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Reflection: Mission in South Africa

George Camacho at St. Francis Care Centre in South Africa

Author George Camacho, on right, at St. Francis Care Centre in Boksburg. (Photo courtesy of George)

Earlier this summer, three friars in post-novitiate formation traveled to Africa to experience mission work first-hand. One friar spent his time in South Africa, working with friars from Our Lady Queen of Peace Province. He describes his experience below.

When the opportunity for a six-week mission experience was presented to the post-novitiate formation students earlier this year, I was intrigued by the possibility of traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa. I saw it as an opportunity to experience Franciscan life within a different culture, as well as to enhance my own discernment.

At the end of May, I arrived in my new home. I left the balmy humid summer of Washington, D.C., for the penetrating cold of Johannesburg in winter. Temperatures in the evening averaged around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. In the daytime, the temperature usually managed to climb to the 40s or 50s, but only if one stood in the sunlight.

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At St. Anthony’s Education Centre in Reiger Park (Photo courtesy of George)

A Myriad of Ministries
I worked in two locations. First, St. Francis Care Centre in Boksburg is a complex that includes an orphanage and hospice care for destitute patients with AIDS and other terminal illnesses, along with outreach services providing HIV testing, counseling, education, and resources for treatment. My participation consisted mainly of room visits and pastoral conversations.

I also provided assistance at St. Anthony’s Education Centre in Reiger Park. The center includes a skills training program in which students pursue various trades, including plumbing, motor mechanics, upholstery, carpentry, welding, and bookkeeping. These students also take part in a compulsory life skills module. Topics include interviewing strategies, job research, resume writing, workplace protocol, self-awareness, teamwork, and the like. I sat in on classes, assisted the dedicated instructor, and even taught some lessons myself. It was a powerful learning experience.

Moreover, I learned that the Franciscan charism and spirit is truly not limited to consecrated religious. The relatively small lay staff begins each day with a prayer and then proceeds to tackle any number of challenges and crises, including helping students secure financing, avoid suspension, and even manage family conflicts. Seeing the personnel in action was inspiring considering the limited resources and support systems at their disposal, at least compared with what I am accustomed to in the U.S.

Sunset in Kruger National Park. (Photo courtesy of George)

Sunset in Kruger National Park. (Photo courtesy of George)

A Universal Franciscan Charism
In addition to ministry, I was able to visit various parts of the country beyond Johannesburg, including Cape Town, Durban, and Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves on the African continent. In Cape Town, I experienced a laid-back and jovial population, along with its European-influenced architecture and lush landscapes. Durban is a city of perpetual warmth in which I was able to swim in the Indian Ocean. Finally, in Kruger I felt the majesty of being up close to lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants, rhinos, and other wild animals in their natural habitat. I have never seen such vibrant sunsets or star-filled skies. No nature special on television could possibly compete.

Regardless of the setting, I consistently found South African people to be friendly, engaging, and hospitable. When I met new people and they realized I was a foreigner, the response I received was generally some version of the following: “Brother, welcome to South Africa. We hope you love it here.” Furthermore, I experienced a people still healing from the damaging effects of the apartheid regime and striving to look beyond the color barriers previously set up to arbitrarily oppress certain groups and privilege others. I also met numerous families attempting to provide adequate education for their children while enriching their respective communities with their generosity and sense of values.

In conclusion, although I now have firsthand experience of the universal reality of the Franciscan Order, I realize that all friars remain a product of their respective cultures, upbringing, and perspective on the world. Earning one another’s respect, particularly when living in the same community is an inevitable struggle, and friendship is no guarantee. Still, God’s grace works in mysterious ways.

Being at the mercy of others during most of my stay made me realize that there are good people everywhere, irrespective of their affiliation with the Church or their closeness to the friars. I return to the U.S. with a sense of nostalgia for the warmth of the good people I met and worked with. However, I also return with greater appreciation for the security and opportunity available in the U.S., as well as with immense gratitude for the openness and generosity of the friars of Holy Name Province. I pray that the South African people continue to come closer to achieving the prosperity and sense of accomplishment of which all of God’s people are worthy.

Br. George, a native of New York City, is part of the Province’s post-novitiate formation program. He and other friars in the formation program are currently on a mission trip in Nicaragua with a group of parishioners from St. Camillus Parish, Silver Spring, Md.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, holy day or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org.

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