International Volunteer Series: Two Amazing Young Men Serve in Gumbo, South Sudan

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Olivia Elswick, Asia CorrespondentLast Modified: 02:38 a.m. DST, 23 July 2014

Michael Gotta, Gumbo, South Sudan Volunteer

GUMBO, South Sudan -- In this final installment of the International Volunteer Series, I invite you to get to know Michael Gotta and Patrick Sabol, friends from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, now living together in Gumbo, South Sudan after feeling called to a year of mission work.

Mike majored in Biology with a minor in Chemistry and would like to work as a science teacher after his year in South Sudan is finished.

Pat received his degree in Finance with a minor in Management, and will live in Philadelphia where he plans to work in finance and investment analysis.  Read on to hear what these two fun-loving, and jubilant men have to say about their time in Africa.

What is a day in the life-like of a volunteer in South Sudan?

Mike: Our main duties have been as teachers and administrators in the secondary school here as well as teaching classes to the Salesian seminarians, but we basically are the community Swiss army knives, always doing something else on the side like making PowerPoints, taking photos, preparing the church for mass, events, etc. and being involved with the youth.

Pat: A typical day here at Don Bosco Juba for a Salesian Lay Missioner begins at 6:30 am with morning prayer in the volunteer house chapel followed by morning Mass in the parish church of St. Vincent de Paul. After mass everyone in the Salesian community eats breakfast and then head to their respective places of work for the day.

My specific job is working as an administrator at Don Bosco Senior Secondary School here in Gumbo. When I first arrived in South Sudan I was teaching English at the secondary school but due to a need for extra help in the administration office Mike and I were moved to working there full time.

Generally we deal with discipline, paperwork, registering new students, and assisting and meeting with visitors to the school. People come to play football (soccer), basketball, volleyball, and take part in various activities at the parish including Catechism classes, practice for choir and altar serving, among other activities. At the end of Oratory we close with a Rosary and goodnight talk, in the tradition of St. John Bosco. Afterwards we head back to our rooms to wash up and then head to the chapel for evening prayer and then end the day's activities with dinner.

How are you able to handle all of your responsibilities while keeping a healthy work and personal life balance?

Mike: That's the million-dollar question! I’ll go weeks where I am worn down to the bone between the craziness of the school and just this place and struggle to find rest and peace on the weekend, basically hiding out in my room--which makes me feel like I am in a cage--and other times where the school is relatively calm and I am able to even find some peace during the week and enjoy spending time with the people here.

I am introverted, so after a while it gets to me if I don’t find alone time… which is impossible as a volunteer on mission. But in the end, daily personal prayer roots me and keeps me sane and able to love through it all and I know I will be rewarded in heaven for persevering.

Pat: It is very difficult considering we basically live at work. The only place to really find peace is in your bedroom but you are constantly on-call and may be called out any day of the week to do some work. We do not really have much of a personal life other than resting in our rooms when nothing is going on in the school and parish.

What prepared you for this job?‬‬

Mike: My faith in Christ is really want prepared me. Honestly, if I was an agnostic or something I think I would have failed here a long time back. Human weaknesses that I was unaware of due to my comfortable first-world life style, which is funny to say because I would consider my family lower-middle class in the U.S. This has made it very hard for me – for example: when I can’t have something simple like variety of food or even just the peace and quiet of being alone – would have taken away my joy (and very nearly have) more than once this past year if it were not for my roots in Christ.

Pat: Considering I did not study education when I first began teaching at Don Bosco it was definitely a huge challenge and took some getting used to. But through prayer and perseverance after some time it wasn't so difficult and became very rewarding and enjoyable. I do think that my studies helped with the administration side of things a bit though. I think what prepared me most for working in South Sudan that I learned in university was to trust in the Lord and stay strong in my faith. I never intended on using my degree here in Gumbo, I came because of my Catholic faith and desire to serve the church through this ministry.

Has there been a defining moment in your life that made you decide to take the direction you did?

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Published: 23 July 2014 (Page 2 of 6)

Mike: It has really been a culmination of how I was raised, influence from my older sisters to do mission trips in college, and my overall drive to become a saint as people moved me to see how important faith is. Grace works in mysterious ways and I think that God’s given me an overabundance of it in my life and I felt a great urge to respond to it by heading to the mission field.

Pat: I cannot say that there was one specific moment. It was a culmination of things. It began with my first foreign mission trip to Mexico when I was in high school. That was what first got me thinking about doing long-term mission work after college.

