Answering the Missionary Call in Sudan

As Catholics, we need to rekindle our passion and overcome our fears and connect with our brothers and sisters in war torn and persecuted countries.

Katie Gesto in Africa (Katie Gesto)

Katie Gesto in Africa (Katie Gesto)

By Carrie Gress

The new film, The Heart of Nuba, has sparked conversation about missionary work, particularly in war-torn countries. The film features the rosary-praying doctor, Tom Catena, who has remained in Sudan despite ongoing warfare. It is the story of how one man can make a difference in the lives of so many - even a million.

Dr. Catena is not the only American who has served the Sudanese people. Missionary and nurse practitioner, Katie Gesto, spent several years working with the poorest of the poor -- no matter what their faith -- in South Sudan, in the midst of the threat of war, snakes, scorpions, and the crudest of conditions and often without the most basic of medical supplies.

Katie's journal entry from 2011 captures the threat of war that eventually arrived to the already besieged country:

This is a tense time for Sudan...but not without HOPE. We hear the bomber plane flying over us daily this week on it's way to an area in the south called Abeyei. Please pray for peace to reign in Sudan.

Our area of Nuba Mountains is also in need of prayer as both people running for governor say they won the elections. The man that the Carter Center endorsed as winning fairly is a War Crimes convict. God help us all here.

And he will. He is so present and he reminded me of this on Monday when a little boy came to see me in the clinic. A Muslim orphan, he was hit by a rock in the eye and blinded last year. His guardian didn't even notice he was blind until the teacher made note of it. It was obvious on exam; unable to even see my fingers in front of him.
He now sees, thanks be to God. We prayed and simply asked God to heal him and he, being the marvelous surgeon he is, completely restored his sight. His Arabic name means "Future." It reminded me that God has a good future to see his love here in Sudan, and a great future for each of us--amidst the struggles.

No boats means wading from village to village (Katie Gesto)

No boats means wading from village to village (Katie Gesto)

I spoke with Katie about her time there and how to heed the missionary call.

Gress: What drew you to Sudan? 

Gesto: I did a year or so of short term missionary work and then signed up with MEDAIR, a Swiss based NGO. I heard about Nuba Mountains at their training and the way Christians were being persecuted. I wanted to go there as I have always had a heart for the persecuted Church by reading Voice of the Martyrs magazines.

MEDAIR sent me there for a year to a rural clinic where we started about a 3 days walk from Nuba Mountains. Our goal was to walk to the Nuba Mountains and encourage the Christians. At that time in 1996, there were no NGO's or Church people in Nuba except for Fr. Kozito, an Italian priest who flew in there as much as he could. We never made it there as it was too dangerous to get there by foot.

I then returned to Sudan in 2002 through the Diocese of El Obeid but south of Nuba in Turalei-- the Dinka area. I served from 2002 - 2005 and met Tom Catena in 2004 when in Nairobi. He was there talking to Bishop Gassis about starting a hospital there. I got to know Tom in the next months and though he was so determined, I told him he was too naive to go there. "It's hard, Tom--supplies don't often get there on the planes, it's several thousand dollars for each plane to fly in IV solutions, medicines, etc. You're going to get too frustrated, Tom. You're too nice of a guy and I don't think you can handle the stress."

I'm glad my predictions were wrong! I was the one that couldn't handle it when I went there!

(Katie Gesto)

(Katie Gesto)

Gress: Most Americans are incredibly removed from what is happening in Sudan. "The Heart of Nuba" movie brings it to life. Can you tell us about some of your experiences? Some highs? Some lows?

Gesto: I have chronicled some of my experiences in a journal during that time, but it took awhile for the reality of Sudan to set in. At first, I was really scared of snakes and scorpions and bugs and war prior to that, but knew I had to face those fears--and I did. I looked like an epileptic the first weeks swatting the bugs and flies and screaming like a banshee when snakes were around-- and especially when I killed them! For the scorpions I learned to make antivenom by putting them in olive oil and it really helped people.

The stress of the animals and war lessens when you see the joy on the face of the people whom you have helped save their child's life from pneumonia or cerebral malaria or meningitis. It makes it all worth it when you see God do a miracle and lets a blind boy see or a dying person live.

I was one of the wimps Dr. Tom spoke about who left Sudan when the war started. Maybe I was wrong in loving my life more than the Nuba people, but also I don't think God was calling me to stay there long term. I just couldn't do it alone. I needed community there and although the Cambonis were so welcoming and wonderful-- Sr. Angeline, Sr. Rosio in the movie -- who were there at that time, I was still alone most the time.

There in the Nuba I was able to reach out to some of those with leprosy, but I did most of my work with lepers in the surrounding areas of the Nuba in Turalei and Aburoc. I love them.

Gress: What would you say to someone who feels a missionary call?

Gesto: GO FOR IT! JUMP IN! Young or old, start with a short term mission for a few weeks or months, then see how God is leading and try to do a year so you can get to know the people and community better.

Pray for leading and guidance as to where to go and no matter how hard it is, go. Try to connect with a religious order or mission group the first few times to get the lay of the land and to have some community.

As Catholics, we need to rekindle our passion and overcome our fears and connect with our brothers and sisters in war torn and persecuted countries. Their example and heroic life will change our walk with the Lord and inspire us to live more like the one who lives heroically through them day after day.

We need more Catholics to serve in Muslim countries--the Holy Spirit is touching the lives of so many Muslims these days that they are the fastest converting people group in the world. They are having visions of Jesus even during Ramadan at Mecca. God is doing great things in the world and if we Catholics would become more aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing, like in this movie, we would not find it hard to walk more boldly and authentically in our Catholic faith.

Even for those who don't feel called to be missionaries in far away countries, I would encourage you to get involved with a Catholic community or missionary serving abroad. Write to them, sponsor them and mostly pray for them!

Katie with Linda, with first spot of leprosy on her arm (Katie Gesto)

Katie with Linda, with first spot of leprosy on her arm (Katie Gesto)