Sharing the Graces of Reading
"They Come Back Singing"

Ash Wednesday


Kajokeji, Sudan, in Southern Sudan where many returnees and indigenous population live, estimated to be about 182,000.

Students along the road to Kajokeji.











"When I was a child I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt."

Hosea 11:1










Photo by Don Doll, S.J.

"Hundreds of thousands of escaping refugees came south into Uganda. Most had little choice. They could either remain in Sudan and face possible death or they could flee into the uncertain world of the exile."

Gary Smith, S.J.


Two things really struck me as I meditated on the author's notes and introduction. I am at 61, the quite comfortable owner of a used book store and I am a little scared to really ask God what he wants me to do with the last 30 years (I hope) of my life. He certainly seems to be asking me to do something and I think, sometimes at least, I try not to listen.

The second point, and it has been mentioned quite frequently in these comments, is the spirit of gratitude that the refugees show to God's grace. "This prayer was one of gratitude in spite of heart breaking and material deprivations; it was one of gratitude for the simplest of gifts, for being alive and for having escaped the war in Sudan."

I am going to try to make discernment and grateful living the focus of my Lent this year.

Wes, Nakusp, British Columbia

The introduction was just that, and I enjoyed it because it gave a well-rounded background how Fr. Gary came to be in Uganda. He listened to God, and let God take him on this journey which he is able to share with the world. It will be difficult to not read ahead, I will practice patience.

Joe M. Cleveland, Ohio, US

Where is my heart being led. This statement is what keeps running through my mind as I read Father Gary's introductory notes. The grace to follow the leading of the "Spirit" is truly a gift beyond all others. For this I pray constantly. My hope is that during these Lenten sharings, I will find the courage and strength to reach beyond the comforts of my life. Or, at least come to some realization of all the things in my life that I take for granted. I love the introduction to Uganda - I found the facts very informative and helpful in placing the country in my mind.

The enormity of the plight of the refugee presented me with a need to dig deep into my life as it is lived and how I am changed when I read about the lives of these people. The process is so slow.

Ann Z. - Philadelphia, PA, US

One December, when I was still a seminarian, I was sent to a remote farm village in the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. My spiritual director asked me to stay and do nothing but to be with the farmers. I was not to teach, I was not to hold prayer meetings, I was not to proclaim about the Gospel. All I had to do was to live with them for three full months. I went to the place before the start of the Christmas dawn masses, a tradition that we have here in the Philippines where people would wake up very early, before the rooster crows, to attend the daily 4:00 o’clock mass. The dawn masses would start nine days before Christmas. I stayed with a big family of 17 children. Although I have always thought of going to remote areas to do missionary work I was uncomfortable being with a big family and having to share a bed with one of the children. It was Christmas, I was very far away from my home and my family, I was not used to their culture, their food, their almost everything. But I stayed and it was a grace-filled three months for me.

Those three months was a struggle for me to be far away from home with no friends or relatives to speak of. But slowly I saw the goodness of the people. They were very welcoming and hospitable. They were poor but they would share whatever they have. They were proud to share the little that they have with no qualms or signs of sadness. They were poor farmers but they were happy. They have plenty of children but they were happy. They are barely educated but they were happy. They were poor in my eyes and to the rest of the world but they do not show it in their smiling faces.

I began to see God’s ever presence. There can only be one explanation for the happiness that the farmers have - God. Then I began to laugh and smile with the farmers. The struggle was now becoming light. I began to visit some families. I began to initiate talks with the children. The food became much tastier. I joined in their activities, fishing in the swamps, helping out in the preparation for a wedding, hanging out with farmers. I was just filled with wonder of what was happening to me. I was so filled with the spirit after three months. I wrote many things in my journal about those three months. There was a never-ending sharing of stories with fellow seminarians after those three months. Indeed it was God touching my heart to see that God’s presence is everywhere and that joy can be experienced even in the midst of struggle.

Gogo, Archdiocese of Palo, Philippines

I'm having trouble writing down my thoughts after reading the Author Notes and the Introduction. I'm trying to keep it short and concise, ... and apolitical. The Introduction though tells me that the situation is brought about completely because of politics, and nothing but politics. The closer I get to the "deadline" for sharing our thoughts, the more frustrated I feel.

Maybe that is why God brought me to the group, because I can honestly say I don't know how I found it. I was "soul searching" on the internet, looking for a path.
God gave me a path that I can relate to, now I just need to figure out the "why". I'm sure the signs are here, somewhere. I just need to learn to recognize them.

I need to sit back and take in experience Fr. Gary is offering, and try to understand the situation these people are in, and how they deal with it. It seems their faith in God, not other human beings, gets them through each day.

