Catholic Social Teaching Corner: St. Denis Parish Visits Kenya
March 12, 2012
Last month a group of seven of us from St. Denis parish in Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College, traveled to Kenya. It was a wonderful thirteen day trip during which we visited the brethren in Nairobi, the school started by the friars in Kisumu, and a school and hospital associated with a Dartmouth College graduate who coincidentally is also from Kisumu. When asked for our purpose, a word from Catholic Social Teaching consistently came to my mind: solidarity. We went to Kenya to show our unity with the Dominicans and, in a special way, our suffering brothers and sisters in the great country so weighed down by poverty. It was a diverse and interesting group who went: Chuck, a medical school professor whose specialty is HIV/AIDS, and his wife Madelyn; Mary Ann, the mother of eleven and a psychologist, and her daughter Jordan, a professional filmmaker from Boston; John, a former politician and businessman, who travels to Africa regularly for service work; and Suzanne, a grandmother and former lay chaplain at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital. As for me it was my first trip to Africa and a true adventure. The sponsoring parish organization is called Hearts Open to the World, an international outreach group in part inspired by Fr. Dominique Pire, a Belgian Dominican who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958. His motto, in working with refugees and the third world poor, was “help for self-help.” In our small way we had striven to aid projects in Kenya where good and competent people were serving the cause of religion, education and health care but who needed resources. We decided to visit them as a way to cement the bonds of friendship and deepen the participation of the parish. We had many memorable encounters while in Kenya. The sojourn started with a two night visit to St. Dominic’s Priory, the studentate for the East African Vicariate. It was a treat for me to see my former student master, Fr. Vincent Wiseman as well as Fr. Kevin Kraft and the many zealous student brothers from East Africa and other vicariates. My parishioners really enjoyed the Dominican hospitality and manifest joyfulness both there and in Kisumu. One said it was her favorite part of the trip. We bade farewell and headed off to Kisumu. There we spent two days primarily visiting the Our Lady of Grace School, a primary and secondary school that grew out of the Dominican sponsored Fr. Tom’s Kids charity. When the brutal election violence of 2008 made it impractical to send the sponsored kids to schools in the region, Fr. Martin Martiny and the friars founded this school. The children at this school are poor even by Kenyan standards. In one class 88% had lost at least one parent to AIDS. It’s inspiring to see the great work done by the lay staff and the chaplain, Fr. Chris Saliga. They also have many needs: electrification for the primary school, a security fence, a proper boys’ dormitory and other things. In addition all the kids are on scholarship and need sponsorships through Fr. Tom’s Kids. The children at the school are simply beautiful and show such promise, even amidst their suffering. (For more information, see the Fr. Tom’s Kids Website.) From Kisumu we drove an hour to the village of Konditi. Daniel Ochiel, a scientist with a Ph.D. from Dartmouth, is from this region. His elementary school alma mater has already renamed itself St. Denis, establishing a bond we hope to cultivate. We visited this school, where we were again charmed by the warm welcome of the students and staff. We pledged to pay for a kitchen. For now the kids go home for lunch but many of them have no food there and so come back to school hungry. We also visited the local parish, Christ the King. The energetic and joyful pastor, Fr. Alfred Atemo, is in the midst of building a church for the 2000 families who worship with him, for now out in the hot sun. We also visited a rural health clinic nearby that serves 48,000 patients but has only one doctor. Most of those patients have complications from AIDS. Their pressing need for now, besides more doctors, is an operating room. After an exhausting schedule, we headed back home. We had established friendships and made pledges of support. One could adduce many other reasons to embark on such a pilgrimage. One could also argue against it. Why not just send the resources? The best argument for going in person is that that is what out Lord did. He didn’t just send aid, He sent His Son. In imitation of our Savior, we went to see our brothers and sisters in Kenya. Despite the differences of geography, culture and wealth, we found a great commonality and were blessed with the grace of solidarity. We intend to go back.