Sudanese Catholic community in Fargo grateful to worship in peace

by Paul Braun | New Earth

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A few hundred Sudanese Catholics living in Fargo gather at Sts. Anne and Joachim Church Feb. 5 to celebrate Mass. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

The music rises through the beautiful sanctuary of Sts. Anne and Joachim in Fargo. Parishioners joyfully raise their voices, while some play along on instruments from the pews. It’s a scene played out weekly at parishes all across the Diocese of Fargo. But if you listen carefully, the voices raised are not praising our God in English. The song is in the African language from South Sudan.

The African Sudanese Catholic community in Fargo have been celebrating Mass at Sts. Anne and Joachim since 2005. They gather each Sunday at 12:30 p.m. to praise God, celebrate the Eucharist, and give thanks for their freedoms in their own culturally-unique way. Many in attendance were unable to enjoy these freedoms until they immigrated to this country.

Sudanese saint

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“Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage.” –St. Josephine Bahkita

On this particular Sunday, Feb. 5, the faithful prayed for the intercession of their patroness, St. Josephine Bakhita, the first Sudanese Catholic to be canonized in the Church. Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan in 1869. At a young age she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, and lived her early life as a slave. In 1882 she was sold to the Italian Vice Consul in Khartoum, the Capital city of Sudan. Two years later she was taken to Italy and eventually was placed with the Canossian Sisters in Venice. While there she was introduced to Catholicism and converted. She was given her freedom, and decided to enter the convent of the Canossians.

Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order; and the publication of her story made her famous throughout Italy. During WWII she shared the fears and hopes of the town people, who considered her a saint and felt protected by her presence. Remarkably, though the bombs did not spare the town they lived in, there was not one single casualty.

Her last years were marked by pain and sickness. She used a wheelchair, but she retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, she would always smile and answer "As the Master desires." Josephine Bakhita died on Feb. 8, 1947. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, and is the patron saint of Sudan.

Sudan has known only war and tribal conflict in some variation or another for centuries. As recent as 1982, the second Sudanese civil war broke out between the predominantly northern Arab/Muslim government based in Khartoum, and the African/Christian southern part of the country. The war was originally about natural resources and who controlled them, but quickly developed into an effort by the government in the north, controlled by Muslims, to try to abolish Christians in the south. Roughly two million people died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict. Four million people in southern Sudan were displaced at least once during the war.

The conflict between north and south officially ended in 2005, and the sovereign state of South Sudan was created in 2011. However, another civil war along tribal lines rages in South Sudan today, causing the displacement of even more Christian refugees. Many of the faithful worshipping each Sunday in Fargo have known nothing but war, until moving here.

Job Lado

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Job Lado spent time in a Lebanese prison just for being a refugee. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

An Air Traffic Controller in his former life back in Khartoum, Job Lado left Sudan in 1997 while in his 30s after being arrested and interrogated by Sudanese government authorities. His brother’s position in the military brought attention to authorities, and Job was told if they are questioning him now, it won’t be long until he is arrested for good. When Job escaped, he left behind his wife and three children and went to Syria. He paid Lebanese soldiers to take him to Lebanon, where he hoped the Christian community there would help him be reunited with his family. Although officially categorized as a United Nations refugee, Job was arrested by Lebanese authorities, because he said the government there did not recognize UN refugees.

Job spent a year in prison in Lebanon, where he met a Catholic priest who kept him close to his faith. He was eventually released, reunited with his family, and immigrated to the United States, settling first in San Antonio. He came to Fargo with his family in 2006.

“The most important thing for me when I got to the USA was the little bit of freedom that I had,” exclaimed Job. “Throughout my movements after leaving Sudan, there was no freedom. When the Arabs and the Muslims went to South Sudan, what they wanted was for all of us to be Muslims, living the way they live and speaking their Arabic language.”

Job says his faith saved him and his family, and he is awe-struck that he can celebrate Mass in peace. “If I didn’t believe in God, it was not going to be possible for me to be in America. I took my faith very seriously during my travels as a refugee and it helped me.”

Paskalina Bakhit

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Paskolina Bakhit resettled in Iowa and Minneapolis before coming to Fargo. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

Paskolina Bakhit’s story starts when she left Sudan at age 24. She lived both in the south and north of Sudan, but because of the civil war she went to Egypt, seeking help from the Christian community there. She does not get into specifics, but she claims priests in Sudan were being arrested and questioned by the government.