Then, during my time at Franciscan I really grew in my faith and love for Christ, which only increased my desire to serve as a missionary. I went on another mission trip during spring break to Ecuador with students from Franciscan in the spring of that school year and a few weeks after I was starting the process with the Salesian Lay Missioners and the rest is history.

What drew you to working in South Sudan?

Mike: Several things for why I went to South Sudan:

  • I wanted to teach and didn’t have the funds or the desire to spend extra time somewhere learning a new language pre-mission year, which was a requirement in many of the other places where teaching was a good possibility;
  • I have dreamt of going to Africa since I can remember, so I asked for either South Sudan or Ethiopia;
  • South Sudan was said to be a very difficult site and I wasn’t interested in a sugarcoated year of mission;
  • South Sudan’s Juba site was very new and there was the possibility of beginning new activities and ministries, which I thought could be really awesome.

In the end, South Sudan was where I was placed, and it has been very difficult, but exactly what I needed.

Pat: I felt called to being a missionary for a year, and loved the mission of the SLM program, but there was never a specific place in mind. Yet, I always had thoughts about possibly doing service in Africa so that was where I ended saying I would like to go if possible. When the opportunity of serving in South Sudan was presented to me I couldn't have been happier.

What were your thoughts about South Sudan before you arrived and how have they changed or stayed the same?

‪‬Mike: Like I said, I thought it would be hard because I was told it was. That has not only stayed the same, but I think it can even be expounded upon: People here are stubborn beyond belief (and I hear Tonj is 10X worse), people expect you to help them and don’t show much gratitude, there is suffering left and right, and their politicians seem to care so little about the people who are suffering which means that the suffering here is mostly self-inflicted and thus makes it difficult to be sympathetic of.

Also, it’s Africa – don’t we all expect to see a giraffe or wildebeest at some point? No dice. In fact, in terms of fauna I cannot say I have seen anything typically African-esque except huge storks that look like they eat small children and gross camel spiders.

Pat: I really did not know what to expect. Growing up in the U.S. whenever you hear Sudan you immediately think war, refugees, rebels, etc. But those things did not worry me and we were ensured that the current situation was peaceful. I knew it would be a great opportunity to help in a country that after years of struggle had finally put the fighting behind them and were moving forward. It is definitely exciting times here in South Sudan and there are a lot of groups including religious and aid organizations working hard to develop this country and build a bright future for its people.

Yet, even during this year South Sudan experienced another huge obstacle to this dream as a new political conflict emerged between the government and rebel forces led by former Vice President Riek Machar. But, once again the people here have really come together during this difficult time and things are once again looking up. It has been beautiful to experience the people come together to pray and work for peace in South Sudan.

How have you adjusted to simple living?

Mike: I forget sometimes what carpet feels like… but I long for it. I could honestly live simply for the rest of my life, and I am definitely going to live much more simply than I did formerly when I return home. But, some things you have had your whole life and you truly don’t realize that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” – seriously, carpet?

And just having choices, especially with food. I don’t mind rice and beans basically every meal, but having the option to change it up is beautiful. I don’t really care that I am sitting in my sweat all the time and that it is always 90 + degrees here… I mean, I love colder weather (my ideal temp is more like 40-55 degrees, for real) but you adjust within a few months.

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Published: 23 July 2014 (Page 3 of 6) ‪‪‪‬ In the end, if I could just return to my family every 6-months or so I think I could do mission forever… but I know I am not called to that.

Pat: I have definitely adjusted to the simple living. It was one of the things I really desired coming into this experience. At times it can be hard and I definitely miss some of the comforts of home but life here has helped me to grow as a person and rely less on worldly possessions.

What are the hardest parts about living there?

Mike: The lack of change. We go months without leaving the compound sometimes. Maybe it is somewhat our fault – but because we are white in what some consider the country with the darkest people in the world, we stick out like sore thumbs, so going into the village or moving anywhere gets not just looks but endless calling of “Aboona!” (Father) and “Kahwyja!” (White person/foreigner) as we pass and then the community eventually hear that we were moving about. So like I said, we feel a bit trapped and almost prisoners to our site which is 100% the hardest thing about it here.

Pat: The hardest part for me is probably the monotony of life here at times. We may stay in the compound for weeks at time without really going anywhere or doing anything outside of the normal daily schedule. Living in the compound makes it hard to find peace as well. There are always activities taking place and so it's hard to leave your room and not get pulled into doing some work.

Do you ever feel unsafe?

Mike: December 15th, 2013 was the scariest, least safe I had ever felt in my life. For about two weeks following that I also felt very unsafe. Since then, I feel for the safety of many of the citizens of South Sudan, but I feel completely safe.