I have comfort in knowing that I am protected by a system of laws, with an effective enforcement mechanism should the laws get broken. These people are protected by laws, but the enforcement is unreliable. As a result their comfort comes from their faith and love of God.

Larry -- San Jose, California
I was hesitant to read a book during Lent about a priest who works in a Sudanese refugee camp. I am a 41 year old stay-at-home mother of 3 from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Wasn't this story just going to throw a light on all the unmet plans I had to solving world peace? There is something very defeating to finding the path to which God is leading me when some priest with no kids, no spouse, and no PTA commitments is flying off to Africa to help refugees. Am I overlooking my missed opportunity?

Then I read, "I was overwhelmed with fear, hope, and gratitude." I was overwhelmed with these emotions a year ago rocking my newborn daughter in the maternity ward of St. Mary's. Not my first child. Not my second child. But my third child. I felt these emotions 6 months ago as my oldest daughter came home from her first day of first grade with a self portrait titled, "Today I am Sad." I felt these emotions last week upon getting my 4-year old son's first progress report, only to find his Kindergarten teacher feels he is progressing well, even if he did take a swipe at her the first month of school.

Perhaps my refugee camp is not across the globe but here in front of me. And as Fr. Gary suggests, perhaps my path will also lead to new gifts, greater trust, and better insights into myself. I'll let you know after today's grocery trip with my sleep-deprived son and toddler daughter - for I, too, " myself in God's hands."
Denise, Whitfishbay, Wisconsin, US

I am been drawn to think about my own faith the people who have been and are part of that faith story...the author speaks of his journey to become a SJ...and all those who helped and directed him. I give thanks for all those who have walked with me to this day.

I recall and remember my family. Especially my parents...both dead now...but who in their way brought me to God. Also the many other friends who are always there for me.

However I am finding that I am too looking very much at my life here in South Africa. I have recently been asked to take on another role. A role which is both daunting and challenging. I am working in the HIV/AIDs ministry.

After three years I have seen alot of pain, alot of struggle, alot of death.I have visted and supported families whose lives have been affected and infected by this virus. I have seen clients who have been rejected by family members, because they have the virus...clients left to die alone...

I too have seen family members carry loved ones to clinic, in a last ditch attempt to seek help. I have seen success stories, where treatment has brought people back to life...

Why do I write this , well its simple when I read what the author says about his time in Uganda and the struggle of the people there, I am connecting with it.

The image which I have held onto all of last week is that of a 'PAIR OF SHOES'. The question...I ask myself can I walk in the shoes of another person. Can I this lent walk with different shoes. part of work here in South Africa is about walking along side those who are living with the virus and with those who are caring for them.

Truth the image of a pair of shoes and walking in the shoes of another daunting and challenging. Truth its abit scary....

As I approach Lent 2008, I am trying to get ready for it...I said that being one of the 50..was a new adventure..its good to see some of the people who are also part of this venture...

So finally prayer is one of asking the God of Wisdom to show the way show how to wear the SHOES

Anita, South Africa

"There was something going on, a movement at the door of my heart. I knew the rhythm and insistence of that knock: God seeking entrance. It was not an agitated movement, but rather one of peace." Gary Smith S.J.

"You are most welcome." Sudanese Refugees

The two statements above touched my heart the most. Here, on the day before Ash Wednesday, I too feel God calling me toward something this Lent. He must be, otherwise, I would not be taking the time to participate in this retreat. Through my human weakness and sinful nature, I often find myself letting earthly obstacles come in between what God wants from me and what I think God wants from me. Fr. Smith has succeeded in answering the Lord's call in an incredible way. As a Jesuit, he has already committed to a life of poverty, yet he makes himself available to the Lord, exposing all his vulnerabilities by putting his faith in God that this call to go to Uganda will create the opportunity to give even more than he already has to those who are in most need of our help. Amazing. If in the same situation, I would probably rationalize ten different excuses on why I shouldn't go to Uganda before giving in to God's true call. I am encouraged by Fr. Smith's faith and hope that through his journey, I may find the courage through my faith to answer God knocking at the door of my heart.
Despite all the suffering and deprivation these refugees are subjected to (physical, mental, financial...) they all seem to find comfort in their faith. Their prayers thank God for the gift of just being alive regardless of the hardships they all deal with. They may be struggling but they manage to find peace and happiness through their faith. I think in our American society it is easy for us to become bitter or jaded when life treats us cruelly. In my own experience I continue to try and accept the suffering in my life as part of my "journey" growing closer to Jesus. I try to accept life's challenges while being able to smile daily no matter what type of day I am having, good or bad, happy or sad and say thank you God for all you do for me. I fail at doing this a lot. In the few pages I have read I can already recognize I need to be more thankful to God for being right where I am at this moment in time. I hope that I can become like the Sudanese in expressing their happiness and thanks to God and to others by saying "you are most welcome". I hope I can succeed in visualizing myself in these camps with Fr. Smith reaching out to those I encounter, truly embracing what God has called us to do, "to love one another" and to imitate Ignatius in his response to God's call, "to give and not to count the cost". I pray God will enable me to give me the grace to respond to His call this Lenten season. AMDG.

