Monthly Archives: March 2019

Giving kids a good and safe start in education

A visit with Maryknoll lay missioner Becca Muder, who serves at a preschool and tutoring ministry at Patronato Lidia Coggiola in the El Zaite community of Zaragoza, El Salvador. The Patronato provides a safe haven for children in a very challenging neighborhood.

‘Signing your name in the book of poverty’

Victor Hume, a graduate of the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan, sings a song with his students in the Catholic Church-sponsored Abangite Nursery School in Yambio. The STTC is run by Solidarity with South Sudan, an international network of Catholic groups working to train teachers, health workers and pastoral agents throughout the African country.

Victor Hume, a graduate of the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan, sings a song with his students in the Catholic Church-sponsored Abangite Nursery School in Yambio. At STTC, Maryknoll lay missioner Gabe Hurrish helps to prepare teachers for a very challenging career. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

Gabe Hurrish reflects on the immense challenges facing teachers—and students—in South Sudan

By Gabe Hurrish

According to report issued by the United Nations in February 2019, South Sudan has the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world. There are more than 2.2 million school-aged children in South Sudan who are not attending classes. Either no schools exist or the children are too poor or there is no feeling that education is important.

Many children in South Sudan have to walk up to two hours to reach a school. If it rains, if the road or pathways are insecure, if they are sick or anyone in their family is sick, they can’t go. Many of the teachers don’t show up because they don’t get paid, are volunteers or are sick themselves. Upon arriving, children may be told “no school today” so they walk back slowly because as soon as they arrive home, hard work on the farm or in the house awaits them.

Lack of government support and isolation of many of these communities leads the community to start their own rudimentary schools. Schools have no decent classrooms forcing students to study in dilapidated buildings. In the most remote and underdeveloped areas classes are held under trees. They sit on rocks, logs, or any other object. One student had a classroom but no roof or windows, just four walls.

Crowded classrooms are common in South Sudan (March 2019 photo by Gabe Hurrish).

Crowded classrooms are common in South Sudan. Photo by Gabe Hurrish.

Most teachers are volunteers who have little or no education themselves. They are not paid any salary and rely upon their own farms and harvests for income and sustenance.

One student told me that one particular teacher he had in first grade would simply write one letter of the alphabet on the board and send the students home to study this letter the rest of the day. That took 26 days! Hardly encouraging lessons for anyone keen to learn.

We know that lousy English speakers are teaching lousy English to their students. We know that caning is the preferred choice of school punishment—even when not deserved.

Some classroom are so crowded that there is no room for the teacher. March2019 photo by Gabe Hurrish.

Some classrooms are so crowded that there is no room for the teacher. Photo by Gabe Hurrish.

Due to lack of resources, the untrained teachers have to improvise. They often have to use wood or cardboard as black boards, and the chalk is a piece of homemade charcoal. Since there are no books, pens, desks or chairs, the students write their assignments in the dust at their feet, and the teacher walks around and checks it.

Here at Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, where I work, we actually have several students in their 20s who prefer to write on their laps as they are so used to it that writing on a desk seems awkward to them.

In the Nuba Mountains, a mostly unknown civil war continues. North Sudan has planes that drop bombs indiscriminately. One STTC student told me of bombs killing his friends in primary school while they were under a tree. By the grace of God, he happened to be in the broken-down brick building with no windows or roof which was just enough to protect them from the shrapnel that was propelled around the schoolyard. The carnage was immense. He has been permanently traumatised by this incident 12 years ago and told me the story with some difficulty. To this day, North Sudan continues to drop bombs indiscriminately, and several have even landed in United Nations protection camps.

If the families can afford private schools or are lucky enough to be enrolled in a mission school, most of the teachers are from Kenya or Uganda. They are not very skilled, and even though it is illegal, beating students for poor performance or behavior is common. It is so common, in fact, that one of our student teachers reported that the children in a particular school actually wanted to be caned because they felt that was what they needed, that it was “normal.” Our school teaches differently.

And so what is the good news? Well, the good news is that Solidarity Teacher Training College is graduating between 20 to 30 newly qualified and trained teachers every four months. These are the young, sharp minds that will be working with the youth of tomorrow. They are the future, and God willing, they will be the agents of change. But they have a colossal challenge ahead of them.

One of the STTC students was told that becoming a teacher in South Sudan is like signing your name in the book of poverty. Teachers in South Sudan can be paid as little as $1.50 per week and there really is no incentive to put much effort into teaching. They must tend a family crop or start a business to help their families survive.

