by Fr. Patrick Santiañez, s.x. –
“You will be a gift to the ‘young church’ of the Diocese of Makeni in Sierra Leone”. These were the words spoken by one of the well-wishers during my sending-off party before leaving the Philippines for Sierra Leone. As I’m writing this article, these words re-echo in my mind, strengthening my conviction that Religious are truly a blessing/gift to the community. By blessing/grace I mean, in this context, God’s loving presence to us. With this article, I would like to share how I look at my presence and my life as a consecrated man: I consider myself a gift to the Christian communities and to the Xaverian communities of Sierra Leone.
I came to Sierra Leone on the night of June 23rd, 2008, not as an ordained priest. At the time I had just completed my Theology studies. I realized, with some anguish, that this was going to be the first of many future departures. I was sad to leave families and friends, but I also experienced a deep joy in knowing that I was being welcomed to another home: Sierra Leone, and to another family, my new family: the Xaverians working there.
God’s loving presence in the times of Ebola
When, towards the end of July 2014, the Ebola outbreak reached Makeni City, in the Northern part of Sierra Leone, some of my relatives, friends and confreres too, from other parts of the world, asked me about the situation; some were worried and suggested that I should go to a safer place.
The first time I learned about this virus was in January 2014. At that time I was not very worried because I thought this was one of the many short-lived viruses. Unfortunately, that was not the case: at the time of writing, the virus has already killed over 1, 000 people.
The first Ebola victim who passed away here in Makeni City was a member of the St. Conforti Parish, where I am currently working as assistant priest.
When I heard that an Ebola case was just around the corner, I began to panic to the point of having an upset stomach for some days, and sleepless nights for almost a month. I dreaded catching the deadly virus. Sharing information among confreres helped us to grow in the knowledge of the illness. Openness to others’ feelings, even negative ones, such as fear and anxiety, helped our community to cope with the concern and uncertainty that we were all experiencing. This time of crisis has become a golden opportunity for our Xaverian communities to foster friendship and mutual trust, seeking a solution to it together.
The joyous fraternity among us, especially at the Religious House, helped me to come out of my “nest” and find the courage to reach out to people who were in quarantine.
My first encounter with possible Ebola patients was on 17th August 2014. I remember the day very clearly because, for the first time in my life, I had to take a shower with Dettol disinfectant after visiting quarantined houses.
The first visit was a dreadful experience for me. Here is what I wrote in my journal on that day: “There are 12 people still alive and 13 were thought to have died of Ebola. People inside the house have been sleeping on the bare ground and only today did they received mattresses. Soldiers and policemen armed with guns were there to ensure that people stay in their respective houses. I had the chance to talk to one member of the family who is in quarantine (for the sake of prudence, the conversation was done from a distance). He was traumatized by the situation because 13 of the victims were all relatives of his. He was crying as he told me that some of his relatives were taken by medical personnel to the treatment center and never returned. They died of Ebola. Some members died in the house without medical confirmation of whether they died of Ebola or not. He strongly believes that they died, not of Ebola, but of hunger. Three days ago, a two-year old boy also died and they buried him on the following day. The lack of food and clean drinking water adds more tension to the families in quarantine. This man believed that some of his relatives could have been saved if food had been available. Their neighbors did not allow them to draw water from the wells because they were afraid that they could contract the dreadful disease. They are depending on rain-water, or on some generous friends who give them water to drink and to bathe.” Out of twelve people who were still alive during my visit, only five survived: three children, one grandmother and one man. They are all safe now.
This time of crisis can become a time of “grace” when we become instruments of God’s love to all, not only as individuals but, even more so, as a community. Fr. Jerome Pistoni and I visited the families of the Parish who were in quarantine. The purpose of our visit was not to distribute assistance straightaway, but to pray with them, find out how they were doing and ask them about what they had received from the government and NGOs, in order to identify their real needs. We were able to involve the St. Conforti’s parishioners to help their suffering brothers and sisters in quarantine. A time of crisis like this one calls for mutual help, setting aside our natural selfishness in order to become more altruistic. It is a time to show a love that is stronger than the Ebola virus. Our parishioners have showed their “nearness” to those in quarantine by donating money, bags of rice, salt, onions, sugar, condiments, charcoal and fruit. With these contributions our parishioners have become “partners with God” in consoling sick people.
I was asked many times why I remain here. My reason for remaining here in Sierra Leone is to be with our people, to continue to give them hope and to assure them that their fears and tears are just ephemeral. At a time when some Religious men, and almost all the NGO workers, began to leave the country, a parishioner came to me and begged me not to leave. She told me, “Father your presence gives us the hope that things will be soon be better.” On another occasion, when I visited one of the quarantined houses, a bystander said to the man in quarantine, “the poroto (white man) is still here, so it is still okay.” My presence in Sierra Leone does not cure the sick people, it does not make the dead come back to life, but it is a simple and humble offer of hope and love.
We consecrated people are considered by our people as a gift or grace to their communities. We are the answer to their lonely prayer. To them we are angels sent by God. Our challenge is not to disappoint them and, above all, not to disappoint Jesus, who called us to this service.
We can consider ourselves as gifts to our Congregation and to our respective communities in Sierra Leone. My confreres, who are my friends in the Lord, are the recipients of our “apostolate.” Someone has said that the members of our communities are our first apostolate. How strange it would be to feed the beggar at our door, and neglect the confreres who live in the same house with me. I have the right to consider myself as a gift to my confreres, just as they are a gift to me.
May this Year of the Consecrated Life be an opportunity to remind ourselves that we are a gift to one another. One famous Tagalog song goes: “Walang sinuman ang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang”: “nobody lives for himself alone” or, in the words of Thomas Merton, “No Man Is an Island”!