The good we can do

The summer is a time in which many parishes host missionaries to beg for Spiritual and material support and to raise the awareness of people here to the various needs, struggles and successes of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. 

I have always been especially happy to welcome missionaries from Africa, where the Church is growing exponentially in the midst of persecution and poverty. The scale of the good that can be accomplished by Christian fraternal charity is readily evident in the African missionary context. 

Two weeks ago I welcomed Father Stephen Kitonga, a young priest from the Archdiocese of Nyeri, Kenya. His archbishop had sent him to try to appeal for help to expand their seminary which is bursting at the seams, to care for orphans with AIDS and HIV in a Church clinic and to attend to the tens of thousands of Somali refugees who have come to the diocese fleeing poverty and persecution. 

We were the first missionary appeal that he had ever made and so he sought my advice about the best way to ask for money. 

I told him that my experience is that American Catholics are very generous when they’re given the information they need to determine where their money will go and how much of an impact it will make. So I asked him a few questions in search of the information he’d need. 

How much does it cost each year to educate a future priest in the seminary? He told me about $700, or about $2 a day. 

What is the expense to feed a family of refugees for a day in the camps? He said between $1 and $2, depending upon the size of the family. 

What was the typical salary for a nurse in the “Consolata Hospital” that cares for AIDS orphans? He replied about $1.50 a day. 

So I encouraged Father Stephen to share that information with my parishioners at the Masses. 

Weaving the appeal into a homily based on Jesus’ calling us to yoke ourselves to His loving compassion, he movingly said that if Catholics here could “make the sacrifice” of sharing $2 in the second collection, they would be able to feed a large hungry family after a treacherous escape from Somalia, or pay for a nurse to care for dozens of orphaned, sick children for a day, or help prepare a priest get one day closer to ordination to take the place of those priests who have been killed for the faith. 

If they had the means to sacrifice $5, he added, they would be able to do all three at the same time. 

And if they were “rich” and had the chance to give more than $5, he said, “I can’t even describe the good you would be able to do!” 

I looked out at my parishioners as he was making that appeal and many had stunned looks on their faces as they pondered how materially loaded we are, even in an inner-city parish, compared to our brothers and sisters in Africa. The people as a whole responded very generously, giving far more than their typical beneficence to the weekly offertory in order to help out with these very important works. 

Before the last Mass, however, as I was introducing him, I mentioned something else that we had spoken about the night before at dinner. 

One of the main struggles in African villages is access to clean water, so I asked Father Stephen whether his native village had a well. No, he said. In fact, every Saturday the people of his village have to travel two-and-a-half hours each way over mountains and valleys to the nearest river, where the women wash the family’s clothes and the men fill up water jugs to bring back to the village. The round trip, he says, takes all day. I asked him how much it would cost to drill a well there. He told me that it was “astronomical,” about $4,000. 

Putting into the deep, I mentioned that story before the last Mass and commented how great it would be if our parish would be able to raise the money to drill a well in his village.

A half hour after Mass, a woman came by the rectory with $4,000 in cash, saying that she and her husband wanted to pay for the well in Father Stephen’s village. She shared that both of her children had already died and they wanted to do something with their savings to make a difference in the lives of the 392 families that dwell there as well as thousands of families in neighboring villages who would be able to come to get fresh water. 

A few days later, a young mother came to see me. She had just received a bonus at work and had been thinking about using it to do house repairs or go on a pilgrimage. After hearing about the need for wells, she and her children decided it would be better to use the bonus to bring water to the well-less village where Father Stephen used to serve a pastor. 

When I informed Father Stephen of these gifts, he could hardly keep himself together thinking about the difference that will soon be coming to the lives of so many families he knows and loves, including his own. He had previously declared that he couldn’t describe the good that more than $5 could do. Now he was totally speechless. 

Just imagine how much good the faithful of the whole diocese can do during this Missionary Appeal season. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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