Pat: I have not felt unsafe here in Gumbo besides during the end of December when there was fighting in Juba and the surrounding areas. At that time there was a lot of uncertainty and it seemed that the situation was only going to get worse. However the fighting quickly moved north to the oil feeds and Juba once again became quiet for the most part. Since that time I have never felt that I was ever in any danger.

What is the most rewarding part about living there?

Mike: The cultural diversity and the ability to participate in the lives of people really living a day-to-day life of struggle. In just the school alone  we have South Sudanese, Ugandans, Kenyans, a Malawian, an Indian, and Americans. In the community we have Indians, Kenyans, Americans, Spanish, a Vietnamese, a Malawian, South Sudanese, a Burmese, Koreans, Canadians, a Brazilian, and Ugandans.

We definitely have different ideas and different ways of representing those ideas, but it is beautiful to work with these differences and see how things get done (although often slower and probably with more disagreements) here. The people here are really struggling to pay school fees, have money for food each day, etc. yet they still press on and often seem much happier than those I know with the most lavish comforts in the U.S. ‪ Pat: The most rewarding part for me comes from spending time with the youth in the parish community. I really value the time spent with the people just talking, playing, and praying with them. It brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment.

What is your best memory so far?

‪‬‬Mike: Probably Christmas day when after mass I spent time with some of the students who lived near the parish in their home, just talking and enjoying some homemade baked goods, and then later being invited to spend time with the coach of the Don Bosco Football team, and see his home and meet his family, along with him driving me around on his motorbike to see the area of Gumbo, which I would not have seen any other way. It was just such a real day, and only a little over a week after South Sudan had that horrible experience with the coup attempt. It was the first time I felt at home.

Pat: On Easter Monday the Salesian community including the priests, sisters, brothers, seminarians, and lay staff and volunteers had a picnic on the Nile River. It was a great day and Mike and I got to take a swim in the Nile which was a great memory. Not many people back home can say they have done that!

What is the most heartwarming experience you’ve had and what is the most heartbreaking?

Mike: This is pretty simple, but it hit me hard: a student named Camilo, a new student at our school this year, was at evening games in the community sitting by the volleyball court. I saw him and several of our students there watching and playing volleyball so I walked over to greet them and talk with them. Camilo and I began to talk and somehow we got on the topic of me leaving. He told me that he would want to leave the school if I left because I made the days enjoyable. I was blown away. A simple, yet entirely genuine comment from him that hit me in the face and made me almost uncomfortable to know. It was actually a mix of both heartwarming and heartbreaking because it made me realize what I was going to be leaving.

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Published: 23 July 2014 (Page 4 of 6)

Most heartbreaking… again, so many that it is difficult to pick one. I will speak of the losses of both our first principal and then one of our students. Fr. Patrick Soreng was such a kind, loving person and we only were able to work with him for a mere two weeks before he passed. Then, maybe a month or so later, one of our oldest students, Elijah, a 30-some-year-old veteran who always used a cane due to injuries sustained in the line of duty, died suddenly one day. He was such a hard worker, always coming to school ahead of time to study, and so humble as a student for someone of such life experience. Both deaths were unexpected and so close together; they rocked the community, really opening up my eyes to how short life can be – we think we are in control of it until we see life flash before our very eyes in those we are close to.

Pat: The most heartwarming experience for me so far has been witnessing the large amounts of children and teens the regularly attend Mass and Adoration in the parish church. It is something you don't see much in America. You will walk into Adoration on Friday evening and 90% of the people there are under 20 years old. The youth here have so much faith and love for Christ and it is beautiful to see and to pray with them. The most heartbreaking experience for me has been seeing firsthand what the selfishness of political leaders and hatred between tribes in South Sudan has done to thousands of innocent people here. We have a refugee camp here in Gumbo which is run by the Salesians with the help of various aid organizations and Mike and I were here when most of these refugees arrived here after fleeing their homes and losing their loved ones.

What do you think you will remember the most?

Mike: The hardship. Death. Life. My love for my students. The stubbornness of South Sudanese (especially Dinka and Nuer). Living with a religious community. The richness of and struggles of diversity.

Pat: I think I will remember the people the most. My students at the secondary school, the people of the parish community, and of course all of those in the Salesian community here. They have really become family to me in a lot of ways, especially the fellow lay volunteers.

What lessons will you take with you?

Mike: Patience. Love is always primary. Know what you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it/make time for it, regardless of how others might perceive you for it. Being rooted in something (for me my faith) can help you overcome any obstacle if you really do believe in it.