Tom D. Cleveland, Ohio USA

In the beginning of Gary's story I was touched by his listening as Ignatius taught. I found I was listening to a true son of Ignatius. Gary spoke to my heart about what it means to be attracted to Jesus in the Gospels and in Eucharist. He was passionate as was Teilhard deChardin about Eucharist. Many years separated the two of them. I have only just begun reading but a part of me yearns to do this kind of ministry. However at 80 I know that I don't have the health for it but using the immagination as taught in the Exercises I can enter the cosmos and send my support to those who minister to the refugees, the homeless, the addicted of this world as well as the children.

I noticed Gary spends time in discerning God's call. I was also touched by the prayer of gratitude of the refugees in spite of heartbreaking personal deprivations. What a gift this Lent is offering. Thank you.

Sr. Margaret, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, US

Fr. Gary’s story of the call that led him to Uganda touched me as I realized that it was one of a series of calls within his vocation as a priest. After years of ministry, he was open to receiving yet another call in a different direction. His story reminds me that God is continually creating us and drawing us to himself. I pray that I may become more attentive to the ways that God calls me and that I will trust, in the author’s words, that “God will disclose what I am to be”.

Celia, Milton, Massechusetts, US
When I read the Introduction, giving the reasons why there are Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, I was ashamed that I had heard about all this over the years, but had failed to "connect" with the story. I've now done more research on the geography of the area--- I always like to "get my bearings"--- and will let myself get immersed in the story that unfolds. It would be easy to feel that these situations of tragedy and heartbreak are too terrible to contemplate, but I can already see that there are also attitudes to admire and to learn from; simply being grateful for being alive is a start!

Jean, Lancaster, England

There is no phone, no water, no road, not toilet facility, no medical facility, no emergency ambulance etc. Obviously there is no computer, no internet, and no newspaper? Can I live here? I am scared. Worse is that people do make an issue of the scene and never make a complaint. In contrast there is life always; lots of singing and dancing; the orphaned are taken care of by the community. I am well taken care of by the refugees. I am hopeful to find God, living God here soon. It was worth travelling all the way from US. I realise that the road map to resurrection is muddy, dirty and narrow. I wonder whether I would be ready to accept this less travelled road as my way of life. Lord walk with me.
Joe Xavier SJ - Bangalore, India

“a long uneven search for the meaning and purpose of my existence”….I envy Fr. Gary. He knows his calling and has responded to it. I will be 56 years old this month and I struggle daily to recognize my real purpose in life. I am a mother with 3 grown children, 2 sons and a daughter who gave me a grandson. My husband has a good job and we are able to support my grandson. The past two years has found me at home 50% of the time, mainly doing household chores and taking care of my grandson. While I enjoy him a lot, oftentimes while watching him play, I’ve asked myself “Is this all there is to my life here on earth?” Right now, I realize that somehow deep down I must resent how I spend my very busy yet seemingly purposeless hours at home. Working as a realtor has purpose, I help to put people in homes. Proclaiming the Word of God in church has purpose, God uses me to touch others with His message.

But….I still await to discover the “unfolding mystery of my life”. I believe nothing is coincidence and that the Lord helped me respond to this commitment to write reflections as I read the book. It could have been any book. The grace is to commit to reflect on what the Lord is saying to me. Actually, I take back what I said about my time at home having no purpose. Since I quit my 40-hour/week job, I have been able to spend more time in prayer. I can’t imagine being able to be involved in reading this book if I were still working as an office administrator.

Therefore, as we approach Lent this year, I pray that the rest of my life be one of “gratitude for the simplest of gifts, for being alive” and for the gift of faith our Lord has so lovingly given me. It is much easier for me to be nice to the less fortunate(in fact, the first three weeks of Lent, I will be in the Philippines organizing and funding a feeding of more than 1000 kids in the slum area near where I lived until 1984). Yet, it is difficult for me to be patient with my own family. May this experience of reading, reflecting and sharing humble me and help me to be a lot more patient with my family.

Menchie - California, USA
I found it thought provoking that, although Fr. Smith had done and was doing work among the marginalized and poor, he recognized his need to do more - at a different level - a different place - He is still on the path which is a "long uneven search for the meaning and purpose of my existence"(p.xiii). This is also true for me as (I feel) for many others.

The brief, concise explanation of the history of the wars in the area and the diversity of the Refugee Camps is appreciated and I'm sure will be beneficial in the future.

