Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Book Review: They Come Back Singing

They Come Back Singing: Finding God With the Refugees
by Gary Smith, SJ
An African Journal
How can something be sad and glad at the same time? ... "All unhappiness," says Mrs. Quin, "as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness." ...
Rumer Godden,China Court
Although the above quote is from a different book entirely, it is the one that kept coming to me when I struggled with summarizing this book. In its simplest form it is a compilation of letters, journal entries, and scene-capturing essays by a Jesuit priest, Father Gary Smith, of his six years spent in Uganda ministering to the Sudanese refugees. As he is immersed in ministering to this pilgrim people who have suffered what seem unsurvivable hardships and sorrows, he also is lifted up by their complete trust in God's loving kindness. In a country where the people are displaced, every family has lost a minimum of two children, where the lack of three dollars can mean the difference between medicine and death, one does not expect to find perpetual joy in God's presence and plan for them. Yet it is always there. This also is a continual witness to Smith's own experience of God's loving kindness which he sees expressed through the people and through his own sufferings in this place of privation. Perhaps it is best expressed by Bishop Drandua one day in conversation.
... "I have been nourished by my position," he told me, "just as surely as the faithful are nourished by me. I believe that the Spirit is constantly renewing the church; it is a river which cannot be dammed. So the Spirit renews the bishops." He paused and added, "If they are open." His reflection was as powerful in its simplicity as it was in its theology. Drandua's conviction that the Spirit renews the church, now and forever, educated or uneducated, stands strong in its truth. Maybe that is the convert in me talking. God will not abandon the church and it will always grow, if not in numbers, then in the quality of love found in its members and in its capacity to be renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Just as Smith was, we are immersed in the people of Africa. I was personally touched by the fact that these people are from the Sudan. As I have mentioned before, a nearby parish has a ministry helping Sudanese refugees, and the local Central Market has a large number of them as workers. I especially feel connected because we have a lot of Sudanese refugees in our neighborhood working at the local grocery store. It thrills me to see them work their way up from grocery cart fetchers and bag boys to checkers. They invariably are the most considerate and careful workers (and this is in a store that is chock FULL of very good workers, believe it or not). I always go to one of them if I can and have struck up a friendship (superficial I admit) with several of them. They will wave me into their line or chide me for not being around lately. So as I read the book I could easily picture picture the people being like these fellows that I already know slightly. However, you do not need any personal connection to feel involved with the people in this book. Smith shows us their hearts and his as well.

This is a good book for more than one reason. As with the best books of this sort this is both uplifting and thought provoking. Just this week in Scripture study, our priest reminded us that we are incredibly privileged compared to most of the world. We talked of the parable of the rich young man and thought of all the "things" we have and all the "things" we want. Inevitably I thought of this book as I was about halfway through at that point. I must hasten to add, Catholic theology points out that there is nothing wrong with "things" as long as we view them rightly in the big picture and are unattached. However, here we are shown a people who often have no "things," whose only earthly attachment possible is to the people around them who often taken by sickness and death, and who still praise God's goodness. The contrast with our lives is striking. We see much sadness but as Mrs. Quin says above, it always is shot through with happiness. It changes Smith's view of the world around him, raises him to God often, and if we read it with an open heart, will do the same for us.

This book will be out in February and I submit that it would make a superb Lenten reading devotional. We then can ponder wealth, attachments, love, faith, and service to those around us. I have a favorite chapter that I have received permission to excerpt which you can read here.

Loyola Press has another chapter available to read here.

Highly recommended.

This review was previously posted at Happy Catholic.

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