Catholic aid workers work far from home for persecuted Sudanese Christians who lost theirs.
WASHINGTON, D.C.— Nurse practitioner Katie Gesto doesn't think God wants her to join a medical practice, settle down in the suburbs and earn good money.
Instead, she thinks he wants her in the northeast African republic of Sudan, living on a few thousand dollars a year while serving the sick and poor in a country ruled by a brutal, Christian-hating, Islamic regime.
“God asked me to go and be present with these people, evangelize to them and help them however I can,” Gesto said from her part-time home in Washington, D.C., where she's trying to recruit Catholic volunteers to join her on another mission into bloodshed and misery.
Sudanese Catholic bishops issued a statement Aug. 24, pointing out that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur has resulted in the deaths of some 35,000 people during the past 18 months due to fighting, starvation and disease. The bishops said the people of civilized nations must stop talking about the crisis and start finding ways to help.
The U.S. Agency for International Development reports that 350,000 lives are at risk because of escalated fighting between the official government ruled by Umar Al Bashir and rebel groups that rose up against it last year.
“All of Sudan's Christians suffer horrible persecution right now,” Gesto said.
The Sudanese government, based in Khartoum, has been accused of backing Arab militias and gangs known as Janja-weed in their fight for control of the region and its resources.
Gesto, 37, first traveled to Sudan in 1996 as part of the Switzerland-based Christian humanitarian organization Medair, shortly after she graduated from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, with a nursing degree. She first took an interest in the country after befriending Bishop Macram Max Gassis of Sudan's El Obeid diocese.
She spent two years in the Upper Nile region before returning to study to become a nurse practitioner — which allows her to prescribe medicine — at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Gesto traveled again to Sudan in 2002 for a two-year stay before returning to the United States in April in order to educate people about Sudan and convince fellow Catholics to help.
She describes a country in which there are almost no cars or roads, and most villages have no running water or electricity. Medicine is scarce and primitive, and refrigeration non-existent.
Living in a Hut
Gesto has been living in a mud hut and working among the Dinka tribe in an area that is several days south and east from Darfur by foot — the common mode of transportation throughout Sudan. She and other Christians who live east of El Obeid are safe, but she believes that Al Bashir has every intention of conquering all regions of Sudan that are protected by rebel groups that organize under the umbrella of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
“Your personal safety is something you have to consider before going into Sudan, and it's a concern you have to settle between you and God,” Gesto said. “But this is what God wants me to do, and I can't lead a life doing something other than what God has planned for me just because I want to be safe. How can I not go over there, even if I know I might die of a disease?”
Though Gesto spent her last two-year stint in Sudan at a safe distance from the war's central battlegrounds, she frequently treated, comforted and prayed with black African refugees who escaped Darfur to save their own lives.
“I would meet entire families, with young children, migrating south by foot to escape the violence and persecution, with no resources other than one mosquito net for five people,” Gesto said.
What astonishes her most is that the Sudanese, in their hunger and thirst, seem more interested in hearing the Gospel than in receiving food and drink.
“So many of them don't even know who Jesus is, but they have a hunger for him,” Gesto said. “When they hear about Jesus, they want more. They can't get enough. I have food and medicine for them, and they mostly want more Gospel.”
Gesto, who attends St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Md., said she grew up Catholic but didn't understand that Catholics are often called to serve the least fortunate until she attended Franciscan University and began to fully understand her faith.
“I just didn't really get it before I went to Steubenville and became solid in my faith, really understanding it and developing a relationship with God that let me hear what he wants me to do,” Gesto said.
It costs Gesto about $4,500 a year to live and provide medical services in Sudan — an amount she raises by asking family and friends for donations. She often finds herself serving the poor along with Missionaries of Charity and Ugandan missionary priests, who also provide daily Mass when they're not trying to acquire and serve food and water.
Gesto says she needs help from a few Catholics willing to sacrifice comfort and safety to help the poor and persecuted.
“It's very difficult to find people to go with me,” Gesto said. “A lot of Catholics are interested in helping, but it's as if they're waiting for an organization to come along and facilitate the trip and make things happen. If we wait for a group to solve this, it's never going to happen.”
The bishops of Sudan want organized intervention from the United Nations in order to counter the Janjaweed. In their statement, Sudanese bishops urged the United Nations and the rest of the international community to put pressure on the Sudanese government “not only to halt arming of the Janjaweed, but also to immediately disarm them and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The statement continued, “If the government of Khartoum is reluctant to assume this responsibility, then we appeal to the international community to intervene immediately.”
Writing in a year when the world marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the bishops said, “The holocaust of the African ethnicity in Darfur is ethnic cleansing.” They urged the U.N. to “assume their responsibilities” in the face of a situation characterized by “terror, rape, torture, murder and slavery.”
As “shepherds and pastors, we cannot ignore the annihilation of an entire ethnic group whatever their creed, gender or clan,” the statement said.
After an early August trip to Darfur, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' international policy committee said there was “no question” that the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan represented ethnic cleansing. Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said the Sudanese government is engaged in a policy to Arabize and Islamize the population.
In a July 30 Security Council resolution, Sudan was given 30 days to show progress in securing Darfur, disarming militias and allowing more aid access, or face possible sanctions.
On Sept. 1, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report to the Security Council that the Sudanese government had made some progress in reining in Janjaweed militias but had failed to fully protect African villagers.
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.
- September 12-18, 2004