Gabe Hurrish has served with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in the war-torn East African nation of South Sudan for less than two years, yet the Wisconsin native has close to 30 years of mission experience in Asia, Africa and Latin America, going where the Spirit leads him.
“I almost never go to a place that I have planned going to,” says Hurrish. “There is something like an invisible force—I call it the Holy Spirit—guiding me to these places. It’s only in retrospect that I can see why I was sent to a particular place.”
He may not know exactly why he goes somewhere, but he certainly knows what he’s doing in South Sudan and why it’s important: he’s helping to build the world’s newest country.
His ministry is teaching the teachers. Working with Solidarity with South Sudan, a unique joint international initiative of religious orders, Hurrish is engaged in teaching social studies, computer classes, religious education and English and helping to administer the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio.
Fewer than one-third of primary-school-aged children attend school in South Sudan, ranking the country as the world’s worst in this category, according to UNESCO. More than 2.2 million school-aged children in South Sudan are not attending classes.
Many of those who do go to school in South Sudan have to walk up to two hours to reach a classroom, he says. If it rains, if the roads or trails are insecure, or someone in their family is sick, they can’t go. Many of the schools are in dilapidated buildings, with 100 to 125 students crammed into a tiny classroom with no desks and few benches or chairs. In the more remote areas, classes are held under trees, with students sitting on rocks, logs or the ground.
Teachers are paid as little as $1.50 a week, and as a result, some do not put much effort into teaching, and must tend a family crop or start a business to survive, Hurrish says. In this challenging environment, teachers are not the supported leaders they are in many other countries.
Against these overwhelming odds, Hurrish and the Solidarity Teacher Training College provide a new vision that promotes qualified and trained teachers as respected role models who are the key to a better future for their country.
“As I look at these students hunched over their exams and concentrating so hard, I think this is the future of education in this new country,” Hurrish says. “I’ve never felt so connected to helping build up a country before. Every teacher we put out there makes that much difference in the country, fostering education and growth.”
In addition to learning how to teach, the college’s students also learn other lessons that are crucial for South Sudan’s future. “We have students who come from all over the country, and some even come from Sudan,” Hurrish says. They don’t necessarily speak the same languages and they come from different ethnic groups, some of whom have been at war with each other.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is bring them together to show that everybody is equal, and that they can have peace among the different ethnic groups,” he says.
The good news, he adds, is that Solidarity Teacher Training College currently has more than 100 teachers-in-training enrolled and graduates 20 to 30 qualified and trained teachers every four months. Since 2013, the college, located in the Gbudwe state in southwestern South Sudan, has graduated about 250 teachers. Another 2,000 teachers have benefited from Solidarity with South Sudan’s in-service training.
“These are the young, sharp minds that will be working with the youth of tomorrow,” Hurrish says. “They are the future, and God willing, they will be the agents of change.”
He says that he and the other college staff, who hail from eight different countries, often hear from their graduates who tell them, “It was because of you that I got this job. It’s because of you that I changed my life.”
Since winning its independence in 2011 from Sudan to the north, South Sudan has seen very little peace. In 2013, civil war broke out between rival ethnic groups. Since then, about 400,000 people are believed to have died as a result of the civil war and ethnic cleansing. More than 4 million South Sudanese live in refugee camps in neighboring countries or in United Nations camps for internally displaced persons.
Maryknoll Father Michael Bassano, who is also part of Solidarity with South Sudan, serves as the Catholic chaplain at one such U.N. camp in Malakal. Another Maryknoll priest, Father Thomas Tiscornia, served until recently as a chaplain with Solidarity at the Catholic Health Training Institute in Wau.
Nine years ago, Hurrish worked for a time for Solidarity with South Sudan in its Rome office as the organization was getting off the ground. Six years later, he spent a summer teaching in South Sudan. “After I got home,” he says, “I wondered, ‘Maybe it‘s time to go back to Africa and help out.’ ”
He had known Maryknoll missioners from his previous stints in overseas mission. “I bumped into them, here, there and everywhere,” Hurrish says. “And I knew that they had a good program and that they prepared their people well, much better than many other volunteer and lay mission organizations I have encountered.”
Hurrish began his service career in the Peace Corp in 1984 working on water projects in Kenya. Later he worked in Sudan with refugees and then in Ethiopia in famine relief. He was a consultant in Uganda, Somalia, South Africa and Peru, and worked with a mission group in Central America. He also taught English in China for 10 years.
Still, Hurrish traces the beginnings of his lay missioner vocation to his uncle, a Franciscan priest who served for 32 years in India and Brazil. He remembers as a child being enthralled by his uncle’s stories.
When Hurrish began his own overseas mission work, his uncle was always the first person he went to visit when he came home. “He understood me, and I understood him,” Hurrish says. “We would reminisce for hours on adventures and stories from our missions.”
When his uncle, Father Alex Bombera, died at almost 99 years of age, the Franciscan provincial at the funeral reached into the casket just before closing it and took out the priest’s mission cross. While the cross is usually buried with the missioner, the provincial told Hurrish that his uncle would have wanted his nephew to carry his crucifix back into mission. “Now I know that a portion of the spirit of my uncle will be with me wherever I go,” Hurrish says.
Featured Image: Joana Ilario, a graduate of Solidarity Teacher Training College, helps a student in St. Mary’s Primary School in Yambio. (P. Jeffrey/S. Sudan)