April 13, 2018

‘I found who I am’: St. Barnabas teen grows through mission experience

Sarah Turo-Shields, center in the red shirt, poses with the staff and participants of the Trauma Healing Facilitation training workshop that the 18-year-old St. Barnabas member attended while spending a missionary gap year in Uganda. (Submitted photo)

Sarah Turo-Shields, center in the red shirt, poses with the staff and participants of the Trauma Healing Facilitation training workshop that the 18-year-old St. Barnabas member attended while spending a missionary gap year in Uganda. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

After almost nine months doing missionary work in Uganda, 18-year-old Sarah Turo-Shields has many memories. But one rises to the top in impact.

“I was in a [South Sudanese] refugee camp, and there was this lady,” she recalls. “She started to cry. … I felt God say, ‘You need to go to her and tell her she is being seen and heard.’ ”

So she did, and the woman, who spoke English, shared her story with Turo-Shields.

When the woman finished, the recent graduate of Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis was in tears. Her eyes were opened to a violence she could hardly imagine, and to a humility that left her in awe.

What the woman shared is detailed here, as are the many areas in which Turo‑Shields’ life was impacted during her gap year—the year between graduating from high school and starting college—in Uganda. From faith to field work to future goals, Turo-Shields shares how, through the nine-month missionary experience, “I found who I am.”

‘I want to go to Africa with that lady’

Turo-Shields’ passion for helping others began years ago when she helped the late Lucious Newsom at the Indianapolis ministry he founded called Our Lord’s Pantry.

“I fell in love with him,” she says. “I loved helping him. I went every Sunday to help give food to the hungry.”

Later, she took her help outside the city and even the state by participating in mission trips in Indiana, Montana, New Mexico and West Virginia.

The decision to go specifically to Uganda as a missionary was not random. Turo‑Shields recalls the moment when she felt called to go to the East African country.

It was the summer before her sophomore year at Perry Meridian, and she was worshiping at Mass with her mom at their home parish of St. Barnabas in Indianapolis. A woman spoke at the Mass—Sherry Meyer, a lay missionary from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who has been serving in the Ugandan Diocese of Arua since 1991.

“I leaned over to my mom and said, ‘Mom, I want to go with that lady to Africa one day,’ ” says Turo-Shields. “She was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ ”

Two years passed. The summer before Turo-Shields’ senior year at Perry Meridian, Meyer spoke again at St. Barnabas. The teen told her mom she was still interested in joining Meyer in Africa. She met the missionary and pitched the idea of joining her for a gap-year experience in Uganda before starting college. Meyer was open to the idea.

The two stayed in touch during the fall of 2016, and Turo-Shields began fundraising in January of 2017 to finance her travel and living expenses. In August she left for Arua, Uganda.

‘Just allow life and culture to imprint’

She joined Meyer in the Arua Diocese’s media center compound where the Indianapolis native lives and works. The walled compound contains the diocese’s communications department, Radio Pacis studio, a day care for children and other support services.

Meyer told Turo-Shields “not to expect much [in terms of having an impact in the region] and to just allow the life and culture here to imprint on me,” the teen says.

Perhaps sounding cynical at first, Meyer’s advice was based on her own experience.

“When I came [to Uganda] at age 40, I was on a two-year contract,” recalls the full-time missionary, now 67. “As I came close to the end of the contract, I realized that only just then did I have an idea of how I might be able to make a small impact. … The idea is to enable and empower the local people. That’s hard to do in just nine months.”

So Turo-Shields did her best to heed Meyer’s advice. She settled into a routine of helping in various ways: teaching math and English at the nearby Sacred Heart primary school; compiling a song index for Radio Pacis; serving at the day care; and helping care for malnourished children and providing health education for their mothers at a medical center operated by the Comboni Sisters.

“Occasionally on a Saturday, I would go with the Radio Pacis team to a refugee camp two hours away” where South Sudanese refugees live, she adds. “I would record them as they talked to [the refugees] about what their most urgent need for help is, then the program manager would go into the NGOs [non-governmental agencies] about what we just heard, and can we collaborate on how to resolve this problem.”