Father's description of the people, their joy, varied topics of discussions, and gratitude brings into focus the thought that the more we acquire, the less aware of and even the thought of, true gratitude enters into our lives.

PGR - Green Cove Springs, Florida, US
The happy faces, innocent eyes, position of the children’s hands on the cover of They Come Back Singing haunts me after reading the Author’s Notes and Introduction. Amidst the mystery of human suffering, civil upheaval and instability, the human spirit cannot be suffocated. It is resilient! How can this be? Along with Gary Smith, I now share the call to find God with the refugees. What will it be like? On the one hand, I like to pride myself in saying, “I welcome the experience.” On the other, in the depths of my heart I know that this new invitation could significantly change me. My stomach is queasy as I ask myself, “What am I getting into? Do I really want to walk this path?”

I have never seen or lived in a refugee camp. I have never directly interacted with refugees from East Africa. For some reason God, at this particular time in my life, has connected me with two young women who have been to Uganda. First hand, they have experiences with the refugees. For me, both are a living grace! Through them I feel God nudging me during these days of Lent to enter into uncharted waters, to immerse myself in the mystery of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. I beg God that I may be open to receive whatever God desires as I journey with the refugees.

As I began reading the book, certain phrases jumped off the pages: “. . . . a portrait of refugee hearts. . . . what they gave me. . . . a story of mission . . . . the awareness of the world’s cry for help . . . . challenged to break open the Gospel in a new way . . . . face my strengths and my shortcomings once again . . . . a story about people who taught me the meaning of love.”

Jacquelyn, SND - Ohio, US

It was difficult for me to open They Came Back Singing. I felt that these children were saying something to me and I knew that with their stories and God’s help, this would be the Lent I have always wanted. For me, Lent has always started with a lot of good intentions and fizzled by the third week. Things would pick up during Holy Week but it seemed that I had missed something. Not so this year.

Mary - Joliet, Illinois, US

There were three sentences in the forward of the book that jumped right out at me. “This is not a book about Africa…it is a portrait of refugee hearts.”
“I wanted to be with the poor in a different way.”
“I wrote this to share my story with all who want to attend to and understand the broad and benevolent movements of the heart…”

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit this, but I have never thought of refugees of any kind as having a heart. I’ve seen their terrible plight and anguish in so many different countries and have prayed for them as I watched scenes on the nightly news or in the newspaper, but I never let their situation really touch my heart. I saw their lives as distinctly separate from mine. For several days after reading that first sentence, the awareness that these refugees are fellow human beings has been slowly entering my being. I feel God calling me to “be” with the poor in a different way – to see the poor as He sees them. We are all His children. And He calls me “to attend to and understand the broad and benevolent movements of (my) heart.” I pray that his will happen this Lent.
Rita - Allentown, PA, US

I have always understood Hosea 11:1as “… l will call my Son out of Africa,” not out of Egypt. The distinction is significant for at least three reasons: First, imagine our Savior’s presence in a country populated by a people despised and rejected. Secondly, imagine the spiritual and theological impact of the possibility of Jesus the Christ both living and teaching “those who live in the shadow of darkness.” And thirdly, just imagine the Son of Man abiding with, witnessing to, and unapologetically dying for those of the two-thirds world long before it became evangelically fashionable or politicized. I humbly, yet expectantly begin this Lenten journey knowing I have yet to discover that truth about which I am willing to die, but hopeful that it will be found as we prayerfully reflect upon the “lives of those who came back singing.”

Emmanuel, USA

A couple of things have stuck with me in reading Fr. Smith’s notes and introduction. First, I find myself in the midst of searching for what’s in store for me as I enter the next phase of my life. In seeking employment I know my next job has to be one of service to others, as well as fulfilling and purposeful. I pray for guidance and know in my heart the right job will come along, (though the process can be rather daunting at times).

Second, the expression you are most welcome has stayed with me. Is this not the same invitation we are extended each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist? Is it not the invitation we extend to Jesus to enter our hearts every day and especially this Lenten season? I pray during this retreat that our hearts be opened to the refugee in all of us, our ears attentive to the Lord’s calling, and our voices be heard as we hold in prayer, refugees around the world.

Susan, South Holland, IL, US

Preparation. Preparation is what is on my mind. I need to prepare for Lent. I prepared for writing these reflections by researching Sudan, Uganda, the LRA and Fr. Gary Smith on the internet in order to better understand what is going on in the book. As usual, I tried to intellectualize what is going on and I miss the point of reading or experiencing the book.

I need to slow down and LISTEN. I need to read the selections and ruminate over them. Do not be in a big hurry. As the author relates, I must look at the ceiling and listen for “God’s knock on the door.” I need to find out what “they come back singing means.”

I need to journal and see how the story unfolds. I will begin the journey and journal as I follow my Lenten spiritual path.

Steve in Omaha

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