‘It was hard. It was challenging. It was beautiful.’

Atchison’s Maur Hill-Mount Academy president Phil Baniewicz and math teacher Sarah Wise recently returned from a mission trip to Haiti. Baniewicz, who has made several mission trips to Haiti before said, “They have genuine joy and openness. They are not afraid to share their love.”

by Erin Hunninghake
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — Many wonder why those who have so little seem to be the richest.

Phil Baniewicz and Sarah Wise may have found the answer during their most recent trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

This enlightening mission trip to Haiti marked the second for Wise but the fourth in the last six years for Baniewicz, president of Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison.  

It all started back in 2011 when Bishop Pierre-André Dumas of Haiti reached out to Life Teen, a Catholic youth organization, which Baniewicz helped to found and was the former president of. Bishop Dumas asked the group to consider establishing a base in Port-au-Prince in an effort to evangelize the youth of Haiti.

This request stemmed from Bishop Dumas’ friendship with St. John Paul II, who frequently discussed the importance of youth evangelization.

Life Teen heeded Bishop Dumas’ call and founded the Haitian base, where it continues to staff full-time missionaries as well as visiting volunteers.

Baniewicz started volunteering in Haiti after being invited by the current Life Teen president a few years ago. One reason he continues to return, however, is for his own children and the students of Maur Hill-Mount Academy, where he’s been president since 2010.

“I know the impact mission trips like this have on young people,” Baniewicz said. “Deep conversion happens many of the times.”

“Not just a temporary high,” he continued, “but it can change the course of their life because of what they encounter.”

Wise, a math teacher at Maur Hill-Mount Academy, saw the difference the trip made on her students as well, and felt it in her own life.

But as life-changing as her first mission trip to Haiti was for Wise, she was confident she wouldn’t return another year.

It soon became apparent that God had other plans.

“I really felt God saying I should go back,” Wise said. “I went into the school chapel and heard God saying, ‘You can pick up anything and go.’

“And so I did.”

The main task the team tackled this trip was rebuilding a chapel near the Life Teen base, which included a new altar built by Baniewicz and two of his closest friends.

Wise found herself humbled by the whole experience, in particular, when she saw two Haitian girls cleaning the chapel floors on their hands and knees, using only sand paper and buckets of water. She felt moved to join them in the task.

“I was so humbled to be on my hands and knees serving the Lord,” she said. “It was like being Jesus in that moment. And that’s their everyday life.

“It was hard. It was challenging. It was beautiful.”

While they share the same Catholic faith as the Haitians they worked with, Baniewicz and Wise both found noticeable differences in the form of praise and worship.

“They’re a much more vibrant people. They are much more expressive,” Baniewicz said. “At Mass, they sing as loud as they can, and it’s beautiful. They get overwhelmed with the love and the Holy Spirit. They’ll raise their hands and dance because they’re just feeling the love of God.”

“We’re more reserved in America when it comes to church,” he said. “Whenever I come back, it makes me think that we need to evaluate the way we worship God here.

“Maybe we need to allow the Holy Spirit to come alive in us more.”

Wise shared Baniewicz’s sentiments.

“They have genuine joy and openness. They are not afraid to share their love, where as we like to hold it in,” Wise said. “They have nothing — and yet they have everything.”

Baniewicz also credits this authentic joy to the lack of distractions in Haiti as opposed to in the States.

“They don’t have the money we have, so they find joy in more simple things in life,” he said. “Here in America, we keep wanting more and more, but we just become more and more miserable. In Haiti, you see people with nothing and yet they’re joyful because they enjoy the present moment.”

Because of the transformations he has witnessed over the years, Baniewicz highly encourages everyone to step outside of their comfort zones and experience how being on mission can be a positive force in the world.

“We get caught up in our own lives,” he said, “so when you experience a different culture and different struggles in the world, I think you realize why we need God, why we need to care for each other more, and why we as Catholic Christians have a responsibility to spread the Gospel and take care of others.”

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