I was hoping for some sort of guidebook from They Come Back Singing. Fr. Gary Smith and I have similar backgrounds, if you kind of squint and cock your head to the side that is. I'm Catholic and he's a Jesuit. I attended Gonzaga, and he attended Santa Clara. I worked part-time at Spokane's House of Charity for about a year and a half. He spent the greater part of the '90's working with the homeless and mentally ill of Portland's inner city. We both even enjoy our little forays into the literary arts, his book Radical Compassion being a collection of his experiences and thoughts while in Portland and very worth your time to read. I thought this shared background would make Singing, written by Fr. Smith while serving Sudanese refugees in Uganda, a suitable guide to my year (or two) of service of Kenya. Thought it might give me an idea of the challenges I would face in this foreign land and concrete advice on how to overcome them.
Not so much. Not surprisingly, the expectations of a Jesuit serving the pastoral and spiritual needs of the displaced and a recent college graduate serving the academic and physical needs of over one hundred children are rather different. If I wanted to know that dramatic re-enactments of the parables would be one of the better ways to teach the Gospel and reveal their active and continuing presence in our lives, Singing would have no peer for me, but I'm trying to explain quadratic equations with an acronym that means nothing in Kiswahili. And it goes without saying that refugee camps in northern Uganda constantly under threat of attack by the Lord's Resistance Army and an orphanage on the outskirts of one of Kenya's major cities and a center of tourism to boot are rather different places and have their own challenges.
But I discovered something much more important in Singing than any practical advice: a kindred spirit. In the introduction, Fr. Smith writes that after eight years in the inner city, life had become too comfortable. “I wanted to be with the poor in a different way,” he writes. He has no delusions about his ability to cure all the ills which afflict the refugees, but he wants to go to them and provide what help he can. When Fr. Smith first arrives in Africa, he is overwhelmed. Unused to even the basic traffic laws of Uganda, he is almost hit by a car driving on the left side and suffers doubts about his ability to make any difference. To know that this man who has gone through so much more than I yet still know these same anxieties, is heartening in its own way. There is another like me. I am not alone in this. I think.
From this inauspicious beginning, Fr. Smith muddles through the best he can and sometimes even succeeds. A lot happens during these six years. When one of his catechists is accused of abusing his wife and the his seminar on theology is turned into an impromptu council of elders, Fr. Smith does not decline the position but does the best he can. When a friend is hungry and another needs money to pay for further schooling, he does all he can. It's the only real option available to him. When Fr. Smith has to use the open-air latrine in the center of a distant village, there is humor. When he is stricken by malaria and, later, appendicitis, there is terror. When he learns of the death of a dear friend in the United States, there is grief. Still, Fr. Smith gets through it all. And I know I can, too.
A theme of service is revealed in Fr. Smith's letters and anecdotes, something I believe to be of the greatest importance, much more so than some simple goal. Service of any sort, whether passing out sandwiches to the homeless or spending years among the displaced, can never be only about what we can do for them. We must acknowledge, too, that we are learning from them and being served at the same time. Fr. Smith learned the depths of love from a man who sacrificed all his savings to put his wife into a hospital for bilharzia treatment and sacrifices weeks to be with her yet still must ask Fr. Smith for money to pay for her coffin. When parishioners give him gifts of chickens and goats worth weeks of wages, he knows the greatest charity. Service is not about them, it's about us and them together.
2 years ago