Teaching in South Sudan is a very challenging profession—with incredible obstacles and difficulties to overcome.

Joana Ilario, a graduate of the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan, helps one of her students in St. Mary's Primary School in Yambio. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

Joana Ilario, a graduate of the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan, helps one of her students in St. Mary’s Primary School in Yambio. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

Every trimester we have four weeks where our teachers go out into the community and do their practice teaching at the local primary schools. Many of these schools are poorly managed, desperately poor, and hopelessly understaffed. Most of the classrooms have no chairs or desks. This fits in well with the building structures, which have no windows, doors or blackboards. The floors are dirt or cracked concrete at best.

One such school sits along a busy walkway, and people will stop and poke their heads in through the open space where a window is supposed to be and see what is going on. They might even start a conversation with one of the students.

Outside noise can overwhelm the teacher’s voice, making instruction very difficult. In one school the next-door teacher let the students go after five minutes of class time. The students played in the schoolyard, making so much noise that the STTC teacher had to shout to be heard. Could you teach under these conditions?

It seems that at many schools when our teachers come to practice, the regular teachers see this as a chance to take a vacation. So sometimes we find the only teachers in the schools are our student teachers from STTC. At one school there was no bell so the teacher had to guess when the class period was about to start or was over. Usually the undisciplined students simply get up and walk out.

Due to a lack of proper leadership or good administration, many of the students are undisciplined. They come up to an hour late to school, walk out of the classroom when they feel like it, and don’t finish their homework.

With regard to the many challenges our student teachers face when they go out to local schools on their four-week teaching practice, one should remember that this is taking place in Yambio, the capital city of Gbudue State. You have to figure that things are even worse in the surrounding countryside.

Maryknoll lay missioner Gabe Hurrish (center) talks with students in the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan.

Maryknoll lay missioner Gabe Hurrish (center) talks with students in the Solidarity Teacher Training College (STTC) in Yambio, South Sudan. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

As I walk around the STTC campus, my mind wanders to the future of these young students. Will they be able to overcome the incredible odds stacked against them? Maybe one day an STTC alum will be a minister? Why not? Already several graduates are school principals.

As I look at these students hunched over their exams and concentrating so hard, I think this is the future of education in this new country. Seeds have been planted by the Holy Spirit. Now let them grow. By the grace of God, I am privileged to be a part of the foundation that is being built by Solidarity in this country.

Gabe Hurrish teaches social studies, computer classes, religious education and English at the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio, South Sudan. He also serves as assistant to the principal in administration.

If you would like to support Gabe Hurrish’s mission of teacher education in South Sudan, please donate here and mention “Gabe Hurrish” in the “Comments” section at the bottom.




A new lease on life high up in the Andes

Octavio w Genoveva

Genoveva,13, and Octavio, 11, draw outside their home. Both have severe hearing impairments and, together with their younger brother, who has an intellectual disability, they benefit from support provided by lay missioners Joe Loney and Filo Siles. 

By Joe Loney

Here in Bolivia we enjoy lots of sunshine, but the sun simply does not truly shine equally for everyone. Doña Evarista is a mother of six children and needs some sunshine. She and her husband were subsistence farmers when we met them last year at their home in Sachacaymane, Tacopaya. Their main crop has been potatoes.

Last fall, when Don Sabino became ill and then suddenly died, Doña Evarista was left to raise six children, ages 1 to 13, by herself. The two eldest, Genoveva and Octavio, have severe hearing impairments. Thanks to your generous support, we are teaching Genoveva and Octavio, their teachers and their classmates sign language. We also provide educational support for their younger brother, who has an intellectual disability.

Filo explains to Doña Evarista the educational uses of the materials we provide

Along with all the challenges of raising six young children — cooking on firewood gathered every day, cleaning the two-room family home and educating — Doña Evarista did not have the physical strength to cultivate potatoes. Recognizing that poverty is both a cause and a consequence of disabilities, we assist persons like Doña Evarista to help themselves by guiding them in methods to improve their incomes.

We recently coordinated with an agricultural expert, Victor Teran, to visit Doña Evarista to see if we could improve her farm income. Victor determined that Doña Evarista could improve her farm income by raising medicinal plants and vegetables for sale to urban dwellers. We met with the local community leader, Don Sebastian, who agreed that the other 18 families would help Doña Evarista to cultivate the new crops and to share with the annual potato crop.

Joe listening to Don Sebastian. Doña Evarista is holding her youngest.

Joe listening to Don Sebastian. Doña Evarista is holding her youngest.