Pat: I have learned so much during my time serving here in South Sudan, but I think most of all I have learned to put complete trust in God. I could have never made it through life here without Him and I will take this with me forever.

Can you tell me about one person who has impacted you?

‪‬‬Mike: This girl Monica. She’s probably 9 or 10, and she always comes to oratory and Rosary, and even now that she has received her baptism and first communion she has started attending daily Mass. She is so friendly and always helping her little sister, Theresa, and although she doesn’t know much English she always greets me with a smile and will say she is good. I don’t know, but it is just these kids who show such maturity in a place full of parentless children who barely eat, have hardly anything to wear, and just nothing to their name but still have that natural goodness and responsibility that most 25-year-old Americans who have been given everything since they were born and have nothing to complain about are lacking.

Pat: A few weeks ago I met a young boy names James who recently relocated to Gumbo with his family. He is one of those people who upon minutes of just meeting you know they are just such a genuine loving person. James is probably about 14-years-old while I am 23, but I strive to be like him every day. He just knows how to love and is so strong in his faith at such a young age. I will always remember him and feel so blessed to have been able to meet him and spend time with him. He is a saint in the making for sure.

Do you find that women are treated differently than men at your site?

‪‬‬Mike: Locals are definitely treated differently by locals. South Sudanese women are valuable to their families in that they prepare food, clean the home, and will one day get their fathers money or cows from a dowry when they get married. This isn’t every man here, but 95% of them. They seem equal in school, but they definitely are not. Oddly, women here don’t complain about it. It’s like they are so ingrained to think that this is how life is that I honestly never have heard one complaint about it. Maybe some of the women in politics are advocating for better rights, but the general public, possibly just due to lack of education, do not seem too worried about anything changing.

Pat: Culturally South Sudan is very different from what I was used to in the U.S. Women are still considered second-class citizens for the most part here. They are expected to get married when they are very young and raise families. It has been sad to see young women at the school leave due to these pressures and be treated poorly due to these mentalities.

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Published: 23 July 2014 (Page 5 of 6)

What are the most critical problems faced by people in your area?

Mike: Daily struggle for money – most don’t really have jobs and there is not enough land to cultivate, so how do they get money? Then the kids who are working age, who in the U.S. could possibly help support their families, are trying to get an education so then again they cannot work. It is just a bad economic country. They need to either become intense farmers in this country or have programs geared specifically to forming a job market in cities and even rural towns and villages.

Pat: Due to the recent conflict, disease and famine have become huge issues. South Sudan faces one of the largest famines seen in recent history. Due to the fighting between government and rebel troops causing so many to flee their homes no one was around to plant crops before the rainy season began. So now the nation is racing to plant crops and they are running out of time. There has also recently been a cholera outbreak in Juba. The war has brought more problems than just the death of thousands from the fighting. More people face death due to post war problems.

I read recently about a Christian woman in Sudan who was publicly beaten for denouncing her Muslim faith and marrying a Christian man. How often do you hear about these kinds of things?

Mike: I heard that story – but religion is as free as can be here. No one is killed for being Muslim or Christian, except maybe in the far north of the country, but even that I have not actually heard any stories of it happening.

Pat: Here in South Sudan most people are Christian. The fighting between Muslim and Christians is what led to the creation of South Sudan. So here you do not hear of the persecution of Christians very often if ever. I heard about this as well and it is such a sad story but is the only case of this I have heard during my time here in South Sudan.

Do you think American media portrays the situation in Sudan differently than the experience you’re having?

Mike: Hah! Yes. Media only shows extremes, good or bad--usually the bad, though. Sudan and South Sudan surely have big time problems that should not be overlooked – but we hear only about the Sandy Hooke shooting and not about the day-to-day normal runnings and life-giving and good events occurring in thousands of other schools across the country. We hear about LeBron cramping up in the NBA Finals game, but probably not about some kids who were given court-side tickets to watch their first NBA game.

You see, media tells us what makes a headline, what draws attention, and not what life is about. Life is life, and suffering occurs in America just as it does here. It is very necessary to be aware of it, but not if we then overlook our own lives. Don’t worry so much about LeBron cramping; he has trainers galore to help him recover. Worry about your family and friends, and worry about the difference you can make in your community. Here is South Sudan I am not doing anything extraordinary, but I am attempting to love these people in the ordinary day-to-day, which is really the same today as it was when the fighting started – people lack things of necessity like clean water and daily food.

