By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2016
STONE MOUNTAIN—“Mama Gini” is a term of deep affection earned by Gini Eagen who for 30 years has served the refugees, the poor, and the community in need at Corpus Christi Church.
A colleague said, “She has never met a soul she doesn’t love.”
And that affection recently was showered on her. On Saturday, April 9, she was the dignitary receiving a seemingly never-ending line of friends and well wishers. For a woman who has dedicated her life to service, and especially with a place in her heart for refugees from Africa, it seemed appropriate for the gathering of cultures and languages to be at the Eritrean-American Community Center, a modest banquet facility in Stone Mountain. It followed a Mass in her honor at the church, celebrating her retirement as pastoral care minister and praying for her health.
Her work has taken her to the dusty countryside of Sudan, where tribal leaders slaughtered cows and goats in front of Eagen as a welcoming ritual. The custom is for the guest to step over the animal carcasses. She was traveling with some of the Lost Boys of Sudan, whom she had taken into her heart when they were resettled in Clarkston. She went with them when they undertook the risky journey to visit their homeland.
She befriended a death row inmate before his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and visited his family in El Salvador. She spent time in the Caribbean, not at the aqua blue seashore but in the Jamaican slums where the Missionaries of the Poor minister. Her efforts earned her several community service awards.
“To us, she is our American mother. To all the Sudanese community, she is our mother. Like a diamond in your hand, she is for us,” said Susie Akuei, an immigrant from the African country who now works in Alaska.
“We became like a family”
Eagen befriended the refugees when a number from Africa were resettled near Corpus Christi and the parish gave spiritual aid. A room was rented at a community center and Claretian priests from the parish celebrated Mass there weekly.
The men were part of a group of over 20,000 boys, some as young as 7, who were displaced or orphaned during a civil war in the north African country. To escape death or induction into the army, they walked more than 1,000 miles to other lands. About 4,000 were resettled in 2001 in the United States.
James Malval, 38, met her when he arrived in metro Atlanta in 2001.
“We told her stories about us as the Lost Boys. She was very, very sorry about this. We became like a family,” he said.
Malval, who works on a manufacturing assembly line, spoke about Eagen’s generosity, like stepping in to pay for the funeral of a Sudanese refugee’s daughter or using her car to help folks get to work or assisting with down payments on rent.
In December 2005, she joined five Sudanese men returning to their homeland.
They traveled around Sudan under armed guard. They avoided robbers by leaving on trips at 3 a.m.
Malval said it was not the Sudanese way to have “a white woman talk to me like a mother.” But his father during the 2005 trip saw how important Eagen was to the men and reminded him to care for and respect her. “My daddy was very happy to see me with someone like her.”
Following the trip she invited one of the young men, whose family she had met, to live in her home temporarily so he could complete college quicker and get a better job.
Majok Marier, yet another of the Lost Boys, said in an email, “She came into our lives and we were treated like we were her family. She did things for us as she would for her family.”
With the help of a journalist, Marier has written a book, hoping to improve life in Sudan with any profits. He is back there now working on digging a well with his organization, Wells for Hope, Inc.
“She always smiles and tells us she misses us. Gini always asks about my mother. She’s an example of people helping others,” Marier wrote.
“The universal church came to reality at Corpus Christi”
Oduntan Gordon, 36, an accountant, credits Eagan for her sound advice. When he was ready to walk away from working with young people at the parish, she told him to stick with it. She told him spending time with them, even if nothing is happening, means a lot, even if he doubts it, he said. And, as she suggested, his presence enhanced the group, now drawing together some 20 young people.
“We really trust her as an advisor,” he said, between rounding up young men to sign a condolence card for a senior member of the parish. “She was a good counselor. She gave really good advice in everything.”
Columbus Brown, 67, a retired biologist, spent time with her on a mission trip to Jamaica.
“I love her, love her, love her,” he said. “I just think she’s a saint.”
Eagen inspired the parish community to serve more, he said. “The passion touched so many hearts.”
Parish ministry began in 1986 for the wife and mother, who lost one of her four children, David, 16, in an automobile accident in 1979. Her husband, Dennis, died in 2005.
Cleaning out her office after 30 years, Eagen said she treasured a globe given to her by her friend and former pastor, Claretian Father Greg Kenny. It proved helpful as refugees arrived because they could point to their homeland and talk.
“They would come from countries I had never heard of. They talked about wars I had never heard of. That globe was so meaningful to me,” she said.
She gave her treasure to the parish preschool youngsters so they could find and trace their family histories.
Eagen joined the Catholic Church as a teenager. She grew up in New Jersey as the youngest of three children. Her father worked as a dairy chemist. Her mother taught kindergarten and elementary school.
“What I dreamed about of the universal church came to reality at Corpus Christi,” she said. “It was God’s people. That’s my motivation for getting up and going out the door. It was a joy. Every day was a day of excitement to meet Jesus in the assorted faces.”
Doctors have diagnosed her with acute leukemia.
“I’m just enjoying my days. I had a full and wonderful life,” she said.
“A higher being was watching over my mother”
Lisa Miller, her daughter, called the parish an “extension of our family.”
The family watched her venture to the overlooked margins of the world, she said.
“You just had to believe a higher being was watching over my mother. I had to trust in that as her daughter because I know she would not have it any other way. She was doing what she loved,” Miller said.
Her service in the parish was traditional at first, working with adult education and ministry to the elderly when she began full time in 1986. But after pastors encouraged her to work with people who were hurting, her focus changed. Eagen said she only needed to read the headlines about international strife to predict where the next batch of refugees would come from before they appeared in front of her at Corpus Christi Church.
More than 300 friends and parishioners at the Mass in the Corpus Christi gym greeted her with standing ovations. The applause happened more than once. Father Kenny, now retired as pastor, said when he arrived at the parish he was told to “seek out Gini’s wisdom and I wouldn’t go wrong. It was the best advice I ever received.”
Like the beloved book “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Eagen learned through her ministry that life is enriched by the measure of how much love is given, he said.
“Becoming real, as you have become for us, was first and last about love; about seeing beyond yourself to the things of God, about embracing and being embraced in God’s love, in the love of family and friends and the innumerable people you have helped. You make us want to be real like you for the love of God.”
He recalled how Eagen’s favorite Scripture reading is from the Book of Isaiah, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come without paying and without cost.”
Said Father Kenny, Eagen’s work “made the word alive for us.”