Paustino Jada is a catechist at the Catholic church in Palotaka, a tiny village in southern Sudan.
When my Catholic Relief Services colleagues and I were asked to guess his age, we'd reckoned Paustino to be in his late 70s or early 80s. We were told he was not likely much more than 50. During the war, he was captured and tortured by the Lord's Resistance Army. The torture aged him. He finally escaped the LRA—a nearly unheard of feat—and returned to Palotaka, where he now teaches religion classes.
The church looks ravaged by time and the abuse of soldiers who commandeered the town for some period in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Wavy tracks of bullet holes stipple the upper walls. A statue of Mary and Jesus is hacked by gunfire. And a gaping hole in a wall near the church entrance attests to heavy artillery.
A touching, but unverifiable, story has it that, one day, an Antonov bomber flew in to attack Palotaka, and the church in particular. Paustino ran to the entrance of the church, dropped to his knees and began praying that God would spare the building. He also prayed that if God should see fit to allow the Antonov bomb to find its mark, Paustino himself wanted to die with it, as the church was the only thing of value in his life.
Well, Antonovs fly low—almost everyone in southern Sudan knows their peculiar thrum—and apparently it was clear to everyone in the village that the plane intended to bomb the church to make it useless for enemy soldiers. The bomber made six passes, but it never hit the church.
We were later taken to a place where a bomb—believed to be intended for the church—did fall and explode, leaving a massive crater. Undoubtedly, that bomb would have obliterated the church building.
Paustino cares for his battered church, keeping it about as clean as could be hoped, given its condition. His life and work symbolize southern Sudan's suffering, its reckless faith and its unwavering devotion.
John Lindner is managing editor of the crs.org website and blog. He traveled to Sudan for CRS to report on peacebuilding.