Novelist Jeanine Cummins uses these lines from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda´s poem “The Song of Despair” as an epigraph in her novel “American Dirt.” The novel tells the story of a mother and son from the State of Guerrero in Mexico who wage an unbelievable struggle for life and freedom from the violence that engulfs this state and others in Mexico.
Just the other day I received a phone call from Paloma, a young mother from Guerrero who is in hiding with her husband Santiago and three small children. I have known Paloma since she was born. She has no formal education, but she is an incredible young woman and a great mother. Santiago’s two brothers were recently murdered by members of a crime cartel; Santiago managed to escape, but everyone in the village knows that his name is on the hit list. I helped the family contact a human rights organization that is trying to get them asylum in another country. However, due to the COVID pandemic, all of that paperwork is presently on hold, and the family remains in hiding.
Impoverishment, violence, corruption, discrimination, impunity, injustice … these are the daily fare of too many indigenous people living in the mountains of the State of Guerrero. The reason that the above-mentioned lines from Pablo Neruda come to my mind is that Mission Mexico has for twenty years been a “fruit” for many in the midst of the “thirst and hunger” of this reality; it has been “the miracle” for many in the midst of the “grief and ruins” of this reality.
Since the year 2000, Mission Mexico has been accompanying the people of “the Mountain” of Guerrero. Approximately 500,000 people from three indigenous cultures (Na´savi, Me’phaa, Nahua) live spread out among 700 towns and villages. Mission Mexico has partnered with several trustworthy Mexican organizations to promote projects related especially to health, education, and self-sufficiency. Transformation of such a difficult reality has never been easy, but Mission Mexico has earned the gratitude of thousands of families living in this poorest region of the country of Mexico.
Now there is COVID. Everything has changed. People have gotten ill and died. It is hard to give numbers because most of the people seldom go to a hospital; medical care always involves expenses. People have lost jobs, due to the closure of all kinds of businesses. Financial assistance from illegal workers in the United States who typically send money to their families each month has diminished.
Education has been particularly hard hit. At the present time, there is no face-to-face, classroom education in the Mountain of Guerrero. Everything is meant to be online learning, using either television or the Internet. This presents an almost impossible situation for thousands of families in remote villages in the mountains.
I used the expression that “everything is meant to be online learning” on purpose, because many teachers, realizing that their students have little or no access to computers or television, are going to the villages with photocopied worksheets: they leave “homework” with the students and return two weeks later to pick up the completed worksheets and to leave more. It’s not an ideal situation for many reasons: teachers risk contagion during their travels; many parents are illiterate and can’t assist their children; if a student falls behind, there is no remedial assistance. But I admire the teachers for trying to do what they consider is best for their students.
Mission Mexico began helping sixteen years ago to build the Champagnat High School of the Mountain, a residential school for impoverished indigenous youth; it is run by a Mexican religious order, the Marist Brothers. And Mission Mexico has a bursary program for university students from particularly needy families. The hundreds of students from the high school and university are involved now in online learning, which often means that students have to move to a town where there is Internet service. The support for the high school and for the bursary program is vital to the success of the students in this endeavor.
However, it is almost impossible for Mission Mexico to meet the “usual” goals in terms of financial support. COVID has hit the Diocese of Calgary too. The level of donations to Mission Mexico has diminished. This is understandable, and I assure the people of the Diocese of Calgary that their “friends” in the Mountain of Mexico are praying for them.
I also hope and pray that as the “thirst and hunger” and “grief and ruins” of the indigenous peoples here hit almost desperate levels, God might touch the hearts of people in the Diocese of Calgary to extend their generosity, so that Mission Mexico might continue accompanying these very needy people is this time of very real need. Every looney or tooney helps.
Please consider going to the donation page on the website missionmexico.com or giving during the special collection that the Diocese of Calgary is promoting in parishes on December 12 & 13, the weekend of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Your solidarity will change lives here.
Wednesday, September 16, 2020 is Mexico's Independence Day!
To celebrate and to help support Mission Mexico, an outreach program of the Diocese of Calgary, from September 14 through to September 20, the following Mexican Restaurants are collecting donations. We encourage everyone to support these great restaurants (even if its just through take out or delivery) and also support Mission Mexico. Through this initiative, you are helping support not only our these local restaurants by eating their fantastic food, but you are also able to support the dignity-affirming projects that Mission Mexico carries out in one of the poorest regions of the world, helping improve the education, health care, human rights, women's rights, and the youth in building a better future in Southern Mexico.
Thank you sponsors!
As many as 500 people will make their way to St. Mary’s Parish Hall in downtown Calgary’s Mission District this coming Sunday afternoon. Drawn by the promise of a warm place to sit and a hot meal to eat, they’ll make their way in footwear ranging from sturdy winter boots to wet and worn-out running shoes. While most will arrive unaided, others will lean on canes or walkers and some will push strollers or wheelchairs. They’ll eat in shifts, alone or seated alongside family and friends and while all will leave with their physical hunger sated, the vast majority will also carry lighter hearts. For behind the bowls of salad, the hot coffee and the steaming plates of food breathes something truly magnificent: Love.
