Nigeria trip brings new perspectives - Catholic Courier

Nigeria trip brings new perspectives

A lighthearted encounter with two youths lasted just minutes, but it drove home for Sue Versluys what her two-week trip to Nigeria was all about.

The boys, perhaps 10 years old, spied Versluys’ camera and pleaded, “Snap, snap” — a request to have their picture taken. In the ensuing chat, one young man told Versluys he wanted to pursue the priesthood, following the example of his local priest. The other wished to become a doctor, in a country where far too many people die early from poverty and disease.

They had remained buddies from an early age even though their families were from opposing tribes that had gone to war in 2004, resulting in the deaths of numerous men, women and children. Versluys observed that the friendship may never have endured without Catholic Relief Services-guided efforts to promote global solidarity.

Versluys, who serves as Rochester’s diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, was among 12 people nationwide who took part in “Called to Witness” April 15-28, visiting the Nigerian archdioceses of Abuja and Jos. The visit was a joint effort of CRS and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.

Participants got a firsthand view of CRS’ social-ministry efforts in some of the world’s most vulnerable parts. This includes justice-and-peace initiatives designed to minimize bloodshed and help those in greatest need. Versluys likes the fact that CRS’ approach is more grassroots, not top-down.

“I’ve never been so proud to be Catholic,” she stated. “One man said, ‘We thought you were going to come over and tell us what we were doing wrong and how to fix it, but you just came and loved us.'”

Versluys spent time at an orphanage for children who have lost family members to AIDS and/or contracted the disease themselves. She said many other Nigerian children live with grandparents because their own parents had died of AIDS. Other memorable moments included visiting families who lived in mud huts; watching a young girl pounding yams — the area’s most common food — for dinner; and observing numerous women walk several miles to get water for their families.

So even though the electricity at her hotel didn’t usually work, and it took an hour for the faucet to yield a bucket of water, Versluys said she was in no position to complain and now regards those conveniences as luxuries.

“Even today, when I brush my teeth, I turn off the water in between. And I wait longer to wash my clothes,” she remarked.

Versluys was touched by the royal treatment she and other guests received despite the Nigerian natives’ humble surroundings. She described one meal they ate that would have been ordinary by our standards — a couple of chickens and a bottled malt drink — but was considered exquisite locally.

“They gave us the very best they had, and I felt guilty taking it,” Versluys remarked, but said she accepted the gestures so as not to be insulting.

Versluys’ group attended Mass at a church with a dirt floor. The liturgy lasted three hours and included a collection of money and food, a baptism afterward, and lots of drumming, singing and dancing.

“Everybody dances, even the priest,” Versluys said, adding that her group traveled in a mostly Christian territory of a country that has equally large concentrations of Christians and Muslims. English is its primary language.

“Called to Witness” implores its participants to take their experiences back home, influencing and educating others on the importance of global solidarity — particularly in supporting the impoverished. Versluys said global solidarity will be the theme for the Diocesan Youth Convention this November in Rochester, with Jerry Goebel — a top national speaker on the topic — serving as keynoter. Among her other plans are to form a Boy Scout partnership between troops in Nigeria and the Rochester area, as well as a link between local all-girls’ high schools and the Teenage Girls Empowerment Centre, an effort to guide young Nigerian women toward success.

The April journey marked Versluys’ first trip to Africa, and she said she plans to someday return. She noted that her interest in the culture stemmed from childhood when her parents, Bill and Reggie West, housed University of Rochester graduate students from several African countries.

She came away from Nigeria deeply inspired.

“We’re all one big family — brothers and sisters who have the same kinds of needs and desires. We’re more similar than different,” she said.

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