By Craig Marx, Editor
When Father Robert Obol arrived in Antigo in January of 2017, it marked the beginning of a new chapter in the life of a man who had personally witnessed both the perils of war and the constitution of those it affects. Taking over as chaplain at Aspirus Langlade Hospital this past winter, “Father Bob” is a worldly minded and warmly compassionate addition to the community.
Obol’s journey that has now brought him to Langlade County began in Uganda, an east-central African nation that has endured an ongoing civil war and insurgency by rebels of the self-proclaimed Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) since the late 1980s. Now 45-years old, Father Bob grew up in the midst of the conflict and joined the Catholic priesthood during Uganda’s most trying years.
The Ugandan minister was ordained in August of 2001, where he worked as an associate priest for just over a year and half. In February 2002, in the middle of Obol’s tenure in his home country, Sudanese insurgents from the LRA crossed the border back into Uganda and intensified the ongoing conflict, looting and destroying villages in the northern region of the nation as Father Bob tried to provide peaceful service for his people.
Obol was appointed to a congregation in the middle of the war-torn region, providing support for his ministry’s members while avoiding the chaos himself. The jovial minister told a tale of how rebels had come to his church and searched for a radio one night, and, after being held at gunpoint by child soldiers, how he managed to escape by quickly running away and moving about the night. After scaling a high wall and brushing with possible capture by the rebels once again, Obol eventually hid in a crop of millet until the next morning when the rebels pulled back in the wake of occupation by Ugandan governmental troops.
“The biggest lesson one can learn from war is learning how deep people’s convictions really are,” said Obol. “You learn what it means to be a human being, how to listen to yourself.”
The experiences of the war and his servitude in the priesthood helped mold the young Obol. Taking to hospital ministry care once he arrived in the United States, Father Bob sites working in a small village during his first few years of learning theology, in particular working with those stricken with HIV and AIDS, as the impetus for his becoming passionate about both healthcare as well as ministry.
Later in his Ugandan tenure, as displacement and violence still ravaged the country, Obol was given a glimmer of hope. The bishop of his district provided Father Bob with the opportunity to study in the United States, an offer he had never expected. In 2004, Obol left Uganda for the humble confines of Canton, Ohio.
Obol received his Masters of Education degree from Welsh University and later his Doctorate in Ministry from Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School. The young theological doctor went on to train at the Cleveland Clinic in 2010, undergoing an intense process in which each student pastor was given a number of patients to provide care and ministry for. After review on each pastor’s particular performance, Father Bob eventually moved upward to his first position as a hospital chaplain.
The young chaplain enjoyed his two years in Toledo, splitting his days between two different facilities in a city that he found easy to navigate. Obol also began work on his warzone memoir while living in Ohio, finding editorial advice from friends as he spent nearly all his free time working on his incredible tale. The priesthood would take Father Bob to Kansas City next, where he was able to finish his book for publication with the help of editorial correspondence from his friends in Toledo.
“The Life and Lessons from a Warzone: A Memoir of Dr. Robert Nyeko Obol” was published in 2012 and features a detailed account of Obol’s time spent in Uganda, from the beginning of his time in seminary through the fateful day his bishop had given him the news of his departure for the States. The attention to detail is impeccable, such as the suspenseful story of the search for the radio above (discussed in Chapter 16 of the book), giving outsiders a real-life look at the grim reality of war and the search for hope through persons such as Father Bob.
“War was my reality for three years. People have to know what I’ve gone through. I knew that if I wrote a book about what war is really like and what lessons one could learn, people could learn from experiences,” Obol added.
With Obol’s story now in print, he continued his work as a chaplain in Kansas City at an 800-bed facility where he helped develop a program for training “chaplain volunteers.” The volunteer program saw 55 different assistances help Obol and other ordained chaplains in their daily duties while providing patients with quite possibly the most important aspect of ministerial care – a listening ear.
Kansas City also allowed Obol to reconnect with his own culture. With an African population of nearly 6,000 people in the KC area, Father Bob took time to get to know his fellow immigrants, share African dishes with them and talk about home, and even provide Mass every Sunday. After five years in the sprawled out city, however, Obol felt like a change may be on the horizon.
Obol applied to different positions around the country, such as California and North Carolina, but it was not until he came across an article written by now-retired Aspirus Langlade Hospital CEO Dave Schneider concerning the hospital’s mission direction that things became clearer.
“I felt like I wanted to develop ministries more or need more responsibility. I felt I had more chemistry with Antigo [than other places],” Obol added. “There’s more a sense of connection with the people here.”
Father Bob took over the chaplain duties at Aspirus Langlade Hospital on January 23rd, 2017 following the retirement of long-time chaplain Father Omer Kelley. Obol intends to focus on what has been successful in the past and what can be implemented in the future to help Langlade County’s only hospital move forward both medically and faithfully.