I was in prison and you visited me…

Light in prison

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter writes from Kisangani where he and other SCJs spent the first Sunday of Advent in a Kisangani prison, sharing the Eucharist with prisoners. 

Sunday, Dec. 30
1st Sunday of Advent

We celebrated mass this morning in the Kisangani prison. A thousand inmates are crowded into a facility meant for 300. Most were young men, whose crimes I never actually learned about. We were here to pray with them as our brothers in need. We tried to bring hope and light in a difficult place where it is needed the most.

The brick walls and barracks enclosed a dirt courtyard. Those attending mass crammed into a picnic  pavilion type structure in the middle of the yard. Parts of it were covered with patches of corrugated iron for shade from the merciless sun. One man sat on the roof looking down. I thought of the paralyzed man who watched Jesus from the roof and had to be lowered down, and that gospel passage came alive for me in a new way.

I scanned the crowd to see faces with scars and bruises from a rough life. Despite the bleak surroundings, once the drum beat began, and inmates started singing in soaring harmonies, I felt a tangible sense of God’s spirit. The opening song was in the Lingala language, but one repeated word stood out among the rest – Emmanuel! Advent has begun, and in this time and place we yearn and pray for a Savior, go to be with us. Advent counsels patience when we want instant solutions, hope when we are ready to give up or give in. O come o come Emmanuel.

prayer prisonJohn Pierre, one of our young Congolese confreres, presided and preached. I didn’t understand the words, but watched the faces and nonverbal interaction of the prisoners. They nodded. They laughed. They looked inside and reflected as he connected with the realities of their struggles. We all hope to hear the Word of God in that way.

From that crowded and hectic setting we moved to a more peaceful one: the convent of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters. The four members of their house were a mini League of Nations from Congo, India, Peru and Poland. They serve 1,300 girls who attend school next door. Besides academics the school offers courses in commerce and tailoring. If the girls can learn trades they can earn some money doing them even before they finish school.

As we talked over lunch, Fr. Marek asked them where they would hope to see their community in 15 years. They hope not only to serve local needs but to raise up local vocations who themselves have the needs of the larger world in mind. Perhaps the younger generation here might themselves be willing to one day be sent in mission.

In the evening another group of sisters invited us to their table. Jamaa Tatikufu, Sisters of the Holy Family, are a diocesan order, founded here in Kisangani. Sitting in chairs circled around the lawn we shared what kind of ministry each of us is involved in. We spoke of religious life, vocations, and the pastoral challenges each of our countries face. I admire the faith, charity and hard work of those serving the church through both evangelization and development.

Last evening, with the start of Advent, the church began celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life. Between the table fellowship and sharing with these two groups of Religious Women, what a wonderful way to kick off the year.


Monday, December 1 

I changed my domicile last night to the Monsignor Grison Center. Fr. Kiki, the director, wanted me to experience life here for a few days. Still in Kisangani, it lies more on the outskirts, on the banks of the Congo River. The setting is more peaceful, and as I look onto the river I can see ancient tree trunk pirogues taking villagers floating past downriver. Rather than the hustle and bustle of urban life around us, last night I drifted off to sleep to the chorus of frogs.

Part of the year the center is dedicated to retreats, as spiritual development is essential in renewing and revitalizing any church. When the war destroyed so much infrastructure there were really no other centers that could host spiritual searchers. It’s a needed and appreciated service to God’s people.

Other times of the year the center rents out rooms to civic groups for conferences and meetings. Again, there are few other places in the city that can offer such space. The rental income helps make the center pay its bills as it goes. Two SCJ priests and two interning seminarians oversee the operation. Another two priests serve the needs of St. Gabriel parish next door. It is the first and oldest parish established in the area.

Fr. Zenon, provincial superior of Congo

Fr. Zenon, provincial superior of Congo

Fr. Zenon invited his provincial council and staff to have a wrap-up meeting with us. They laid out their overall vision for programs and building projects they dream about developing. Boldest is to build a new school to serve the needs of the abandoned children who come through the St. Laurent Center that would also serve the needs of that area of the city as it grows in that direction. Fr. Jonas, the provincial treasurer, was able to clearly break down the costs of each project. The small amounts they are able to raise locally , coupled with the amount of grants that might come in from other provinces, will determine whether these projects can happen sooner or remain but a distant dream. But the young and growing province is not afraid to dream big as its members try to meet the many social and spiritual needs of the areas entrusted to them.

The afternoon brought some free time. Fr. Apollinaire Mutima, SCJ, is the associate at st. Gabriel Mission. He is also studying in a field not usually associated with theology: forestry and agronomics. His last “field” placement was in the forests downriver where he learned about sustainability and trees. The jungle/forest has incredibly rich biodiversity, but the ecosystem is fragile and subject to abuse. We are stewards of the earth we inherit, and want to pass it on to the next generation in better shape than we found it. But that will take much work and conscious effort.

In the evening 27 area SCJs gathered for a farewell supper. We’ve been hosted and shown around by many of them individually, but it was nice to have everyone together at the provincial house. Tomorrow we travel back to the capitol, Kinshasa, so tonight was a time to exchange laughter, stories and email addresses, and wonder when we might next meet again.

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