We stopped helping Haiti for the most part once we stopped hearing about it in the news; Haitians are still really struggling and were struggling prior to the devastation of the hurricane. American media lets us feel good for helping with big problems when we hear about them, but our neighbor needs our help every day. I didn’t come to South Sudan when the fighting started, and I didn’t leave once it started; I came to be with these people in their day-to-day, and that is during extremes and through normality.

Pat: I think it is definitely blown out of proportion in the international media. Don't get me wrong, South Sudan has experience many problems including the recent conflict and the struggles that have stemmed from it. But, I think the news makes people think that you cannot go anywhere in South Sudan without running into armed rebels, but that is not the case. Most areas of South Sudan are currently peaceful.

What is a common misconception about South Sudan that people often have?

Mike: I might be taken prisoner tomorrow by rebels. I even thought that when the fighting first happened. Not even close to being true. It might still be rudimentary here, but first world countries have enough of their foot in the door of South Sudan that, unlike in the 1980s, 'Mike the Kahwyja' is as safe in South Sudan as a squirrel in Central Park.

Pat: I think most people do not even know it is a country. You say South Sudan and they only hear Sudan and they think fighting and war. But there is much more to these people. There is a lot of good here and there is not just fighting and poverty.

Have you ever had a “this is my home” feeling?

Mike: Yeah, since about mid-December. The fighting made me feel more at home, more one with the people. When in January they told us we were headed to Kenya for safekeeping, I didn’t want to go because I knew I was supposed to remain in my home, South Sudan. To this day I am so used to this place and the life that it is home.

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Published: 23 July 2014 (Page 6 of 6)

Pat: Its crazy to think about but yes I have. I think I really realized it when during January when Mike and I were sent to Kenya while the situation was worsening in South Sudan. During that time we just wanted to go back to Juba and be with the community and people there. We missed Gumbo so much. That was when it first hit me that Gumbo has become my home in a lot of ways.

Do you ever feel like you really belong there?

Mike: Apart from it being home and feeling like home, I still feel majorly like an outsider. If I knew fluent Arabic, maybe that would be a bit different, but it is still hard to overcome my white skin. No one is “racist” per se, but there is definitely the constant reminders that I am white and that has many connotations, I imagine, often not very different from the ones African-Americans might have of White Americans. But, knowing I cannot walk through Gumbo without every person looking at me makes me highly aware that I am an outsider and don’t really belong. The only place I feel that sense of belonging is within our compound, but here I also feel trapped.

Pat: Its funny that this comes after the question about it feeling like home because it does feel like home but I cannot say that it feels like I belong. After almost 10 months of living here I still can't walk outside and not be stared at by everyone. I feel at home here most of the time and I know that I am supposed to be here during this time to serve and give of myself to this mission and the church but I don’t know that I "belong" here.

Do you What is the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve observed or been a part of?

Mike: When we had many Nuer people from the local area who were afraid of being killed for their ethnicity come to our place after the initial fighting to stay for some time, I felt like I was part of the underground railroad or something, hiding people on the move. It was really something you see in movies but never think you will be part of. Late at night we moved them from the school to the Church where we thought they would be safer, posting guards around the outside… and then the fear in my heart going back in the dark to my room some ways away, imagining the sound of gunshots as Dinka’s came and slaughtered those people we had left in the Church. That is honestly something I will never forget and neither “interesting” nor “surprising” really do justice to describe how it felt to be part of it.

Pat: How much western culture has affected the youth of South Sudan--in good and in bad ways.

Are there any political or social issues you feel passionate about?

Mike: I am very passionate about changing hearts to love and not be revengeful, hopefully causing an end to tribalism. That is, in my opinion, the biggest social issue in this country and it needs to be solved or more people will just continue to die for it during small conflicts.

Pat: As for as in South Sudan I just feel passionately that the people here need to let go of tribalism and come together as a nation. Many of South Sudan's leaders call themselves Christians yet are fueled by hatred and selfishness. I hope and pray that they will one day learn to love and put the people of this country before themselves.

What are your hopes for the people you’ve interacted with?

Mike: That they have seen my love for them and care for them and recognize Christ through it. That I can leave here and the people will desire a better life for themselves and their country and achieve it through hard work and perseverance, along with constant growth in their faith.

Pat: I hope they stay close to Christ and live their lives to serve and love others before all else.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Mike: God blessed me with a beautiful journey this year. I learned way more than I would have just working a normal job, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was definitely not what I expected, but it just reconfirmed to me that we shouldn’t have expectations because we will just get let down – we should just do everything with the desire to be the best we can be in and through it.

Pat: No, I think that covers it, thank you for the opportunity to share some of my experiences. God bless!

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