Msgr. John Kozar visits the Holy Family Church in Gaza in January 2016. (photo: CNEWA)
A mother holds her child in a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, in May 2015. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Children greet visitors to a refugee camp in Zahleh, Lebanon. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
An Ethiopian mother generously offered to share her goat’s milk with Msgr. Kozar on his 2016 pastoral visit. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
During a number of my pastoral visits, not only have I witnessed firsthand the extreme sufferings of war, famine, natural disasters and the like, I have witnessed and been uplifted by the resilience of the human spirit. The survivors of these disasters not only survive, they thrive — oftentimes as a result of their profound faith and, among Christians, their support of the church. CNEWA is honored and humbled to witness this in our role of accompaniment of the local church.
I think of the large numbers of refugees of every age who had to flee the ravages of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But I especially recall the courageous women who carried their babies and clutched the arms of their elderly mothers and grandparents as they fled persecution to an unknown land — and a very uncertain future. But, inspired by their faith and nurtured by the church, they carried with them an abundance of hope, which has led them to a new life. Even if “new life” has meant living in a refugee camp or a cramped apartment, they have maintained their hope and have joyfully expressed it in their prayers and liturgical celebrations. I have had the great joy of participating in some of these liturgical events and have come away uplifted and renewed in my own faith.
The prominence of the cross of Jesus has been visible everywhere: on the fronts of tents or humble shelters, worn around their necks, painted on the exteriors of gathering places or displayed in some other ways. It proudly proclaims their identity and their sense of hope.
When the monsoon rains in Southern India turned into deadly flooding last year, CNEWA was among the first church-based organizations to respond as millions of poor people were displaced and left without shelter, without food, without even the most basic necessities of life. The local church served these poor in a very admirable way and provided not only material relief and supplies, but — even more importantly — the church provided spiritual comfort and encouraged the people to hope and seek new life. Despite the uncertainty of their future, these humble people of faith not only accepted their fate, but reached out to serve the church by serving the needs of others.
Religious men and women were especially courageous and often served as the only lifeline to those in remote or inaccessible areas. Some of these religious were themselves displaced and had lost everything in the floods, but they worked untiringly to serve those in need. The church was at its best, not just in providing material needs, but in sustaining the faith of the survivors and inspiring them to maintain their hope.
Holy Family Parish in the Gaza Strip is a beacon of hope and new life. Shortly after the last conflict between Hamas and Israel, in the midst of much suffering and destruction, Holy Family Parish opened its doors and its hearts to all — to the hungry, to the elderly, to people of every faith tradition. It was an oasis surrounded by a desert of despair and destruction.
The local pastor and his energetic parish team exuded a sense of hope and shared that with the thousands who sought comfort there. I was privileged to visit there and to experience the love that radiated within this small parish. When I celebrated Mass, I could not help but smile when I realized that tradition tells us that the Holy Family stopped here for comfort and refuge on their flight to Egypt. And today this holy place reverences that tradition through the ministry of giving refuge and by hosting so many who suffer and are in need — providing them with an environment of welcome and hope.
In Ethiopia, drought has been a stinging reality for many years, resulting in the starvation of many, especially infants and other vulnerable groups within their societies. Despite their hunger and uncertainty, despite the empty grain containers and their emaciated bodies, they endure and they maintain their sense of hope.
I have been especially humbled by those suffering from hunger as they have reached out to me, as a brother from far away, and gave me food, even in their want.
One particular time, a poor mother whom we were visiting in her stone hut brought me some milk from her goat. Milk. Politely, I declined and asked her to give this milk to her children. She never complained about the drought, which had dramatically diminished her cactus crop; she never brought up her own uncertainty of how she would continue to feed her children. She demonstrated only a sense of joy and hope. And with the help of Almighty God, I prayed, she would endure.
CNEWA so often is blessed with examples of faithfulness of the poor and their sense of hope in the midst of so much despair. Some might suggest this is heroic, but the poor would reject that word and say they are accompanied by Jesus and his church. And thanks to your prayers and your generous gifts, CNEWA walks with the church in reaching out to those in need.
Thanks to all of you for your Christ-like love and concern.