It takes a special kind of person to become a missionary, to leave the familiarity and comforts of home to serve others in far-off developing lands where, at best, you may not be welcome or, at worst, may be targeted by rebel groups or gangs.
Marianite Sister Suellen Tennyson, an 83-year-old native of New Orleans, is one such special person, and we’re in awe of her courage and strength.
Sister Suellen was based for nearly 10 years at a medical mission in northern Burkina Faso, a country where security has markedly deteriorated in recent years with armed gangs causing fear and havoc.
Despite that, the nun remained at her post until last April, when she was abducted by a group of armed Muslim men who pulled her from her bed, blindfolded and gagged her and held her for five months in a forest deep in West Africa.
She did not know where she was nor why she was taken, nor does she know why she was suddenly released in neighboring Niger to the custody of the FBI and American diplomatic personnel.
“I had many conversations with God” during captivity, she said. “Prayer sustained me.”
Aside from the loss of her freedom and the stress of loneliness and isolation, she was not tortured or overtly mistreated by her captors. In one instance, in fact, one of the men noticed she had a cut on her toe and surprisingly began washing her foot.
“I'm sitting there, and this Muslim man is washing my feet. And I said, ‘God, is something going on here?’ It was like God was using him in some kind of way. I was just taken aback,” Sister Suellen said in a Sept. 13 interview with the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans picked up by Catholic News Service.
It is not clear whether Sister Suellen was targeted because she is an American or because she is a churchwoman.
Certainly, Christian clergy and other church personnel—including local clergy—have suffered in places plagued by civil unrest.
In Cameroon, for instance, a predominantly Christian country in West Africa, the Church is a frequent target. Priests, bishops and seminarians have been kidnapped and released and a church was set ablaze last week in a separatist war that’s been raging since 2016.
One of those kidnapped and released, Bishop Michael Bibi of Buea, told Catholic News Service that the Church will continue to do God's work, despite the challenges. The priests, he said, “will never abandon the people of Christ.”
Sister Suellen, speaking from New Orleans where she returned quietly Aug. 31, expressed gratitude that her life was spared and for the invisible actions of the uncounted people who prayed and worked for her release
“That’s what I want to say, ‘Thank you to all these people,’” she said. “I am truly humbled by all of this. And the only way I can say thank you is ‘thank you.’”
A beautiful sentiment, but we are the ones who are humbled. And we are the ones who say, again, we’re awed by her courage and strength—and the humility and dedication we’ve seen in so many missionaries over the years.
They’re the ones giving witness to Christ. They’re the ones who deserve our thanks.