This afternoon I was at Oliji, a village of Madi-speaking Catholics next to the Nile led by a well-organized young catechist named Andruga. The liturgy was under a tree again, since part of the chapel roof burned down when leaders tried to smoke out a colony of termites.
A large and enthusiastic crowd—maybe three hundred people—greeted me as I pulled in to the village an hour before Mass. I heard confessions, not understanding much but able to absolve in Madi. Midway through the confessions, which took place under the chapel tree, a powerful thunderstorm blew through, forcing us to continue under a section of the chapel roof that was still intact.
Because of security issues on the roads after dark, I needed to start the vigil at 4:00 p.m., which took the punch out of the Service of Light. But adjustment is easy for people who adjust all the time. There were thirty-one baptisms. By the time I was through anointing all the little heads and chests, three-quarters of the babies were screaming. The people loved it, though, and at the conclusion of the ceremony everyone applauded and the women ululated and the choir unleashed some wonderful music. Like a speeding locomotive, we blazed into the Easter Gloria.
After Mass, Andruga and I, with many of the women, walked to the edge of the village to visit a sick woman named Lucietta. Andruga wanted me to anoint her and give her communion. The women assisted her out of her hut to a mat underneath a tree, formed a circle around her, and sang and prayed: Oliji's cloud of witnesses. Lucietta probably weighed about eighty pounds, and in her serene and welcoming face I could detect a hint of a Parkinson's-like tremor. She looked old but did not know her age. She remained silent throughout the ceremony, a ritual with which she was familiar, having many times before been part of the circle.
After the women finished, I knelt in front of Lucietta and anointed her hands and head, then gave her communion. I carefully took her beautiful, tremulous face in my hands, tilting her head so that she could look into my eyes, and blessed her. In such a moment, when the near-death anointed one looks at me, everything I have ever studied about sacraments of encounter becomes clear. I rested silently before an obvious and splendid truth: this touch was an encounter with the heart of God.
She asked me in Madi, “What is your name?”
I responded in Madi, “My name is Gary, Abuna Gary.”
She peered into my face, smiled, and exclaimed, “This is a Madi name!” (There is a Madi word, gaari, that means “bicycle.”) Then she slowly said, “Abuna Gaari” and laughed. I laughed. The cloud of witnesses laughed.
We left her sitting prayerfully on her mat and headed for the pickup—Andruga, those wonderful women, and me, Father Bicycle. Later, driving on the bumpy road toward Adjumani, dusk settling in, I commented to Ratib that if I was going to fight for God, all I wanted backing me up were the women of Oliji, armed with the most powerful of weapons: their prayer. Ratib, a Madi and a Muslim, nodded reflectively and said, “A good choice, Father, a good choice.”
This is an excerpt from Gary Smith's, They Come Back Singing.