Rebirth and rebuilding

by Sarah MacDonald

Fr Eamon Sheridan is working at the coalface of the drug epidemic in Myanmar’s Kachin State. He talks to Sarah Mac Donald about his Columban vocation and rebuilding lives at the Rebirth Centre in Myitkyina.

Two weeks shy of my 18th birthday I walked in through the gates of Dalgan Park on 12th September 1978.” Born and reared in Drogheda, Co Louth, Fr Eamon Sheridan grew up in a Catholic family that was the same as any other. “I wouldn’t say that we were a very pious family. We went to Mass on a Sunday and we said the Rosary together during Lent.” Their local parish was run by the Augustinians whom he was thinking of joining. “They had invited me to a vocations workshop in Dublin and that’s where I heard a Columban priest.” A new path opened up.

He was 17 when he joined the Columbans in 1978. During the course of his nine years of preparation, he did two years in Taiwan for his overseas training assignment. “I really enjoyed it and my time there confirmed me in my choice. The Columbans were always very down-to-earth people. I felt I could really relate to them, that they had a holiness that was practical.” He was ordained in December 1987.

Ahead of, and just after ordination, he did a stint in Ballymun in Dublin. “Then I was appointed back to Taiwan in the middle of 1988 and I was there for nineteen and a half years with two years in Rome for studies.” He studied moral theology to assist him in his work with illegal migrant workers from Sri Lanka who were living in Taiwan. They taught him about sacrificial love.

From Taiwan, Fr Eamon was elected on to the Missionary Society of St Columban’s General Council in 2006 when he was 46. He served alongside Frs. Tommy Murphy, John Burger and Trevor Trotter until 2012. “Initially we lived in Donaghmede in Dublin, but then we moved the headquarters to Hong Kong. I loved our years in Hong Kong. I worked in a parish with an English-speaking community. The Church in Hong Kong is vibrant. It has lots of people joining it. I think about 3,000 a year are baptised at Easter – adults who go through a three-year training course, they don’t just walk in.” This contrasted with Taiwan where “Christianity was struggling”.

A three-year appointment in Ireland followed Fr Eamon’s tenure on the General Council and once again he ministered in the Columban parish in Ballymun. “I loved being in Ballymun. But we had to move out as we were handing the parish back to the diocese which was a difficult process – emotionally rather than practically – for the people and I think for us as Columbans.”

“Then I packed my bags and off I went to Myanmar.” Since 2017, Fr Eamon has been involved with the Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. It offers programmes to those dealing with addiction. Though renewed fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Army has led to large-scale displacement and up to 1,000 deaths, according to Fr Eamon, addiction is the biggest challenge facing society here. “Where I am in Myitkyina, it is of such epidemic proportions that drugs are killing more than the war is.”

When Fr Eamon started at the Centre, he introduced the 12 Step programme. He believes that the easy availability of drugs is a key contributor to the current epidemic in Myitkyina. “You don’t have to go looking for drugs, they will come looking for you; they are everywhere.” Compounding this ready availability is the fact that there are so few opportunities to work. There is an ongoing conflict which ” 13 1918 – 2020 OVER 100 YEARS OF PUBLICATION has seen people driven from their homes, resulting in 130,000 people living in camps for the internally displaced. At present, the addiction crisis affects more men than women. “It is affecting women but probably not to the same extent, I think because women are with the children. But there is no study on that – it is much more hidden. All of the guys I know have used drugs with girls. One of my goals is to get a dormitory for women so that they can start accessing the programme. It a big lacuna – we only have facilities for men.” He needs about $50,000 in order to fund this.

The rehabilitation programme deals with drug addiction and also alcohol addiction. Ninety percent of those who present are not only contending with their addiction but are also either HIV positive or have Hepatitis C and some also have TB. The Rebirth Centre organises anti-retrovirals for those with HIV and medication for the other conditions. It also builds up the young men’s nutrition and provides counselling to those who learn of their HIV status.

At the moment, Fr Eamon is expanding the outreach of the 12 Step programme and has set up meetings in the town of Myitkyina itself. “My hope is that in every village there will be 12 Step meetings so that when people go home from here, they will have a support network.”

Knowing how a lack of work can undermine efforts to defeat addiction, he is collaborating with the Brothers of St Gabriel to offer vocational training in carpentry which may lead to work. At the centre, they already offer hairstyling and one former resident has now been employed by Fr Eamon to teach other residents this skill.

Approximately 160 men currently benefit from the Rebirth Centre’s residential programme each year. His hope is to have accommodation for 60 residents on each programme. That number will further increase if he can secure the funding for a women’s dormitory.

Fr Eamon lives in the Centre as he wants to be part of the community. Residents join him for Mass every morning and for prayers in the evening and take part in Eucharistic Adoration twice a week. He says the young men “love it. You invite them to come to be with Jesus – with their ‘higher power’ – and to tell him everything they want to say. And they do, they let it go.” He adds, “I feel very at home here and my own spirituality and relationship with God has deepened.”