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February 13th, 2008 Amanda Waldroupe | News Stories
 

Q&A: Gary smith

This Portland priest-turned-author cusses and helps African refugees.

     
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Smith on life in a refugee camp in Uganda: “Some days were pretty grim.”
IMAGE: brianleephoto.com

Gary Smith is a 70-year-old Catholic priest who says things like “Darfur is a frickin’ mess” and “humans are fucked up.”

“I don’t fit the stereotype,” says Smith, who also doesn’t wear a priestly collar.

He became moved to help the poor when he was ordained at the University of San Francisco in 1971. A Jesuit, Smith went to Oakland as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods and then to Tacoma as the director of a drop-in center for homeless and street people.

Smith moved to Portland in 1992, and worked in jails with mentally ill people, and residents of low-income hotels before realizing 10 years ago even that wasn’t enough. He went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization that works with the United Nations, and got assigned to Northern Uganda. There, he found himself in camps with as many as 30,000 Sudanese refugees displaced by Sudan’s 20-year civil war.

Smith, who returned to Portland in January, has written a book about his experiences in Africa called They Come Back Singing, a reference to the return of the people of Israel from exile. This spring, Smith will return to Africa—most likely to Zimbabwe. Before he leaves, WW asked him how he stays optimistic in the face of such suffering.

WW: Given that the Bible says God loves everyone, why are there problems like a refugee crisis?
Gary Smith: It’s not that God doesn’t love us. It’s because humans are fucked up. Evil is not sustained by God, but by us. People choose to blow off God’s love. Groups are evil to groups, and individuals are evil to individuals. We choose a lot of disorder.

The Jesuits are famous for questioning any and all assumptions. Doesn’t that philosophy lead you to doubt whether your own work is effective?
[Jesuits] are taught to be critical and examine data as it comes. When there were options of what we had to do in a village, I was always critical of what would work. For example, when it came to staffing, and how we would spend money. You have to ask what would work in these circumstances.

How do you handle moments of self-doubt?
You learn circumspection and prudence. You learn how to finesse madness. You run into screwed-up people, and you have to figure it out. That shows you’re not naive and up to the situation. I’m a big believer in dialogue. And when I was in doubt, I went to people I could trust, and said, “This is how I’m feeling. Could I take this out on you?” If they’re smart, loving people, they will help you, and you can work through the dark spots.

Did you try to convert refugees to Catholicism?
Oh God, no. We never got into trying to convert people. If people needed help, we provided it. I would do a liturgy, but it wouldn’t be like we’re doing it with a loudspeaker in the middle of the village. It would be rude and offensive. I figure people watch and see what you’re doing. If they get interested, then you can teach them. You’re never in a position to proselytize. If you spent your whole life worrying about conversion, you would miss the whole point of being in a relationship with God.

There’s got to be a temptation to throw up your hands and say these problems are too large to solve.
Of course, you don’t work alone, you work with lots of people. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for decades, so I’m not easily discouraged. I have enough experiences with the positive to accent the negative. You take breaks, depend upon your friends. I had friends in the U.S. I was always in touch with through email or telephone. Keep nourishment coming in the face of the darkness you would encounter. Everybody has their days. Some days were pretty grim.

What’s an example of a grim day?
You could go into a tukul (a hut) and somebody had just lost a child to malaria. There’s a lot of grief, because it’s so senseless. A four-month-old baby dies because there’s no mosquito net or health care. Or the LRA [the Lord’s Resistance Army—an armed, religious group infamous for its raids of Northern Ugandan villages and child abductions] would make incursions into the areas I worked in. After you went back into the village, you would see dead people and people who have lost their children because of the abductions. It was a terrible scene.

A good day?
The next day you could be spending time with a teacher who shared their conviction with you that education is the only thing that will move Uganda to the next level. Or you can walk into a Catholic Mass and everybody’s singing and dancing. You can run into seeing some terrible scenes of war, and at the same time or the next day run into class acts of people who are there to take care of each other. It could happen in the same day.

Given the church’s opposition to birth control, how do you square that philosophy with the refugee crisis?
I don’t even try to square it. It’s an issue I never ran into. It was never anything on my front burner. Some of these issues like birth control are just not questions when you face death every day. It’s in another league as far as I’m concerned. There are more important things the Church is doing with the poor and refugees than birth control.

What was on your front burner?
Medical services, getting people to clinics. If a woman was going into labor about to have a child, I would take her in my pickup. People were trying to figure out how to grow their crops better. Why their pigs were dying. Why trees were dying. I would be the one who would hear about or see it, and I could refer people to the right places. Of course, education is important, but you have to provide the means so they can get that education. And you couldn’t believe the gratitude of the people. People just thank you for not forgetting them. That cracks me open in ways that I suppose you could say only love cracks you open. When you’re around poor people with no power, no money, no beauty, it’s pretty hard to be a phony. All they have to offer you is their love. Like when a child who comes to you with their love. They crack you open by their total love for you. I think the same thing happens when you work with the poor. Part of the discovery of myself is in the presence of the poor, like you discover yourself in the presence of the person who loves you, or you love.

What’s the biggest mistake you have ever made?
There are probably a whole litany of times when I’ve made judgments on people on the streets and was wrong. Why don’t you get a job, why do you smell so much, why don’t you stop using drugs. And then you find out their story. Of course, you learn from that it’s so easy to pass judgment on people who don’t have as much as you have. Once, a cabbie said to me in New York, pointing to someone in the street: “Look at that troll.” And another person in the cab said, “He had a mommy and a daddy, too.” And that stopped the cabbie cold. You can look at people as trolls or people with beating hearts.

What would you tell a young person considering your career path?
You gotta expose yourself to it. That means shelters or working with agencies that work with the poor. Go do it, then go back and pray about it and see if that’s what you want to do. Then you can figure out some way how you can use your skills and talents to deal with the problem. You have to figure out the structures that create the poor. You can’t be compassionate. You have to analyze what is causing this reality, and ask is there a way you can analyze things to figure out what’s happening, then move toward some solutions to the problem. And eventually one insight leads to another.

What do you do to take a break when you’re in Uganda?
Normally I would fly to Kampala [the capital], about 400 miles south as the crow flies. There’s a Jesuit community there. And I would stay there and take a hot shower. You could never get one in the north. Eat some food, sleep and relax a bit. Sometimes you don’t want to do anything but have a glass of wine with a friend and take it easy.


FACTS: To learn more about Jesuit Refugee Services, go to jesref.org.

St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit order within the Catholic Church in 1534.

 
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