Paul O’Keeffe Visits South Africa

Anna Robinson Friar News

WASHINGTON — Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, was aware of the history of apartheid in South Africa and knew of the country’s inspirational leaders like Nelson Mandela. But to travel to the nation and greet in person a woman who saw her younger brother shot by police forces at the front of a march in Soweto brought the struggle for freedom to life.

“Meeting a person who has lived through these times and is now working for peace helped me understand my own need to work for peace and justice,” he said.

This work for peace and justice brought Paul to South Africa for 15 days in February. As director of Franciscan Mission Service’s Short-Term Mission and Global Awareness Trips, his purpose was to test the organization’s proposed trip to South Africa, to work out travels details for future trips, and to make connections with local people and organizations.

For two weeks, he led a group of five lay people — including an FMS domestic volunteer and an FMS board member — as they toured major areas such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Soweto visiting museums, historical sites, and local churches.

On one of these museum tours, Paul met Antoinette Sithole, a local tour guide at Robben Island. In 1976, Antoinette joined fellow students in the Soweto uprising to protest the government’s imposition of the language “Afrikaans” as a medium of instruction in schools. Antoinette told the group the story of watching her younger brother being shot by government forces in what was intended to be a peaceful protest. Now, the Hector Pieterson Museum, named after Antoinette’s brother, stands just two blocks away from where the event occurred as a memorial to all the children lost in that march.

Meeting people like Antoinette and young adults from a church in the Kanana township reinforced the message of hope and renewal.

“There were many highlights of the trip,” said Paul, who has worked for FMS since January 2012. “But for me the greatest one was having a chance to meet and to get to know so many interesting people from all walks of life. Mine workers, students, the poorest of the poor, as well as those working for change.”

Paul’s trip was similar to one he took last summer to Kenya.

Others will have a chance to meet people like Antoinette on future trips to South Africa through Franciscan Mission Service’s Short-Term Mission and Global Awareness Trips. FMS has been facilitating long-term mission experiences for 20 years. Since not everyone is called to serve for that length of time, short-term trips to South Africa, Kenya and Washington allow others to experience the transformational impact that crossing borders can have on their faith and their understanding of the world.

Following St. Francis’s example, FMS is committed to “treading lightly” in host countries and to approaching the people they meet with respect as listeners and learners, as opposed to seeing the negative aspects of the realities they will face and then trying to find ways to “fix” or make them better.

FMS’ philosophy is based on the popular educational model and the “pastoral circle” approach of “see, reflect, act.” This model asks participants to be observant, to reflect and ask questions as they face puzzling and new realities, and then to consider how this new information will impact their behavior. Such social analysis helps people to better appreciate God’s work and to better discern responsibility as a Christian in building the kingdom of God on earth.

Information is available at

— Anna Robinson is a communications associate for the Franciscan Mission Service.