On a journey to East Africa a New York deacon gets gifts for ministry

A statement on the Maryknoll Society website caught my attention: “Crossing borders and encountering our brothers and sisters around the world is an opportunity for a mutual exchange of the JOY that comes from the Gospel.” It was a call to participate in a mission immersion trip to East Africa sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. It seemed like a personal invitation to me, a Roman Catholic deacon, to open my heart to the Holy Spirit. I signed up for the journey, trusting that God would be my guide.

Our itinerary was a fast-paced 1,600-mile road trip to Maryknoll missions scattered throughout the cities and remote rural regions of Kenya and Tanzania. On this journey we were invited to listen to how God was speaking to us. There were many powerful moments during the 13-day trip, but two experiences touched me most profoundly: visiting the Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, and St. Justin’s home for disabled children in Musoma, Tanzania.

Kibera is home to an estimated 800,000 people who live in shacks with mud walls, dirt floors and tin roofs. Their Christ the King Church is at the top of a hill. The journey up that hill through crowded streets littered with garbage and muddy from recent rain was like no journey I have ever been on. Over 1,500 people dressed in their best clothes made that journey for a Sunday liturgy marked by vibrant song and liturgical dance.

One resident, Michael, raises chickens to sell in the market. After he proudly showed me his chicken coop, we feasted on a breakfast of fresh eggs boiled on a small kerosene burner. That simple breakfast has come to mind many times since I returned home. Michael’s strong commitment to the Church and his community have rekindled my commitment to my diaconate ministry and the people I serve in Albany, N.Y. My encounter with this man whose greatest dream was to purchase a small incubator so he could produce and sell more eggs gave me a fresh perspective on what is really important in life. He put a face on the Gospel concerns of justice and peace that enables me now to peach on and witness to these values with greater authenticity.

When we visited St. Justin’s home for children who are deaf and disabled, the children rushed to greet us with smiling faces and boundless energy. I sat down with a small group of them, using my cell phone and a few signs to communicate. The universal language of love crossed the barrier of deafness and brought us into communion.

My experience at St. Justin’s reminded me that people with special needs offer something precious to the world if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The joy of these children was infectious. In my ministry, I now try to smile more to show I really do believe in the Good News.

As the Maryknoll website promised, I departed Africa with a little more joy in my heart and more grateful for life’s simple gifts as I unpack the many ways the beautiful people of these lands evangelized me and renewed my spirit for the journey ahead.

Read more “Partners in Mission” columns.

Featured Image: On his journey to East Africa, Deacon Edward Solomon gets a joyful welcome from youth at St. Justin’s home for disabled children in Tanzania.(E. Solomon/Tanzania)

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