Kerry Fahey, Father Aidan McAleenan and John Watkins are invited to try their hand at drumming during a celebration in Burundi.
Mission to Burundi: hope in the midst of poverty
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What they learned
"I did promise them the Rice Bowl would be a very different experience this year. We'll enhance it and make it a central part of Lent."
— Rev. Aidan McAleenan to his
St. Columba parishioners
"See we're part of this global family; the person who has the greatest need is our neighbor."
— John Watkins, diocesan coordinator for Life and Justice
"I never expected to come home and feel so hopeful and so joyful."
— Kerry Fahey, youth minister
St. Joan of Arc
A priest, a social justice advocate and a youth minister traveled to Burundi and this is what they saw:
Missionaries of Charity — Mother Teresa's nuns — take cares of babies "that are literally thrown away on the streets," said Father Aidan McAleenan, pastor of St. Columba Church in Oakland.
Sixty-five children, ages 3 months to 5 years, make their home with the sisters. "It's so peaceful," said John Watkins, life and justice coordinator for the Diocese of Oakland "The children are so quiet," he said. "They are so well cared for."
Well cared for, too, are the "throwaway seniors," who share their home.
"It really taught me how to serve in a way that respects the dignity of others," Watkins said.
On a tour of the building with Sister Jubilee, she stopped and asked them, Father McAleenan recalled, "Shall we pay a visit to Our Lord?"
"That would be wonderful," he replied.
She veered off, and her visitors followed her to the chapel. Watkins said it taught him that in moving quickly from one project to another, take a moment to pray. "That shows why they can live at that level of peace.
The three travelers reflected on their 10-day mission in September sponsored by Catholic Relief Services.
CRS's work with the marginalized people was evident in its work with the Batwa people, who comprise about 3 percent of the southeast African country bordered by Tanzania and Rwanda. It was a Belgian colony until 1962.
They are hunters and gatherers whose lifestyle has been uprooted by deforestation, and live lives akin to indentured servitude.
CRS has purchased land for three communities, which are in staggered stages of development.
Youth minister Kerry Fahey recalled the lively lending groups, mostly female, who pooled their money to lend it to others in the community. "All are held accountable, all are contributing," she said. Most of the borrowing was to produce income: a bicycle, which would be used as a taxi, perhaps or a goat. Particularly memorable at one such meeting was the call for any members ready to make a final payment. Waving the money over her head, one borrower did a little dance as she brought the final payment to the front of the room.
"What impressed me so much," Fahey said, "is that it gives women the skills to take control of their situation."
She said she found this form of microfinance to be so "empowering." It allowed the people to acquire "what they need and not what we think they need."
The faith of the people of Burundi was manifested in several celebrations during the mission there. Father McAleenan celebrated his birthday, serenaded with the Burundi version of "Happy Birthday."
The visit gave the pastor a more concrete way of looking at the work of CRS, he said.
"When the earthquake happened in Haiti, I honestly knew little or nothing about Catholic Relief Services. I knew it had something to do with the Rice Bowl and we collected them on Good Friday. And that was the end of it," he said.
"That Sunday, I said, 'We are not entitled to this collection. Every penny has to go to Haiti today.' We raised $11,000 that day, which is unusual for a parish our size."
But as he wrote the check that would go to CRS, he said, "I felt terrible because I had no connection or surety that this is going to the people we see on TV."
His visit to Burundi changed that. "I would have no fear of it going into a big black hole and not getting to the people," he said.
As the mission drew to a close, the three from Oakland were sent away with prayers and one wish from their hosts in Burundi: "We want you to miss us."
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