We discovered, however, that the fields in their community receive water during the dry months through an irrigation system fed by a natural spring that badly needs maintenance. So a couple of weeks ago, Victor, Sebastian, Maryknoll Lay Missioners executive director Ted Miles (who was visiting) and I hiked up the mountainside for several kilometers and inspected the irrigation system.

Executive Director Ted Miles inspects the impact of the landslide.

Executive Director Ted Miles inspects the impact of the landslide.

The irrigation system truly needs repair. Every year the landslides from the 15,000-feet high mountains damage the pipes, and last January the heavy rains washed away large portions of the trail that supports the pipes leading to the natural spring. Sebastian and his fellow farmers are willing to provide the manual labor and to pay for one third of the cost of the new pipes, trails and connections. We are seeking one third of the cost from the municipal government. We need your help to provide for the remaining third.

With your help we can make the sun truly shine for Dona Evarista and her six children. Working together, we can let Doña Evarista know that solidarity, sharing and community support are among our core values.

Please send us your prayers and consider a donation as well. Your financial contributions, no matter the size, will become like the bread and fishes that Jesus multiplied through the miracle of sharing. You can donate here. 

Joe Loney and his wife, Filo Siles, are Maryknoll lay missioners in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Through their ministry they help children, youth and adults who have visual, hearing, intellectual, physical and other disabilities receive self-sustaining rehabilitation in their rural home communities. Joe also is Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ regional director for Bolivia. 

Photos courtesy of Joe Loney. 

Building community, one children’s book at a time

Maryknoll lay missioner Rick Dixon runs a mobile wheelbarrow library and other parish outreach activities in the squatter’s community of La Esperanza in Cojutepeque, El Salvador.

Read an article by Rick Dixon here. 

Campus Ministry Associate at St. Joseph’s University in PA

Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia is seeking applications for Campus Ministry Associate. The Campus Ministry Associate position is a full-time, ten-month job (beginning of August 2019-end of May 2020) which offers a unique opportunity to a person who is interested in gaining experience in the work of college campus ministry. Campus Ministry Associates will aid the SJU Campus Ministry staff in the implementation of various programs, including community service programs, social justice programs, retreats, immersion programs, and liturgical ministry. Additionally, they will live in community with other Campus Ministry Associates in housing provided by the university. Participants in post-graduate service programs are strongly encouraged to apply. More information can be found here Email Beth Ford McNamee at with questions.

Maryknoll lay missioners in El Salvador

Maryknoll lay missioners in El Salvador accompany internally displaced refugees, homeless persons and people in economically poor squatters’ communities. They work in education, youth services, parish outreach, economic empowerment, nutrition, agriculture and environmental concerns.

In this video, they talk about their lives and ministries in a country that continues to experience an epidemic of gang-related violence, while also celebrating life and nurturing many seeds of hope.

Grandma’s faith

Learning life lessons from Cambodia’s elders


By Hang Tran

There are a few fishing communities along the Basaac River. Depending on traffic, it takes about an hour by car from Phnom Penh to the vicinity, then another 10 to 15 minutes by boat to cross the river to reach the other shore.

In one of these communities, about five years ago at a Sunday morning mass, I met an elderly woman. She was getting on in years and was not able to remember her exact age. People call her “Ma Yay,” meaning Grandma.

In conversations over the years, Grandma has told me some of her life stories. She has witnessed a number of intense battles, and particularly feels grateful to have survived the Khmer Rouge time. Grandma and many other people like her crossed the border into neighboring countries, often with only the clothes on their backs. They journeyed strenuously in the dark of night or under thundering gunfire to flee for their lives. They had no proper authorizations or documents. The visas they possessed was their strong wills to live. They were refugees on more than one occasion.

Grandma2At different points during these atrocious periods, Grandma’s husband and several of their children were killed simply because they happened to be in a war zone or died from starvation or diseases. At least one of their children survived and was married. There have been a few grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Nowadays Grandma’s descendants are very busy trying to make a living in the modern world, no longer by fishing as their ancestors did, but by going in to the city to work for others. Touching the rosary on her neck, Grandma said in her soft-spoken voice that the rosary had kept her going through the hardships in war time and, yes, in peace time as well to find enough food to feed everyone in the family. This continues to be Grandma’s way of giving thanks to God and praying for her loved ones.

MassFrom time to time I have been visiting Grandma to see how she is doing. At the last New Year’s Mass she was a bit more frail and bent over. I held her arm as we took a few steps slowly around the churchyard. One of her eyes no longer has sight due to a bomb explosion she survived, but Grandma’s good eye sparkled with light as she described events that occurred nearly a century ago.