“I came as a refugee from Egypt, but I came to Iowa to stay with my uncle,” says Paskolina. “I met my husband, Alexander Hakim, in Iowa and moved to Minneapolis. Our son was diagnosed with asthma while living there, and we had no family there, and my husband kept losing his job because of our son’s medical problems. We had family in Fargo, and my husband says we should move there. I like Fargo. It is smaller and we have a nice community here.”

Paskolina and Alexander’s life is very typical of any Fargo resident. She works as a CMA-medication certified employee at a local nursing home, while her husband is employed by John Deere. She says attending Mass keeps her and her family grounded.

“We have to attend Mass every Sunday. It is something we do as a family. We do other things together like basketball and music, but when we come together at church, we talk about the readings and what we brought with us from Mass, so we have this to do together. Things can get so busy, but my Sunday is my day with family.”

Charles Mukhtar

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Charles Mukhtar immigrated from Sudan via Egypt in 2004. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

Charles Mukhtar is the music leader for the Masses celebrated by the Sudanese community. He comes from a very musical family (his father had a jazz band in Sudan), and he sings and plays several instruments. Born in what is now South Sudan, Charles moved to Khartoum at age 11, and lived there for 16 years. He left Sudan for Egypt due to the civil war, and lived there for four years, serving the Catholic Church in Egypt as a secretary for the priests. To Charles, the church was family, a community to belong to. He still feels that way after resettling in Fargo in 2004.

“One thing that brought me to Fargo is the Catholics,” says Charles. “I did my research on the internet and figured out that Fargo in general had the majority of Catholics in one state, and that’s what made me come here. Also, the nature of the place and the traditional values of the people here are similar to what I had back home, so I just wanted a place where I could feel like I was back home.”

Charles wasn’t always Catholic. But his years in a Catholic school in South Sudan solidified his conversion.

“My family is Episcopalian, but I went to a Catholic school run by nuns. I had my first communion and confirmation in third grade, and that’s when I seriously became a Catholic. We had a chapel at school and we went to Mass every morning at 7:00 before school. Going to Mass is what got us through the war situation and the government oppression; it kept us as one.”

Responsibility of refugees

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Father Paul Duchschere, Pastor of Sts. Anne and Joachim in Fargo, baptizes one of ten children at the St. Bakhita Mass on Feb. 5. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

Refugee resettlement in the United States has been in the news a great deal recently. There are many who feel this country must open itself to all refugees fleeing persecution or trying to find a better life in America no matter where they come from. Others feel a more cautious approach must be taken, and immigration officials need to find out who is coming into the country and what their intentions are. Paskolina Bakhit says being a refugee in America is a privilege and comes with some responsibility.

“If you are privileged enough to come here, you have to serve your purpose here,” says Paskolina. “I can’t allow someone to come into my home and then they destroy my house. When you come here you have to respect this place that you come to, because you’re looking for safety. You’re not coming here to cause problems. If you come here running from a bad life, you won’t go looking for any trouble, and you better respect that.”

“I understand those who say we need to be careful,” says Charles Mukhtar. “It’s a double-edged sword. But many do not understand the process refugees have to go through to get here. It’s a long process, and it took me four years. You get interviewed by the UN for several hours to find out why you need refugee status. They go through your background. Once you pass that, you go through resettlement, either Canada, Australia or America. Whatever country you are selected to go to, that country’s embassy now has to interview you. It’s not an easy interview. It’s done by lawyers, who came from this country and took my fingerprints to see if I had been here before or not. This process takes a long time, and once you pass that there is a second interview where they ask you ‘What are you going to do in America? Are you going to be a good person? Are you going to work hard and build yourself?’ People think this process is easy and that they just let people in, but it takes a long time.”

Charles says that people of all races and religions need to get along and celebrate their heritage and beliefs with each other. He says that was the case back in Sudan. Maybe not with the government, but with friends and neighbors.

“In Khartoum there was suppression from the government, but not people to people. I had Muslim neighbors, and we celebrated Ramadan with them, we ate with them, we shared everything. They would also celebrate Christmas with us. It’s the government trying to make this division and everything is political. People here are blessed to have this freedom of religion, but I would tell them not to take things for granted. Faith-wise they need to grow their faith, and we need to be more diverse, whether through race or ideas. But the most important thing I would say is not to take things for granted. You grew up here, you grew up in a Catholic environment, but don’t let that shut down the fire of your faith.”

