Richard Baker’s Ministry to Sudanese Refugees (Archives)

Dying before Their Time Dying before Their Time

by Frank Breen
originally printed in Maryknoll Magazine (December 1997)

Maryknoll missioner ministers to thousands of Sudanese refugees struggling to survive in Ethiopia

Under the blazing afternoon sun in a refugee village in Ethiopia, not far from the Sudan border, tears stream down the faces of young choir members as Maryknoll Father Richard Baker prays over a freshly dug grave. The missioner is burying a young Sudanese refugee who died not from war-related wounds but a more mundane, albeit deadly, disease-meningitis. Baker’s face reflects the melancholy missioners often experience in ministering to the poor, so many of whom die before their time.

The Maryknoller from Yonkers, N.Y., has seen more than his share. The people he works with in the sprawling Gambella region of western Ethiopia are all desperately poor. They have fled the civil war raging in Sudan since 1983 that has claimed more than a million lives. More than 70,000 refugees live in three camps in the Gambella region, nearly 40,000 crowded in the Pinyudo camp.

Baker serves in Gambella under the auspices of the Jesuit Refugee Service ORS), an agency of the Society of Jesus. JRS offers help in 40 countries, 18 of which are in Africa, home to one-third of the world’s 13.2 million refugees.

“Many refugee women,” Baker says, “live with the memory of husbands and children who were killed or who have been separated from them, and many have no idea if their loved ones are dead or alive. We try to provide the spiritual help the wives and mothers need to cope with this trauma.”

The camp also abounds in young men. “They come from Sudan to escape the war,” says Ahmed Warsame, head of the U.N. relief agency in Gambella, “but even more so to find education and jobs, but there is little education and no jobs here.”

Baker and his JRS co-worker, Esknder Dessaligne, an Ethiopian Catholic from Addis Ababa, work closely with other agencies to provide the refugees with education, food relief, medical care and community organization. To offer Mass and administer the sacraments, Baker travels 100 miles over rough, at times impassable, roads connecting the three camps. In Pinyudo, he trains lay catechists to form the 1,000 Catholics in the camp into small Christian communities.

“We’re trying to help refugees survive here in Ethiopia,” Baker says. “In the long view, however, they are going to return to Sudan, where they may not have any priests. We want them to be able to live and proclaim their faith on their own.”

Baker was one of four Maryknoll priests working in Sudan’s diocese of El Obeid in the 1980s. But the ruling fundamentalist Muslim officials harassed the Church and in effect blocked the missioners’ work. Denied renewal of their residency visas, the Maryknollers all were forced out by 1991. In 1994, Baker responded to a request by Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir of Khartoum to serve the refugees in the Gambella region.

Baker is inspired by his parishioners. “The many good lay leaders are a great source of hope for the Church here,” he says. Some 700 people receive Holy Communion at Sunday Mass in Pinyudo. Baker has made the rationale of JRS his own: “The cross and resurrection of Jesus take us deeper into the mystery of human suffering and yet offer sources of hope. As companions of the refugees and of one another in their service, we are companions also of Jesus.”