I thanked Grandma for sharing her encounters of history in this part of the world, and for being such a vivid model of faith for the younger generations. She beamed with the biggest, cutest toothless smile ever and replied that she was happy that I listened to her.

To me, Grandma’s entire being seemed to embody the hymn verse based on Luke 8:15: “Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart, and yield a harvest through perseverance.”

Hang Tran is a Maryknoll lay missioner in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She works at the Missionaries of Charity Home of Love, which serves orphaned and abandoned children up to 5 years old. 

Photos courtesy of Hang Tran.

Fr. Charlie Dittmeier featured in La Croix International

CaptureFather Charlie Dittmeier, a diocesan priest and member of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, was featured in La Croix International, the new website of La Croix, the prominent French Catholic daily.

The article highlights his 19-year tenure as co-director of the Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Find the article here. 

Aim high: From flying missions to living mission

Marilyn Kott (class of 2015) was featured in the December 2018 issue of Checkpoints, the magazine of the Association of Graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy. In the story Marilyn says, “The teamwork, problem-solving skills and self-confidence I gained at the Academy and in the Air Force prepared me well for this work. We’ve learned not to worry too much about what we can’t do and focus instead on what we can do.”

Kott USAFA story December 2019 (002)-1

The door to forgiveness is always open

Susan Nagele reflects on the opportunity to repent and change in this season of Lent.

susan nagele

Susan Nagele with Toposa women in Sudan.

Rend your heart, not your garments.

I was sitting at the lunch table in the Maryknoll house in Nairobi, Kenya. This was many years ago while I was working in what is now called South Sudan. The war made our lives miserable, and so did the government of Kenya with all its political shenanigans.

A group of Filipina peace activists had been invited by an organization called People for Peace in Africa to lead a workshop on active nonviolence. The young Filipina woman next to me asked if I wanted the president of Kenya to change his corrupt practices. Surprised at the question, I blurted out, “No, I want him dead!”

She gently explained to me that Filipinas never wanted their despotic president dead. They wanted him to change.

I could almost feel the yanking, the rending of my heart. In a split second, I realized what I was capable of. Me, this missionary doctor who truly wanted to do what was right and tried to follow Jesus. Jesus, the one who said, “Love your enemies.”

The sting and shame of that realization has softened as the kindness and mercy of God has helped to clean up my heart. 

Back in Nimule, Sudan, where the Nile crosses from Uganda into Sudan, it was the dry season and Lent at the same time. Every green thing was gone, and dust, to which we shall return, was plentiful. I came out of my little house to find AK 47 assault weapons sitting in their stands at nine-foot intervals surrounding the separate round dining room.

Their owners stood at attention next to them, all soldiers in the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). Inside was a man named Yousif Kuwa, an ethnic Nuba, Muslim all his life and a commander in the SPLA. He had traveled over 600 miles from his base and was meeting with Bishop Paride Taban of the Catholic Church. We later learned that Kuwa had asked Bishop Taban if God would ever forgive them for all the things they had done.

An answer can be found in the Ash Wednesday reading from Joel 2:12-18:

For gracious and merciful is God,
Slow to anger, rich in kindness,
And relenting in punishment,
Perhaps God will again relent
And leave behind a blessing.

That commander asked for forgiveness and wrote a poem with the following lines of blessing:

I shall light my candle. In its light I shall build my civilization.
At that time, I shall extend my hand. I shall forgive those who tried to destroy my identity,
Because love and peace is my aspiration.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the day God is telling us that the door is always open for us to come back.

Nothing is unforgivable. Go into our inner room and pray. Accept our faults. Admit our mistakes and beg for mercy. 

Beyond our personal lives, let us be concerned about the land and stirred to pity just as God was in the first reading from Joel. 

Not all sin is personal. Liberation theology drew attention to structural or social sin, such as racism, sexism and clericalism. And now Pope Francis has introduced the concept of “integral ecology.” In Laudato Si’, the pope writes:

“It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (LS 139)

So let us be ambassadors for Christ. Let us stop blowing our own trumpets and living like hypocrites. Let us put away the gloom and put on our work clothes. Let us put aside ideas of us versus them and start working together. We all belong to one another and we have only one home.

Lent is a special time—the right time—to get back on course and move toward the light and seek our deepest desire: to be one with God and each other.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Susan Nagele is a family physician who recently returned to the United States from East Africa after 33 years of service.

From Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Scripture Reflection for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Photo courtesy of S. Nagele/MKLM.

View All Upcoming Events >