by Jill Ragar Esfeld
EMPORIA — When a small group of Sacred Heart parishioners here made a visit to their sister parish, Our Lady of Fatima, in Mubende, Uganda, they knew they were venturing into a poor area where life was hard.
But knowing and seeing are two different things.
“That first day, I was just dumbfounded by the poverty” said Deb Williams, echoing the sentiments of her six fellow travelers: Father Rich Warsnak, Joan and Ron Kloppenberg, Theresa Lein, Paula Roper and Joan Geitz.
“We were looking at all the little shacks along the road,” said Joan Kloppenberg. “And we kept wondering when we were going to run out of the slum area.
“And we never did.”
The group may have been surprised by the poverty they encountered in Mubende. But they were equally surprised by the way the Our Lady of Fatima parishioners helped them see past that poverty and into the joy of a shared faith.
A humbling experience
The visitors were so fascinated with what they encountered that first day in Mubende that they fell way behind schedule.
They still had one final stop to make — at a primary school — when they realized afternoon was slipping into evening.
Their guide called the school’s principal with instructions to send the students on home, because their visitors couldn’t make it in time.
But the children had planned a program and were determined to present it.
“They will not leave,” the principal said.
“So at six that evening,” recalled Kloppenberg, “we pulled into this school.
“The children were still there, and they swamped the car.”
The group was treated to a program and presented with gifts. But the festivities had to be cut short so the children could get home before dark.
“Some of those kids had three miles to walk home,” said Kloppenberg. “We were so humbled.”
“Humble” is a term used often by Sacred Heart parishioners describing this first pilgrimage to their sister congregation.
“It was humbling,” agreed Williams. “I came away with so much from the people there — I gained more from the experience than they did.”
The trip was especially gratifying to Williams. She and her husband were co-chairs of the stewardship committee 10 years ago when the idea of adopting a sister parish was put on the agenda.
Former pastor Father Darren Henson had suggested Our Lady of Fatima — the home parish of Father Emmanuel Tamale, a good friend he had made while at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
“And that’s how we got partnered up,” said Williams.
Though Sacred Heart parishioners had never before been to visit their sister parish, they had developed a personal connection through Father Tamale, who has taken time off from his job as chancellor in his diocese in Uganda to spend the past eight Christmas holidays in Emporia.
“He spends about a month here with us,” said Sacred Heart Pastor Father Warsnak.
Father Tamale helps with Masses and visits with students at Sacred Heart School.
“He tells our kids what it’s like to be a kid in Uganda,” said Lein, principal of the school and a parishioner of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka.
After learning that Our Lady of Fatima students made soccer balls from banana leaves, Sacred Heart students started an annual fundraiser to send soccer balls to Uganda.
Likewise, Sacred Heart Parish has raised money to help with building projects and school supplies in its sister parish.
“Oh, it was so heartwarming to see the fruits of all that labor!” said Williams.
“They told us that they considered the roof of their church a miracle,” added Kloppenberg. “We provided the money for that.”
Planning for the journey began two years ago with a resolve among the group that this first trip would be a pilgrimage, not a mission.
“We didn’t want to come in and show them how to improve their world,” explained Kloppenberg. “We wanted to build a relationship.”
“Certainly there are things we can do to help,” said Father Warsnak. “But also we are just as strong in believing there are many ways that the people of Our Lady of Fatima Parish can help us.”
The group toured two vocational technical schools, two high schools, and seven primary schools.
They saw every kind of condition — from 50 students sitting on benches on dirt floors to schools with floors and tables and chairs.
But none of the schools they visited had adequate teaching materials, and many had none at all.
“It was very humbling,” said Kloppenberg. “I saw students preparing for restaurant careers using charcoal and wood and having very few utensils.
“I saw students in fashion; the majority were using treadle machines.”
They visited a primary school where Sacred Heart has funded a water tank and roof, and is now helping build a latrine.
“Currently, their latrine is a stack of rocks with bushes around it,” said Kloppenberg.
The visitors were impressed with the ability of teachers to be effective without proper supplies.
And they were moved by the difficulties the students faced — most had been touched by the AIDS epidemic. Many were infected with HIV.
Kloppenberg said almost every family the group visited was raising AIDS orphans “But they won’t tell you which children are not their own,” she noted.
Finding joy and faith
The desperate circumstances their sister parish faced were often overwhelming, yet the joy and generosity of its people always shone through.
“Despite their poverty and their living conditions,” said Williams, “they were such gracious and happy people.
“We went into their homes and felt like we were family when we left.”
The Sacred Heart group was often presented with typical thank-you gifts of bananas, sugar cane and live chickens.
It was hard to accept food from people struggling to feed themselves. But Father Tamale counseled the pilgrims that their Ugandan hosts would be hurt if their gifts were refused.
“And Father Rich worked us through that,” said Williams. “He told us, ‘They need to give, and we need to learn how to receive with a grateful heart.’
“And to have them give to us out of their poverty — it was very touching, very moving.”
The group was also touched by the strong faith exhibited by their sister parish.
“We were driving through Mubende to an out-parish (for Sunday Mass),” said Kloppenberg. “And here were all these people walking toward that parish.
“And I just thought how many people here say, ‘I have a lot to do Sunday; I’m not going to Mass.’
“And these people were up early walking two and three miles to get there.”
Through daily Mass in Uganda, the group was able to experience the universality of the Catholic Church.
“The church is the church wherever you are,” said Lein. “Sometimes the Mass wasn’t in English, but you know what’s going on, you know the parts.”
“Even in the music,” agreed Williams. “You may not know the words, but you felt the joy.”
Counting the blessings
At the end of each day, the group gathered to discuss the blessings and graces they saw during the day — the time they encountered God or felt his presence in some way.
“It’s a way to remind us of our purpose, which is always to encounter Jesus Christ,” said Father Warsnak.
All the travelers treasured this time together and were amazed at the many ways they encountered Jesus.
“And those weren’t always good experiences,” said Father Warsnak. “They were rough ones sometimes.
“But that’s, of course, our faith — that God reaches through the struggle, the difficulty, the pain, and touches us even there.”
The travelers all agreed this practice of taking time out of their day for reflection is one of the best gifts they will bring home with them from Uganda.
“I think it’s important to do,” said Lein. “We all get so busy. . . . We run through our days and don’t think about when we’ve seen God present in our lives.”
“It’s a great practice every day,” agreed Father Warsnak.
In the end, it was hard to leave their sister parish. But this was always meant to be the first of many visits.
“We said that from the beginning,” said Father Warsnak. “Of course, not knowing how it was going to go, that was sort of a statement of faith.”
“But now we want to go back again,” he added. “I can’t imagine not returning.”
“We’ll remember to keep them in our prayers,” concluded Lein. “And continue the fundraising for soccer balls.”