In Nyala, in South Darfur in the south-west of Sudan, mission is just a presence and silent witness; a mission without much visibility or spectacle, in quietness; a mission where one cannot expect great personal gratification. A testimony of a Comboni Missionary.
I knew him by sight. He is seen daily in the city of Nyala, the South Darfur capital, spending almost the whole day walking through streets and alleys, wandering without stop. He is mentally ill. That afternoon, next to the municipal market, I saw him coming, directly towards me. He stopped and stared at me – with calm and peaceful countenance. He didn’t answer my greeting. When I asked him his name, he replied without hesitation: “Never mind my name; there are more important things in life”. Then, he laid down the two large plastic bags full of dirty rags and other trash that he usually carries; he laid his heavy hands on my shoulders and said: “I know who you are and where you live; your house is the church”.
I felt his hands pressing harder on me. There, in the middle of the large and busy street, many people stopped out of curiosity or, perhaps, concern for what could happen to a foreigner that a madman had grabbed. No doubt that the moment was of puzzlement and some fear but, beyond that, I must add that around me there was a certain sense of awe. It was evident in the concern of a man passing by who showed his intention, if needed, of rescuing me from the situation. However, seeing the peaceful and serene scene, he did not intervene.
The one whom everyone knew to be majnun (crazy), still had something more to say. He looked around, as if showing that he was in control of the situation, and his voice was heard again. Slowly, almost spelling the words, he said: “You are not a kafir (unbeliever, infidel)”.
He was already picking up the plastic bags from the floor when I, not yet completely recovered from such a pleasant surprise, told him: “Shukran! (Thank you!)”- and confirming his own words, I added: “You are right, my friend! I’m not a kafir; I believe in God; I’m happy with the words you have just said”. I saw his face illuminating in a broad smile, as he disappeared in the midst of the buzzing crowd.
A few steps from the scene, I passed a lady who said with kindness: “Sorry about that, khauaja (foreigner); don’t be offended, it’s just a mental patient”. It was not an isolated sentiment: many other bystanders, smiled shyly without saying anything. At the same time, I thought to myself: “Apologizing for him? There was, of course, no need to apologize because there was no offence”.
To everyone, I tried to return the kind and gentle gesture. Even the vendor of the market stall where I buy my vegetables noticed in me a different tone and she didn’t fail to point it out: “Hey, zabun khauaja (foreign customer), today you look more jovial, more cheerful”.
While, giving me the change for the lentils and other vegetables that I bought, she looked at me and dropped in my bag of purchases a portion of toasted sesame. “It’s a small and humble token on my part; may God bless you and make you always happy”, she said with a smile.
Meanwhile, I found myself already entering the courtyard of the house, in front of the church. If anyone had asked me which road I had taken when I left the market or what I had seen on the way, I wouldn’t be able to answer. Had I lost my memory? I was sure not. The proof was that I could remember my thoughts of those twenty minutes that had gone since I left the market.
The truth is that, as I walked, a monk of a distant monastery ‘appeared’ to me. It was in his company that I spent that little time. The core of our conversation can be summed up in the following advice I received from that holy man of God: “If you want to progress in your interior, spiritual life, you need to pray every day, only this: “Lord, I’m here waiting for nothing”. He noticed my confusion and perplexity, but insisted on the same idea.
I don’t remember where I read it or who told me about that monk, but it is not a fable or a mythological story. Nor was it invented in that moment. Someone could even compare it to any ‘cheap’ philosophy. However, I took his advice seriously and it has had a very emblematic significance in my missionary life in Nyala, Darfur. Here, the Christian community is very tiny, especially after the departure of the great majority of Christians, at the time of the independence of South Sudan, in 2011. This is a humble mission: with a small number of baptisms; a mission in a predominantly Muslim country where evangelization is not carried out in a direct and traditional way.
In our mission of Nyala, social activities such as health and education are the means through which the Church assures its service in favour of the poorest and neediest of the population. It is a mission of presence and silent witness; a mission without much visibility or spectacle, in quietness; a mission where one cannot expect great personal gratification. These are just a few features of evangelization in these parts of the world, but the first and the highest consideration to bear in mind is that the mission, more than being mine or ours, is God’s, who invites us to broaden our horizon, in a work aimed at eternity.
I said above that I have taken the words of the man of God I met on the way seriously. Yet, as the years go by, I realize that he didn’t tell me the whole truth. Perhaps, he expected me to make that discovery personally.
“Lord, I am here waiting for nothing”. Waiting for nothing? My experience tells me the opposite: instead of expecting nothing, I should expect everything because God is faithful and He does not betray whoever waits for Him or trusts Him. When He found it appropriate, God Himself sent His messenger, who met me near the market of Nyala that afternoon – and from the mouth of someone who was walking erratically – the majnun (insane) – I heard golden words: “I know that you are not a kafir (unbeliever, infidel)”. Here is, in my view, the beginning of any missionary message – when I know who I am before the Creator who waits for my response to the vocation to which He called me.
That meeting, in the street, was a moment of evangelization – real, not virtual. The ‘crazy’ man didn’t speak solely for me. His words, inspired by God and Lord of mission, are comprehensive and inclusive, go beyond the limits of that specific market street, although, at that time, probably, no one understood their truthful and profound sense. It doesn’t surprise me. It would be too much, for now. We shouldn’t rush ahead (skipping stages). Time is of God – and eternity, too. The message is in the air. The seed was sown on the Earth. It won’t die.
Fr. Feliz C. Martins