By GARY SMITH, SJ
LOYOLA PRESS, 2008
Book Review by Marilyn Dunphy
In the 1990s Gary Smith found himself contemplating yet another turn in his life. Smith, a Jesuit priest ministering to prison inmates and homeless people in Portland, Oregon, felt called to something else. The “something” felt like it was radical call, not just a tweaking of his then-current life.
After much discerning and with the approval of his Provincial superiors, Smith, then age 63, left for Uganda in 2000 to work with the Jesuit Refugee Service. He would spend the next six years providing pastoral care and catechetical training to Sudanese refugees.
Smith’s life had already seen at least two major shifts: converting to Catholicism after years of espousing atheism, then entering the Jesuits and being ordained to the priesthood.
“They Come Back Singing” emerges from Smith’s journal of his time working with the Sudanese refugees who fled to northern Uganda to escape the ravages of the civil war in Sudan. Smith describes his book as a “portrait of refugee hearts” and a “story of mission.” It is a deeply moving, elegantly written account of his experience.
Smith is the antithesis of the aloof cleric or the judgmental Westerner. He comes to know and love the people he ministers to and freely acknowledges how he is changed by them. In the face of overwhelming infant, child and maternal mortality as well as violence, he comforts the grieving, provides material assistance and tries to come to grips with his own sense of outrage over such poverty and deprivation. He enters into their suffering without reservation, and the bonds of friendship and affection between priest and people are apparent.
But the book is not a portrait of darkness. Smith captures the resiliency and vibrant spirit of these people as they face continuing hardship. We see how their faith and strong sense of community sustain the refugees. We are invited into celebrations with food, music and dancing, and we marvel at their gratitude and hope for the future. We see young people determined to get an education and women demanding their rightful place in society.
Smith’s sense of humor (often self-deprecating) is evident in this book as is his honesty about his occasional callousness and impatience with the never-ending needs of the refugees. His articulation of his own inner spiritual journey is both inspiring and instructive.
The subtitle of this book is “Finding God with the Refugees,” which is a variation on the Jesuit motto “Finding God in All Things.” In reading this book you will see how both Smith and the refugees find and hold onto God in their situation.
Chances are that after reading it, you will find God anew yourself.