Fr Gerry Clarke, a member of the Rapid Response Unit of the Jesuit Refugee Service, has just been appointed National Director of the JRS in Chad, where he has been working for some monthsWhen we asked him what it was like, he gave an atmospheric reply:
“Evening is often a good time for walking on the streets of Abéché. When the heat of the afternoon sun has dissipated and the shops are closing I regularly set off from the Catholic Mission and walk to the edge of the town. It’s only half an hour to where the tarmac road ends and where the sands of the desert begin. In the hazy distance rise the jagged peaks and rocky knolls in the region of Ouaddaï of eastern Chad and the territory of the Sahel. I stick to the footpath on the way out, to avoid the speeding Land Cruisers of NGOs dropping their staff home, or the open, cargo-stuffed trucks topped with turbaned and tanned travellers on their way into town. The noise diminishes as I reach the end of the regular road and I turn into the scrub and wilderness of the surrounding desert. There are well-worn tracks which I follow through the thorny bushes, and silence descends, apart perhaps from the crazy braying of a donkey being pushed into an enclosure for the night. The large disc of the sun sets rapidly through the yellow dust thrown up by the day’s movements of people and traffic, so I turn and head back into town.
Now the footpaths are out of bounds. Muslim “pray-ers” have spread their mats and begun the ritual washing of hands and feet and face that prepare for the time of prayer. Sitting on the kerb they quietly and individually pour out the water from plastic kettles and then shuffle into position to await the call of the muezzin: “Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaho akbar”; they bow and reverently respond to the leader in prayer. Sometimes there are only a handful in a single line, but here and there may be a double or triple line bowing, united in movement and thought, in reverence for God greater-than-whom-there-is-none. I pass by respectfully, quietened, humbled and impressed.
Not everybody is praying. Traffic still rolls by, men and women carry on without much regard for the devotions of these street-side prayers. And nevertheless, it forces you to think. It’s a gesture, a statement, a challenge: here in this part of the day there is time for prayer, ritually slowing down, making a space, facing the Creator, listening to the call, bowing together and uttering the words in unison. It brings solidarity and focus, communion and fraternity, being united in belief and practice, learning together, being instructed together and departing more quietly than you came.
I turn into the gates of the Catholic Mission. The last basketball players drift past me in groups of chatter and exhaustion; some wash the dust off and drink long draughts from the water jars at the gates of the residence, like Greek warriors after battle or the games. I’m hoping that the electricity will be running to give me light for my own shower. Did I remember to fill the water buckets? And in the near quiet of my room broken only by the whirr of the fan above my head, I retreat into the sanctuary of mosquito net and head-torch and recall a moment in Belvedere College community where I spent two years during Jesuit formation. Fr. FX O’Sullivan sits quietly before the Blessed Sacrament. The feeble light of four o’clock on a December afternoon barely penetrates the darkened chapel. He doesn’t stir but sits silently as my eyes and ears adapt to this place of prayer. In the yard outside the voices of the last schoolboys rise and fall indistinctly; not a disturbance, more a confirmation of the outside and the inside, the inner and the outer. By his reverence and stillness Fr. FX is my leader in prayer, and we enter into a communion of silence, of listening and learning from which both of us depart more quietly than we came.
Perhaps the evening is a good time to pray wherever you are.”