Faith community

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ASudanese mother and daughter at Mass. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

That “fire of faith” is evident each Sunday at what the Sudanese call the St. Bakhita Mass. For many of the older generation attending, this is their first chance to celebrate as a faith community without having to look over their shoulder to see if the government is watching. Charles says it gave Christians a feeling of dread each time they gathered, whether in Sudan or in Egypt, and it hasn’t stopped.

“The Catholic community in Sudan still experiences oppression,” says Charles. “Thirty-eight smaller churches in Khartoum were just recently demolished by the government. You have churches you can go to, but you don’t have the freedom of expression. Everything is done there in a way where you feel like your suppressed all of the time. In public you can’t just announce that you are a Christian, you want to hide that from the public eye. You can’t just talk freely about your religion. But in Egypt, we were able to help a lot of people who converted to Christianity, and these people were actually going to be killed, but they left Sudan and came to Egypt, and we had to help them.”

The St. Bakhita Mass is an outward sign of that sharing of faith for the Sudanese who have resettled here. To Sudanese parishioners, a great part of that sign of faith is how they blend their culture of Sudan with their new culture in the United States. The Mass is said in English, but the music and feeling at Mass is uniquely Sudanese.

“Some of our people who come here don’t know the English language, so when they go to church they don’t feel like they are participating,” says Charles. “That’s why we asked to have this special Mass time with St. Bahkita as our patroness, because we can sing our music in our language and at least have some part of our culture. But, our Mass is open to everybody. Come to our Mass. Come enjoy the different music. It’s a Sts. Anne and Joachim’s Mass, and everybody is welcome!”

God bless America

The phrase “God bless America” has many meanings to different people. For those born and raised in America, that meaning can range from just a title of a song to an appreciation of what God has abundantly blessed in this country. Many of us take God’s blessings for granted, because we’ve never known a world that oppresses religious thoughts and deeds. For people who have been oppressed, like Job, Pascolina and Charles, the term God bless America has a deeper meaning.

“God bless America means, to me, to go back to the founding fathers who established America,” says Job. “They had the idea that without God they could not put America together as a country. They wanted the government to listen to God so that the blessing that he started would continue. And, with those words, ‘God bless America,’ America is the most peaceful country in the world today.”

“God blessed me by bringing me here,” exclaims Paskolina. “If God did not bless America, America would not open its doors for refugees to come here. So, the blessing that God gave America, not just as a country, is for every single person who’s here. Everyone who has lived in the United States can see that there is a blessing from God, and part of that is for me, because I am here.”

“You see us here every Sunday because we really appreciate what we have here and the peace of mind, according to Charles. “I can drive my own car and not have a policeman harass me just because I’m driving a car. That was happening everywhere we were traveling until we came here. You have all of these blessings here, and if you don’t appreciate that, there is something wrong with you. America was meant for everybody, not just a certain race or religion. ‘God bless America means’ God bless everyone in America. Everyone is the same.”

Future generations

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Born in the USA. Children of Sudanese refugees have been spared the horrific experiences of some of their parents. (submitted photo)

On this particular Sunday, ten newly-born members of the community, part of the first generation born in America, were baptized into the faith. It is a sign that the future of the Sudanese Catholic community is well established as members of the Fargo community. Children ran around the parish hall after Mass, nearly all of them having been born in America. Many of the faithful expressed joy that these children will never know the pain and sorrow of what their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents had to go through to give them this life they now enjoy as children in America.

But there is sadness as well. These children will only know of their Sudanese heritage through stories and traditions passed down from elders, and there is fear they won’t care, being wrapped up in things that concern most American kids; sports, music, academics, friends, new technology and the like.

For this reason, their parents wish to keep some of the traditions alive through the gatherings every Sunday at Mass, where their children will hear songs in their native tongue, and share in stories of hardship, faith and joy that was the life of those who came here before them. There is hope that maybe a few of the men of the community may look into becoming permanent deacons. And, they pray, maybe one or two young boys running around and playing may hear the call for the priesthood, and serve the community as one of their own. As their patroness St. Bakhita once said:

“O Lord, if I could fly to my people and tell them of your goodness at the top of my voice, oh how many souls would be won!”