Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
I would like to pretend that every day in Africa has been a joyful one, that I always manage to encounter a light in addition to the dark suffering I’ve witnessed from the South Sudanese refugees and the Ugandan people. I wish I had it in me to continue sharing inspiring stories or silly impressions from my Backpack Journalism journey, but I find myself struggling to write such cheery entries authentically. I’m sure my friends and family are curious about why I’ve been so silent while the other Backpack Journalism students have been so diligent with their posts.
The truth is that whenever I attempt to update my blog or articulate my emotions, I feel a shadow growing over my mind, darkening my every thought. I cannot blame Africa for my depression, although my emotions have been compromised after listening to the trauma experienced by refugees during their flight from conflict, as well as the troubling social conditions that reinforce human rights violations against women and children. I am trying not to let sadness overwhelm me, but there is a dull ache in my heart that keeps thwarting my efforts. It’s as if I need to learn — all over again — that the grieving process is out of my control.
On Wednesday morning, one of my childhood friends killed in a car accident near Creighton University. She was such a bright and spirited individual, with a heart that beat for social justice, a mind that cracked with humor, and a smile that lit up the entire room. Now she is gone.
Her death devastated us. Many friends from Omaha and Folsom alike are still reeling from shock, and to me, the tragedy is inconceivable. I’ve been stuck in a foreign country gathering bits and pieces of information where I can, and regretting that I couldn’t be there for the vigil or the funeral. It almost doesn’t feel real. A part of me still imagines that I’ll see her walking around campus once I return from Uganda.
I’ve thought about suffering a lot these last few days. It seems to follow us everywhere. It’s in the children whose stomachs are bloated with hunger; it’s in the eyes of the Northern Ugandans who remember the horrors inflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army throughout the region; it’s in the words of the displaced refugee who has lost everything; it’s in the activists who know that the most vulnerable (women and girls) are perceived only as commodities, not equals. And it’s back home where we’re mourn lost loved ones.
Whenever we interview refugees or the people who work closely with them, we always ask how they reconcile with God in the midst of their suffering. Most Eastern Africans are deeply religious, so the question is always one they eagerly respond to, although their answers all differ. Some say God is not responsible for the world’s suffering and that humans are to blame for the tragedies that befall us. Others argue that Satan tests our faith by striking us with disease or violence. There’s the popular theory that all suffering is evil and will continue if we don’t obey God. It all feels very Old Testament.
I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of suffering. There isn’t a rhyme or reason. There isn’t a way you can end it for everybody. It just is.
Still, one conviction about suffering remains consistent no matter who you speak to here: God is there, experiencing it with you. The Africans say that He does not abandon us when we suffer. They say that He feels your pain and stays with you, even after the darkness has been lifted. They say that if you trust God is there, you will still find a glimmer of hope in a sea of suffering. And in a sense, there is comfort in believing that I am not alone.
I am suffering quietly. I will feel it, and I will trust that God is there with me.