Nick was part of a National Council of Churches in Australia-Christian World Service delegation to Sudan. Now the bishop is on a pastoral visit to Sudanese communities around Australia. Nick spoke to him in Adelaide.
BISHOP Joseph Gasi believes God wants to feed the hungry people of the world. “But the only way God can do it is to touch the hearts of his people,” he said.
“There’s so much food here in Australia. Just the leftovers here are so much!
“The Lord is saying he wants you to help those who are crying out for food. Be generous!
“Give to the Lord through the hungry children.”
Bishop Gasi’s diocese was devastated in the long years of war between the Arab, Muslim North and the African, mainly Christian South. Much of it was destroyed.
Now refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries and displaced people who had hidden in the forest are coming back home.
“More than half our people fled from the shooting and the bombing,” he said.
About 45,000 refugees and displaced people have returned to his diocese.
“They’re coming back, very sickly, very weak,” he said.
“Food is priority number one.
“When the people arrive the UN gives them food for about a week – a bag of grain, some beans and some vegetable oil. But if a family has many children, that little bag of grain doesn’t go far.
“So people turn to the church. They think the bishop is able to help them because they believe the church in other parts of the world is sending help. But that isn’t always the case.
“‘Bishop, we need food,’ they say to me. ‘Give us food.’
“I wish I could work the Lord’s miracle and multiply the loaves and fishes!
“We need maize – some people call it corn. We need ground nuts – peanuts – and beans and flour. We could buy them, if we had the money.
“Medicine is the second priority. And they need clothes.”
Bishop Gasi is particularly worried about the children.
“We have hundreds of orphans, whose families have been killed in the long war,” he said.
“HIV-AIDS is becoming a pandemic in our area.
“Many young people are dying and leaving their small children to the grandparents. But they’re not able to cultivate and produce enough food for these children.
“Some of these children are left at the door of the church. So we take care of them.
“The Lord himself said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat’.”
The diocese has a centre for AIDS victims as well as providing food and shelter for the orphans.
“We also need food for the mind,” he said. “We need education, not only in our diocese but in the whole of Southern Sudan.
“Most of the children study under trees. There are no classrooms, no books, no desks, no benches, no stationery.
“The teachers write in the dust. But, if the wind comes, the writing is blown away. And the children can’t take what’s written in the sand home to study.”
Bishop Gasi has sent some of the brightest children to school in Uganda. Some are now coming home as nurses and teachers.
The whole of Southern Sudan needs help.
“We’ve come to thank Australian Christians,” he said. “You’ve taken many refugees.
“You’ve accompanied us through very difficult times. We’ve seen many years of death, devastation, poverty, hunger, destitution, persecution, oppression.
“We’ve been through these hardships. We knew there were other Christians who were supporting us with their prayers. We didn’t feel alone. That was a comfort.
“At last, after the long years of suffering, the Lord listened to their prayers, and our humble prayers, to give us peace.
“Now we have relative peace.
“You’ve accompanied us so far. OK.
“The next point is, please continue not only to pray but to use your influence with the Australian Government and the international community that the people of Sudan may live that spirit of peace.
“We must realise that problems between peoples can be sorted out not with violence but with love, understanding and mutual forgiveness.
“We’re pleading with you to see how you can help and support us so that the peace can be strengthened through the reconciliation process.”
Bishop Gasi didn’t comment on the political situation.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North Sudan (the Government of the Republic of The Sudan) and Southern Sudan (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) was signed in January 2005.
But there is still some violence. Southern Sudanese are being attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Some political commentators say the Government of Sudan is arming the LRA as well as the
Janjaweed militias, which are causing havoc in Darfur, in the west.
Bishop Gasi spoke about how the LRA sacked his house last year.
“After we went to bed we heard guns and explosions. The noise came closer. They opened fire all over the place.
“Around midnight they arrived at the bishop’s house. They broke down the gates. They knocked at my front door. I didn’t respond. They came round the back and banged at it.
“I wanted to go to the door, but the Spirit said, ‘No. Stay lying here. You don’t know what they’ll be doing. They might shoot you.’
“They broke the door of the little room next to mine with axes, and took away our radio phone. They went to the dining room, took what food was there – and my blood pressure and diabetes medicine.
“They plundered the whole place.
“They took a motor cycle and they broke into the bishop’s car but they didn’t take it.
“Up till now the window is still shattered.
“So there is peace – but it’s fragile.”
Bishop Gasi, who is 79, would like to build a cathedral before he retires.
“We have a ‘green cathedral’ – meaning we have Mass under the trees. When it rains, we put up a little tent over the altar.”
Meanwhile Southern Sudan has a vocations crisis – but not like that in the West.
In Southern Sudan the problem is that the bishops can’t pay for all the young men who want to study for the priesthood.
The dioceses have a cost-sharing arrangement with Rome.
Bishop Gasi’s diocese alone has about 100 boys and young men who hope to become priests. About half of them are in primary and secondary schools so they have enough education to study for the priesthood.
“The vocations are many,” Bishop Gasi said.
“A young man who wants to be a priest needs to go to school. The costs for the last eight years, when they’re studying philosophy and theology, are very heavy. We need between US$2,000 to US$4,000 a year, per student, to keep and train them.
“Some Australians might like to have a son saying Mass every day.
“So, if they like to ‘adopt’ one of these young men, that would be great.”
The major church aid and development agencies, including Caritas and the ecumenical Christian World Service, are sponsoring projects in Southern Sudan.
Bishop Fasi will be visiting the Sudanese Catholic community in Brisbane from July 2 – 10 and will be in Toowoomba on July 6 – 7.