It was at this camp that Turo-Shields met the refugee woman who made such a lasting impact on her.

‘Everyone needs God’

When she discovered that the woman spoke English, Turo-Shields told her, “I feel your pain, and [will listen] if you feel like talking about it again, what the experience was that you hurt so bad.”

The woman explained that where her family lived, it was necessary to pass through a forest for food.

“She said she knew each time she crossed [the forest] that she was going to get raped,” Turo-Shields recounts. “But this one specific time [she was raped], people tied her to a tree so she wasn’t able to get food rations for her family. ...

“I felt so much pain for her and anger toward these people who did this injustice to her.”

Turo-Shields asked the woman if she would like to pray, and she accepted. So the young woman from Indianapolis and the South Sudanese refugee prayed and cried together.

“Then she asked if she could pray for me,” Turo-Shields says with amazement in her voice. “… It humbled me so greatly. She recognized that everyone needs God—you can’t compare one circumstance to another. How humble she was in accepting my love, and returning it back to me.”

The experience was one of many teaching moments for Turo-Shields, not just in faith and humility, but also in her own ability—and limitations—to help others.

“[There is a] helplessness of knowing no matter how much you do, it’s not going to change a thing here,” she says, recalling Meyer’s advice. “I struggled with that and really had to give it to God.”

Giving such struggles to God was just one way in which Turo-Shields feels that “this [gap year] experience has strengthened my faith. It’s just incredibly amazing to me that these people have so little, and they don’t even know where their dinner will come from. They give it all to God and are so loving and happy all the time, even with the circumstances.”

She witnessed such trust time and again, even in the people’s prayers.

“When they pray, they pray about thanking God that they woke up that morning, and that they know they can die any minute, but thank [God] for the time they’re still alive,” Turo-Shields recalls.

“It was an education for me. … I have to rely more on God. I have to give it all to him.”

Even the faith of the refugees, as evidenced by the woman Turo-Shields encountered, “blew me away with what they had to endure and yet were still so faithful.”

‘I feel like I found who I am’

It is in both helping those traumatized and encouraging their faith that Turo-Shields found her calling in Uganda.

“I have known for a very long time that I wanted to go to college and study to be a licensed clinical social worker just like my mom,” she says. “Coming here and especially seeing the need and crisis of refugees, I really want to … also specialize in trauma. And I definitely want to come back to Africa.”

After receiving trauma healing certification with a spiritual component while in Uganda, Turo‑Shields says she now also feels “called to bring religion through my work. … To heal from trauma, you need to let God heal you and be open to that,” she says.

Some traumatized clients she worked with still held to the local cultural belief that pain and struggle are punishment from actions that angered God.

In the trauma healing process she learned, Turo-Shields says, “We looked at what it says in Scripture. And the majority of Scripture talks of a loving and compassionate God. … It was amazing to see how such a simple way can debunk those [false] beliefs that ‘God is punishing me,’ because our God is a loving God and a healer … that he’s loving you as much as he can while he’s suffering with you.”

To move toward a future of “taking the burden off the shoulders of those in trauma,” Turo-Shields will start in the fall at Bellarmine University, a Catholic college in Louisville, Ky.

But there is no relaxing between now and then for Turo-Shields. Starting in late April, she and her mother will visit four African countries as well as Uganda before returning to the United States in May. She will then undertake an apprenticeship at her mother’s private clinical practice in Greenwood, then participate in a two-week mission trip to Ecuador.

Turo-Shields admits she was “burned out of school” after graduating from Perry Meridian last May. But after her gap year in Uganda, the teen says she is now “eager to go back into studying. I’ll go into college more ready, more looking ahead to my future.”

That future and her eagerness for it were shaped by her experience in Uganda.

“It gave me a different perspective on life,” says Turo-Shields. “I feel like I found who I am.” †

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