UGANDA – Salesian pastoral responses in Palabek Refugee Settlement
The Beginning of Pastoral Ministry in Palabek
Salesians began their refugee ministry in Palabek with a simple impromptu Eucharistic Celebration on a Sunday in June 2017. Refugees were pouring in week after week. They also missed pastoral care in their home country of South Sudan that has been ravaged by war for many years. Attending a Holy Mass and receiving the Sacraments was a great consolation.
As more and more refugees began pouring in, more zones and blocks were set up to accommodate refugees. Salesians too began to open more chapels to offer pastoral care close to their little huts made of plastic sheets and mud.
Opening of Chapels
Now the Salesians are in Palabek for close to five years. The number of chapels has grown to at least 16. Some of them are located within the host community where the local Ugandan Catholics too were not having pastoral assistance for many years. Now having many chapels which are often a bit too much for the Salesian priests to handle, surely they are encouraging the Catholic community to come back to faith and receive sacraments. If God willing and finance available we hope to construct more chapels especially along the main road that will also serve the local community in case the refugee population decreases.
Don Bosco Missionaries are proud of chapels made of grass just like the homes of people. They serve the purpose on Sundays. Sacraments are celebrated and people gather in them for their community services. Here no one will fail to see the spontaneous expression of joy in meeting the Lord and one another.
Celebration of Sacraments
In the years 2017 to 2019, Salesians administered hundreds of Sacraments of Initiation, especially Baptism. People came to receive sacraments, as they missed them for several years. As the Archbishop recognized our mission as a full-pledged chaplaincy, we are permitted to celebrate all the sacraments with due authority and keep records. This is a big recognition for our ministry. The Archbishop also administered Confirmation in 2019. We need to organize for another as we have failed to do it during corona-years. Several hundreds of children and teenagers were given First Holy Communion and a few couples were helped to receive Matrimony. Anointing of the Sick and other sacraments are in regular practice.
Pastoral Creativity during Coronavirus Pandemic
Coronavirus induced lockdown created more problems for refugees than for people living in normal situations. People suffered due to hunger and lack of other basic services such as medical, security, availability of household materials, etc. Closure of schools for nearly two years created untold miseries. People suffered stress and not a few went through trauma which also led to suicides in a number of cases.
While most NGOs and service partners left the Settlement, Don Bosco Missionaries stayed among the refugees and resorted to Home-Eucharist, Rosary Services, and Celebration of the Word of God in the homes and small groups. For every celebration at least 15 people gathered and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and Word of God was very intense. People picked interest in these celebrations and they were proud to host them in their courtyard.
The Home-Eucharist Celebrations helped to bring back many adults who left the Church a long time ago and it was a moment of re-evangelization and discovering of the beauty of Sacraments in a face-to-face experience. Often they were also accompanied by Marian devotion, house blessing and prayer for the sick. They were beautiful moments of offering “Psychosocial Support” that many NGOs talk of in elevated words.
“Home-Made” Catechists Training
In Africa, catechists are indispensable in offering pastoral care. The so-called ‘hard-to-reach-areas’ can be difficult pastoral situations such as lack of priests, presence of many languages, hard to comprehend cultures, geographical remoteness and limited resources and many other challenging circumstances. Some of them can be solved only by catechists. But they need to be trained, supported, encouraged and given due recognition.
From the time Salesians initiated their ministry in Palabek, they began to train catechists among committed young people who are very eager to serve. Some of them are naturally gifted with leadership and language skills. Salesians took them to the Catechists Training Centers belonging to the local dioceses. The corona lockdown put everything in disarray. Catechists Training Centers too were closed. Now the only solution is to train catechists locally.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB took upon himself the challenge of training them within the Refugee Settlement and he was assisted by other senior catechists. The trainee catechists were given classes in Sacraments, Scripture, Homily Preparation, Liturgy and Christian Leadership Skills. It ran from September to December 2021. The classes were conducted for three days and they were supervised on weekends in their practical services. On February 9th they were given credentials to serve and we hope to resume further training in the coming weeks. We are very grateful to them for their generosity and we are greatly impressed by their eagerness to learn.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
Chaplain for Refugees in the Archdiocese of Gulu, Uganda