I am writing this crouched under a lazy ceiling fan, dripping with sweat and staring out at the squalid, chaotic, dust-blown bedlam that is Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan. You might ask, “Who in their right mind would would choose to live and work in such an area ?”
The answer is, well……the Columbans.
For over forty years the Columbans – priests, Sisters, Lay Missionaries – have been serving the people of Pakistan. We believe that Jesus calls missionaries to even go to places like this…or maybe, PARTICULARLY to places like this. Here there are religious and ethnic tensions, grinding poverty, constant threats of terrorist outrages, chronic injustice and endemic corruption. The “normal” reaction would be to avoid this kind of spot like the plague, whereas we actively seek them out. We do so because we feel that this is what Jesus would do. Perhaps we are crazy. In that case, so was Jesus. We are in good company. Did he not associate with the poor and outcast, rather than the rich and powerful?
When he did, I’m sure he met with the “other side of the coin”, as I have done during my brief visit to Pakistan – kind faces, warm welcomes, stunning hospitality from people who have virtually nothing.
In between my meetings and official engagements as Regional Director of the Columbans in Britain, I’ve been following the tracks of individual Columbans.
Fr. Pat Visanti gave up a comfortable existence in a bank in his native Fiji to join the Columbans and accept an appointment to Pakistan. Now he is based in the long-established Columban parish of Badin, deep in the parched Thar Desert. Here, Pat and Monaliza Sagra (a Columban Lay Missionary from the Philippines) oversee a college of 470 pupils and a clinic with five full-time health workers. Pat celebrates the sacraments in one main church, two satellite chapels (a third is under construction) and numerous houses in outlying villages…….and does it in three different languages!
New Zealander Fr. Dan O’Connell (no stranger to readers of the “Far East”) is a familiar sight as he speeds across the Thar on his trusty motorbike. Perched precariously on the pillion, I accompanied him as we rattled over bone-hard dirt roads to a village primary school, where I found Hindu, Christian and Muslim children happily studying together. This is a remarkable form of witness, as Pakistan is a country born in bloodshed. Over a million people perished at Partition with India in 1947 as Hindus and Muslims slaughtered one another. Even today there are occasional outbreaks of communal violence on both sides of the border. Yet here are we, the Columbans, trying to bring people of rival Faiths together to face their common enemies of poverty and exploitation. Madness!
Fr. Tomas King from Ireland has spent years in this area, serving not only the majority Sindhi population but also members of the Parkari Kholi tribal group – a people often despised for being both indigenous and largely Christian. (If you are going to associate with the lowly in Pakistan, you can’t get much lower than the Parkari Kholi.)
The Columban Sisters are in Pakistan as well, engaged in parish and community work in the maelstrom of downtown Karachi. (You’ll be hearing more of THEM this year as they celebrate 100 years of service to the mission.)
Yes, it’s a crazy journey we are on in Pakistan.
But that is just how Columbans are.
Crazy for Christ.