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Church universality discovered in service


A number of Catholics in the Sioux Falls, S.D., diocese did not exchange gifts this Christmas. Instead they gave money they would normally have spent for holiday presents to some of the poorest and most endangered Christians in the world.

Donations arrived at the chancery earmarked for Bishop Nicolas Djomo and Catholics in his Tshumbe diocese in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, where civil war has brought hunger, destruction and death to local people.

It is largely by chance that South Dakota Catholics learned of Djomo and Tshumbe. Djomo and Sioux Falls Bishop Robert Carlson met in Rome in 1995 when both were on retreat at the Vatican. While Djomo was in Rome, the area that includes his diocese came under rebel control.

Djomo’s residence was one of many material casualties of the war, which raged across the country during the latter half of the 1990s. Although a ceasefire agreement was signed in July 1999, it has often been broken.

Djomo, who speaks French, knew only a few words of English when he met Carlson, and Carlson spoke no French. Still the two established a certain comfort level. Carlson sent Djomo a Christmas card in 1995, and Djomo -- who was unable to return to his see for several months because of the war -- has since made four trips to South Dakota.

His visits have helped Sioux Falls Catholics become aware of the plight of many in Africa. In the Tshumbe diocese, where some 700,000 of the country’s 52 million citizens live -- 225,000 of them Catholic -- the average annual income is $220. The average lifespan is 49 years.

Djomo has become the voice of the voiceless Congolese poor, making the case that his people are in desperate need of food, medicine and whatever assistance can be provided. He describes his people’s living conditions as much worse than those of the war-ravaged peoples of Bosnia or Kosovo, yet the international community, by comparison, has paid scant attention to those in his country.

Djomo has also talked to Sioux Falls Catholics about the need to fund health care and education in his country. The Catholic church has been the principal provider of schools, hospitals and clinics in the nation, even though only half of its citizens are Catholic. In the past two years, Sioux Falls Catholics have contributed $137,000 for the Tshumbe diocese.

South Dakota Catholics have responded out of a deep sense of social justice, Bishop Carlson told NCR. “They feel empathy” for those victimized by poverty, war and oppression, he said.

For the past four-and-a-half years, Sioux Falls Catholics have also made financial gifts to Palestinian Catholics in Visitation parish in Zababdeh, on the West Bank, where unemployment, violence and the retaliatory destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military have spread fear and anger in the Christian community.

The South Dakota diocese has a sister relationship with the Holy Land parish, said Carlson, who administered the Sacrament of Confirmation at Visitation last year. The bishop has met often with Latin Rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem. In August, Carlson hosted Sabbah on his first visit to the diocese.

The Latin Patriarchate has selected Palestinian students to study in Sioux Falls. Currently four are enrolled at Mount Marty College, which is run by Benedictines.

Both Djomo and Sabbah “have expanded the idea of what it means to be church. They symbolize the universality of the church,” Carlson told NCR in a telephone interview.

Sioux Falls Catholics, who number almost 120,000 and are largely of German, Irish and Norwegian descent, have come to view outreach to disadvantaged Catholics in other parts of the world as their mission or unique ministry, the bishop said. The diocese has contributed $90,000 to aid the Palestinians -- $10,000 raised by youth. Donations have flowed from rural and city congregations, from parishes whose members are mainly white and from those who are chiefly Native American or African-American.

Carlson credits the laity with being “the prime movers” behind Sioux Falls Catholics extending a hand to African and Palestinian Christians. Raised in an area of abundant wheat harvests, Dakotans find it hard to imagine a diocese as poor as Tshumbe. Djomo said that his see lacks a backup supply of wheat to make wafers for the Eucharist and has no machine for making hosts.

Besides direct aid to Tshumbe and Zababdeh, Sioux Falls Catholics have welcomed and assisted almost 2,000 Sudanese refugees, including hundreds of the so-called “lost boys” of Sudan. These are bands of boys dislodged from their families by war who roamed the Sudanese countryside and were the focus of a 1992 Life magazine article. Sioux Falls is one of 21 U.S. dioceses that have taken refugees from Sudan, where civil war and religious persecution have caused thousands to flee to Kenya, Ethiopia and neighboring states.

Catholic volunteers in Sioux Falls assist the newcomers to find and furnish housing. They introduce them to their new community, help those with children to register them in school and provide employment counseling, job training and placement. A committee of Catholics concerned about the Sudan has arranged for the new immigrants to hold their own weekly liturgy with its distinctive, celebratory music and prayers. Some 120 Sudanese attend the Sunday Mass in St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Now that the political climate has improved in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Carlson and other religious and lay leaders in Sioux Falls are considering Djomo’s invitation to visit Catholics in Tshumbe. The city lies some 600 miles due east of the capital, Kinshasa. Whether they are able to go this year or in the future, the diocese’s ministry to Africa and its special relationship with Catholics there will continue, Carlson said.

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002