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Aiding a Defensive Sudan

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Interview With Missionary Katie Gesto

WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 30, 2007 (Zenit) - Three foreigners have been given orders to leave Sudan in less than a week, and according to a missionary working in the country, aid workers are periodically threatened with expulsion by the government.

Paul Barker, country director of CARE, told Reuters today that the Sudanese government's Humanitarian Aid Commission had given him 72 hours to leave the country. Although no official reason was given for the expulsion, Barker speculated to the press that it has to do with an internal e-mail he sent to CARE staff on the situation in Sudan, which was later leaked to the press.

In this interview with us, Katie Gesto says that cases like Barker's are anything but uncommon. She discusses her 10 years of missionary service in the African country as a nurse practitioner and consecrated virgin, and the challenges all aid workers face in Sudan.

Q: What is your reaction to the expulsion of the country director of CARE from Sudan?

Gesto: I am not surprised about the expulsion, as I've had many colleagues, myself included, threatened with the same. Nongovernmental organizations like CARE are suppose to be neutral, but when it comes to keeping their people secure, it can easily appear that they have lost their neutral stance.

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Aid workers know the real nitty-gritty as they are living there and see with their own eyes, but if you publicly -- and e-mail is considered public these days -- declare your opinion, even though factual and true, it's common knowledge that you can get thrown out of the country.

My friend almost got classified as a persona non-grata -- PNG -- for allowing a sick Dinka on a plane leaving Sudan rather than a less sick Shilluk man; because she was in Shilluk territory. They said she was being tribal and put her under house arrest for a month and threatened to declare her a PNG.

It's not so complicated really; you have to know the volatile emotional situation all leaders are living in, and so they can react to remarks that others would think are not very significant.

Q: You have been working as a missionary in Sudan. What drew you to perhaps the most dangerous missionary territory in the world?

Gesto: Ever since grade school, I listened attentively at Mass to the stories of missionary priests and sisters. God gave me the desire to be a missionary even at that early age.

During my college years, I was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and as a Catholic, built great friendships with students going on missions to Russia and other difficult countries.

It was then that God burned in my heart a desire to serve our brothers in persecuted countries. Certainly Sudan is on that list.

I know I can't do much alone, but when God calls, he does the work. In this beautiful work, he makes his love felt.

Q: Your work, as a nurse practitioner and a consecrated woman, was relatively independent of support from a specific group. How did you manage, both with regard to safety and basic necessities?

Gesto: The bottom line for me -- for any of us -- is "God, what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to serve?"

After getting a good sense for the country by serving as a nurse with a relief organization, Medair, I felt God wanted me to serve a bishop directly since the bishops know what the real needs of their people are.

I then contacted a Catholic bishop in Sudan and offered myself, telling him: "I'll find five volunteers, we'll raise our own money and come serve wherever you see fit."

Well, two years passed while completing my masters and I didn't find anyone, so I went in faith and served in that diocese for two years with two Ugandan priests and some sisters who were nearby.

I was very happy and grew tremendously both spiritually and from the experience with the people.

Q: While in Africa, you discerned your vocation. What was your general experience of prayer in this dangerous desert, especially at times when you feared for your life?

Gesto: I have grown tremendously since starting my service to Sudan in 1996. It is a blessing to be in a place where one never knows if they will return home.

I was prepared for this by my many years of hospice service and as far as I can tell, I am willing to die today if God wills it. As my friend who is a missionary in Somalia says, "I just hope they know how to shoot well."

One time when I was told a commander wanted to kill me because I told the bishop that I suspected him of something dishonest, it did make me nervous.

A possessed man, however, who had speared a few people in our village and who didn't like me made me even more nervous since he lived next door to the house where I slept alone. But after a few days of restless nights I said, "Enough of that! Jesus, you are more powerful than those forces! Give me the grace to let you have those fears."

For the most part these threats didn't bother me too much after that, particularly once the crazy man moved far way and the commander cooled down!

But the willingness to die for our faith is a grace we can all pray for and receive. For most of us, it won't happen physically, but for all of us it will happen spiritually if we want to grow to be like Jesus who was martyred.

I was able to hear clearly my call to be a consecrated virgin when I was in Sudan because of the lack of distractions there -- it's only me and the Lord.

I could see that God allowed me to spend extra time with him in prayer, and to be free to be sent wherever he leads and to develop a deep spousal relationship with him.

Q: What did you find to be the most pressing need among the Sudanese people?

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Gesto: Unity, learning how to respect each other, and healing from the past trauma.

The more than four-decade-long war has broken down good cultural values and the sense of dignity as persons. People have learned to often just fend for themselves, which has opened the door to corruption, tribal fighting, witchcraft and other detrimental things.

When, through the Gospel, they learn to care for each other in simple ways, they begin to heal and also want to educate their kids -- particularly their girls who are so in need of education.

As this process continues, they will then hopefully work as a community to build the Church and culture and economically provide for each other.

Q: Upon returning to the United States after your time in Africa, what is most difficult in your transition back to everyday life?

Gesto: Time. Everyone is in such a hurry and worried about such petty things. There is a lack of simplicity evidenced by constant spending of money on useless things.

People don't seem to have time for talking, laughing, or "being." I have to watch myself to keep from getting swept into this rat race.

All these distractions seep inside me and I have to work at creating an environment that supports interior silence so that I can "be" with Jesus -- a much easier challenge in Africa!


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Sudan, Gesto, Care, War, Hunger, Solidarity, Africa

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