Whoever enters through me will be saved, will come in and go out and find pasture.’ The responsorial psalm is very comforting, “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” But let’s be practical. Jesus left this earth many years ago and it takes more than words to keep people and the animals alive. We, ourselves, must be the body of Christ. I think Jesus is telling us that there is nothing we shall want and we will have abundant life if we take care of one another the way a good shepherd takes care of the sheep.
When I lived in Toposaland I found this fairly easy to do. We lived in a remote village and we absolutely depended on each other for our basic needs. The area was vast and anyone on a journey could come to a compound and find a safe place to lay their head at night. I’m sure that’s how Adimo and his mother found a place to sleep while walking seven days to get to us. One of my friends left the mission in his car without much food. The car broke down and he was stuck on the road for three days. A Toposa man walking by offered him some of the meager sorghum he carried on his journey. The man was smart enough to take more food than my friend but he was also kind enough to share it with a stranded stranger. Can we be as attentive to the person in front of us who is in need?
Now I live in the USA where many more resources are available. It’s easy to feel like I can fend for myself and don’t need others to survive. It’s also easy to feel overwhelmed by so much need in the world. That’s when it helps me to reflect on the gatekeeper in the Gospel who opens the gate to the corral. The gatekeeper can protect the sheep and make sure all are safely in the corral at the end of the day. The gatekeeper can make sure that all the sheep have access to the good shepherd. Because the gatekeeper is the conduit between the shepherd and the sheep.
We are called to be good gate keepers, attentive to the person in front of us, assisting this shepherd called Jesus. Today, when someone like Adimo comes to our gate let’s open the door of our heart and open that gate. Let’s share our gifts so that person too may have a fuller life.
Special thanks to Michael Nagele for assistance in filming this video.
Susan Nagele is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner and Family Physician who began working in East Africa in 1985. Her service provided primary health care in Tanzania for six years, Sudan for 12 years (all during the second war in what is now called South Sudan) and Kenya for 14 years. She became conversant with the languages and cultures of Swahili, Juba Arabic and Toposa and developed expertise in tropical medicine and care for people who have been sexually abused. Her deepest passion is caring for children and pregnant women within the various familial constructs of other cultures.
She returned to the USA in 2018, currently lives in Urbana Illinois and attends St. Patrick Parish. She continues to work for Maryknoll Lay Missioners doing medical consultancy, mission education and promotion in the Midwest. Maryknoll Lay Missioners is the mission outreach of the US Catholic church which fully incorporates laity as members to serve people who are marginalized and most in need in our global community.
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