Amid lockdown, Father Bassano mrelies on Nile Radio
Father Michael Bassano, a Binghamton native, is praying for God’s protection from COVID-19 for the people in the crowded displaced-persons camp where he serves as a Maryknoll missionary in South Sudan.
He is the Catholic chaplain in the United Nations Protection of Civilians (POC) camp outside the town of Malakal by the White Nile. Up to about 3,000 of the 30,000 people who have been displaced by civil war are members of his parish.
“Our people cannot go outside the camp as the government army fears that the people will bring the virus to Malakal town and other areas,” he wrote recently. “We can only trust in God that our people will be protected and safe.”
The people of the camp live in very basic housing on dusty pathways, and Father Bassano himself lives near the camp in a shipping container as his room, where because of the pandemic lockdown he spends his time writing poems and vignettes about life in the camp.
“Here we now have 481 confirmed cases and 6 deaths [in South Sudan],” he wrote. “The UN is now on the highest level phase 3 which means restriction of movement, face masks, limiting meetings with social distancing, and overall restriction of movement to protect our people.
“The government has allowed a commercial flight to come to Malakal but this is risky since passengers just go from the airport to our camp or the town without proper screening or testing. All UN mission flights are canceled except for World Food Programme flights with a limited number of passengers who are screened, tested, and quarantined for 14 days upon arrival in Malakal. We hope and keep praying that the people in our camp do not get infected.”
He also explained how Easter was celebrated in the lockdown:
“For Holy Week and Easter Sunday since all our church activities were canceled, we decided to tape our Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday celebrations on our public radio station of the camp called Nile Radio.
“It was a unique experience going live on radio with the encouragement of some of our youth from our church singing and praying with me as we gave the Easter message of hope to our people in the camp in these difficult times of coronavirus. It was a wonderful and new way of being church together without assembling physically together.
“I am the only Maryknoll priest here in the camp of 30,000 people displaced by civil war but I find support from the people of the [UN] staff. I am presently living in the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] compound where our community of people is watching out and caring for me as their elder father.
“I am also invited weekly by the head of [the UN mission], Madam Hazel Dewett, to come to her house with members of her staff to have an informal meal together and watch a movie on her big TV screen. I am also supported by the UN human-rights team who meet with me regularly as we share experience and reflect on our situation here during our lockdown.
“During the week, I also have the opportunity to meet with members of our church who are national South Sudanese staff living here near our compound as we share over a cappuccino coffee how things are going in our lives and how one day we hope to get back to our church activities.
“In my quiet time alone in my shipping-container room, I find time to rest, read the Scriptures, listen to music, watch a TV that was given to me, and write poetry. In the early morning and late evening I take a walk around our UN mission compound to watch the sunrise and sunset while getting some good walking exercise.
“I keep in touch with my older brother and nieces in New York by phone and email. They are healthy and well despite having to remain in their homes. I also keep in contact with Father Jim Greene who is our executive director of Solidarity with South Sudan of which as a Maryknoll priest I am a part of. All in all I feel supported by the people here at the UN mission as well as by Solidarity.
“It is not an easy thing to be restricted from visiting hospitals, visiting the IDP [internally displaced people] families, or having church activities but I feel I am doing the best I can in this situation.
“I am keeping well and healthy — resting, eating well, and exercising either in my room or walking outside keeping good social distance.
“Wishing you good health and well-being in this Easter season and always. I am with you in prayer especially as we pray for all those who have the virus at Maryknoll and everywhere else in the world. …
“Jesus is risen, alleluia.
“Warm regards, Mike Bassano”
Here is a recent camp vignette that he wrote:
“There is a tall, beautiful green tree with reddish orange blossoms in our UN compound. It is called Delonix Regia or the Flame of the Forest. The local inhabitants of Upper Nile State in South Sudan call it the Easter Tree. The reason for this being that it blossoms in the months of April and May during the Easter season. The blossoms are used as a decorative element in our church celebrations.
“During this time of coronavirus, may we stand as tall and strong as this Easter Tree in becoming something beautiful for God. May all of us in this world of ours rise together to create a new and different way of being in the Risen Jesus. Amen.”
Of Father Bassano’s poem titled “Everything” (below), Deacon Paul Bork, Director for Mission Education and Promotion, East Region, Mission Appeals Team Leader, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, wrote in an email:
“This is a beautiful hope-filled prayer. It brings me hope and a connection with joy in the midst of our suffering. I’ll share this prayer poem with others.
“The second to last stanza connects well with [John 10:10]: ‘I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’”
Jesus in my waking,
of renewed humanity
Jesus in my voice,
and actions of
compassion uplifting lives
Jesus in my honesty,
Jesus in my walking,
for better world
Jesus in my searching
and harmony among people
Jesus in my laughter
to live each day fully
Jesus in fragrant
in song of the birds
and in everything that is me.
Father Bassano signed off: “Enjoy the gift of today.”