Tag Archives: Swaziland

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Fortunate

You shall bear no hatred for your brother or sister in your heart….Take no revenge and cherish no grudge…                                                                                                                               ~Leviticus 19:17-18

On my first trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, I met a girl named Fortunate. She was twelve years old and I couldn’t decide if her name was apt or not.

She had grown up in a homestead in rural Swaziland with no running water or electricity. She, her parents and her five siblings had lived in a one-room hut until both of her parents died from AIDS.blessing-forgiveness-love

After that, she and her siblings moved to St. Philips’ Mission where she lived in a large dormitory with fifty-some other girls.

The Mission provided food, clothing and education. There was electricity, running water and flush toilets. All good things. But losing her parents and leaving her homestead must have been incredibly difficult.

Fortunate was curious and bold enough to ask questions. She had a trusting nature and a beautiful smile; she stole my heart.blessing-forgiveness-love

I wonder what happened to her since I last saw her in 2005.

Fortunate came to mind on the feast of St. Josephine Bakihta last week.

Josephine Bakihta grew up in Sudan and was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. Her kidnappers gave her the name Bakihta, which means Fortunate.

After being sold and traded a number of times, Bakihta eventually ended up in Italy. Her owners once left her temporarily with the Canossian Sisters, and while with the Sisters, Bakihta had a religious conversion and decided to stay there. Italian law allowed her to secure her freedom, which she did. She converted to Catholicism, took the name Josephine and eventually became a Sister.

Was she fortunate? She had been taken from her homeland and endured years of abuse and mistreatment as a slave. But, in the end, she overcame these tragedies and, by all accounts, had a blessed life.

In her own words: If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today… The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!blessing-forgiveness-love

Despite her horrible history, Josephine Bakhita became a loving, forgiving person.

She inspires me. Here was a woman who had every reason to be bitter and vengeful. She had lost so much and endured terrible suffering. Yet she chose to overcome her history. She chose to love, forgive and look for the blessing.
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I wonder if my Swaziland Fortunate was able to face her history and rise above it. Was she able to find blessings in the hand she had been dealt?

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Not everyone has such dramatic histories to overcome, but I believe most of us have something in our past that we need to overcome, some person we need to forgive or some event we are invited to rise above. Only then will we be at peace.

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Five simple rules to be happy

My friend Jim kept a small slip of paper taped to the shelf above his desk, with six typed lines:

Remember the five simple rules to be happy.

  1. Free your heart from hatred.
  2. Free your mind from worries.
  3. Live simply.
  4. Give more.
  5. Expect less.

I don’t know if he consciously read these rules every day, but that would probably be a good way to start the day.

I, though, would add a sixth rule: be grateful.

Gratitude is the path to contentment for me, and contentment is the foundation for happiness. When I focus on what I have and am grateful for it—no matter how meager it might be—my expectations are automatically lowered and I can see that I actually have quite a lot. When I pay more attention to what is rather than what isn’t, I see how abundantly God has blessed me.

Living in gratitude has been my prayer for as long as I can remember.

Before receiving communion at Mass, I pray, Lord, help me to be grateful. Being able to freely practice my faith and to receive nourishment from my church and the sacraments is a starting point for a litany of gratitude for all I have—and prayers for those who have less.

Many different factors have helped move me along the path to living in gratitude, especially the opportunities I have had to travel to communities where people have fewer material goods than I have.

One memory that stands out for me is from a trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, when I was the director of a lay mission program. St. Phillip’s Mission has a medical clinic and on one of my visits, I was standing near the clinic when a man came walking out of the surrounding bush.

Swaziland bush

On his back, he was carrying his brother, a grown man so weak he could not walk. I had only once before seen someone so emaciated, and seeing these two men emerge from the bush brought back memories of my Uncle Steve just before he died from stomach cancer many years earlier.

I don’t know how far this man had walked through the bush with his brother on his back, but the nearest homestead was probably a mile away. His search for medicine for his dying brother painted a compelling picture. His love and dedication were obvious and poignant. In what seemed a hopeless situation, this man still held hope that someone could help his brother. Tears filled my eyes, and I prayed for these two men, even as I could see that the brother was near death.

Fortunately, the clinic was able to help the brother, and on my return visit a year later, I saw this man who had been emaciated almost to the point of death, now standing strong and healthy—and joyously grateful for the help he had received at the clinic.

How can I not thank God for this miracle and all my blessings!

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An Independence Day reflection

Some years ago, when I was working for a congregation of Catholic sisters, I visited their mission in Swaziland, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Swaziland is ruled by a king who has been known to make Parade Magazine’s list of “world’s worst dictators.”

St. Philip’s Mission is far removed from any city and most of the nearby homesteads had no running water or electricity. Rural Swaziland only began to get pit toilets in the 1990’s. St. Philip’s has a school, medical clinic, and orphanage that houses 130 children whose parents died from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, or other diseases that are all too common in the region.

I had gotten to know some of the children in the orphanage during previous visits, and a girl named Fortunate was one of my favorites. She was 11 years old at the time of this particular visit, and she had a sincerity about her that touched me deeply. Fortunate was one of five children in her family, and all of them had come to the mission to live after their mother died.

One day in the yard near the orphanage, Fortunate and a friend approached me, and Fortunate asked, “Please sing your country’s national anthem for us.” I am not a good singer, so her request caused me a bit of panic. “Why don’t you sing your country’s national anthem for me first,” I replied, “and then I will sing mine.” I was hoping to buy some time and make my escape before I actually had to sing.

Fortunate’s friend moved to her side; they threw back their shoulders, stood tall, and began to sing the national anthem of Swaziland. As soon as the sound of their voices filled the air, other children ran to join them. Each child assumed a similar stance, shoulders back, head high, standing straight. More and more joined in the singing of the anthem — until there was a large choir making beautiful music. I was stunned that children from such an isolated, backwoods area not only knew their national anthem, but showed such respect and pride while singing it.

I wondered if I could go to any school in the United States and find children so eager and proud to sing our national anthem. Could I find this many children in any one place in the States who would even know all the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? But there in rural Swaziland were children who had lost their parents and homes, who had no possessions, and whose king cared very little about them, and yet they were so proud to be Swazis and to sing about their homeland.

When they finished, Fortunate again asked me to sing my national anthem. I could not refuse and asked a fellow visitor to join me. We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, at the end, I spontaneously did a fist-pump and hooted. I then explained to the Swazi children that I only sing our national anthem at sporting events and always cheer at the end of it. They laughed, but I nearly cried.