That love comes from the simple fact that for 49 Sundays of the year, Feed the Hungry (FTH) at St. Mary’s Parish Hall is the most popular place to eat in downtown Calgary and while most come to eat, some come to serve.
That awareness of the “something great” is what prompted a group of four Catholic high school chaplains to organize their schools to sponsor a FTH night on Sept 8, 2019. In hindsight, “the timing wasn’t ideal, since that was the first Sunday of the new school year,” says event coordinator Dawna Richardson. Even so, the chaplain at St. Mary’s High School says the event was a phenomenal experience and one she’d consider organizing again.
From idea to execution
The idea started with a comment by Theodoric Nowak, Director of Social Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. Nowak, who met with high school chaplains, parish priests and pastoral workers early in the year, noted FTH needed sponsors for three Sunday dinners. Sponsors pay $5,000 and commit to providing 100 volunteers.
Chaplains from St. Mary’s, Bishop O’Byrne, All Saints and Bishop Carroll came aboard after discussing the idea with administrators at their schools. “Each school agreed to find 25 volunteers and I divided up the shifts so each shift had a mix of schools represented,” explains Richardson. “This way, each school had their share of the jobs everyone wants to do (like serve meals) and jobs that are more difficult to arrange (like washing dishes).” The four chaplains and some staff members from the schools volunteered from start to finish.
To avoid the hubbub of the first week of school, organizers raised the money during Lent 2019 and handled the field trip permission slips before the summer break. When Richardson’s school had a few openings left in early September, Bella Nguyen was one of the new Grade 10 students who stepped up. “It was really wonderful being there where so many people were working together,” says Nguyen. Now a member of St. Mary’s Student Action Leadership Team, she’s grateful for opportunities to show her Catholic faith in action.
Service is a blessing
Bishop O’Byrne chaplain Deborah Eberle says the experience “was a blessing for each student that came forward. It was eye opening, especially for our first-time volunteers.” She credits the FTH experience, which she’s shared at school celebrations, for a rise in the number of new volunteers who participate in social justice projects, including one where students make sandwiches for the Mustard Seed.
Because the four high schools draw from different socio-economic demographics, each of the four chaplains worked with her own school to raise their share of the $5,000. St Mary’s held a number of fundraisers during Lent. At O’Byrne, students paid to “force” a social studies teacher to stay after school and play his least-favourite video game. “The more they gave, the longer he played.”
Eberle and Richardson say the experience drove home the fact that students in Calgary’s Catholic high schools are looking for ways to be of service. “I just knew it was a good idea and that we could work together to make this happen,” says Eberle.
“It’s not difficult to get students involved in projects like this. We’re just providing an opportunity for them to do what they want to do,” adds Richardson.
FTH is about more than helping people who are hungry, she adds. “It gives vulnerable people an opportunity to be taken care of by people who care about people. It’s great for our students to see this kind of love in action and to be part of it and to know that what you have is not only given to you, it’s given to you for the common good, for the good of all.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos submitted by Dawna Richardson
When Fr. James Hagel was assigned to St. Gabriel the Archangel parish in Chestermere, he knew the congregation was knee-deep in fundraising for its first church. What Fr. Hagel didn’t know was that days into his new posting, his contribution to that project would include a growing enthusiasm for an outdoor fundraiser that boosts the building fund while helping to build community.
“Days after I started at St. Gabriel’s in September of 2018, I found myself hiking alongside parishioners as part of the Angels on High fundraiser. You know, it was more fun than I expected and it was a very nice way to meet people,” says Fr. Hagel, who’s outdoor kit includes a good pair of hiking boots, a camel-back-style water bottle and ski poles he’s modified for hiking.
Angels on High (AOH) is a fundraiser St. Gabriel’s parish launched seven years ago after then parish-pastor Fr. John Nemanic joined parishioner Kevin Papke on one of the 50 mountain climbs Papke undertook to raise money for Bethany Care Foundation. That experience got the two talking. A year later, they launched AOH, a multi-faceted fundraiser that included a dinner and dance, raffles, silent auction and building fund pledges for participants of a mountain scramble.
2019 marked AOH’s seventh year, says one of the organizers, Sarah Papke, Kevin’s wife. “The focus of this year’s event changed a bit. It still raises money for the building fund, but the real focus is on building community,” she explains.
And if numbers are an indication of success, AOH is thriving. In past years, about 40 people took part in the main event, a mountain trek. Many of these same individuals collected pledges and helped organize everything from t-shirt sales to raffles.
This year’s AOH attracted about 70 participants. Instead of focusing on a single hike up an iconic Rocky Mountain peak, organizers planned a family-friendly, all-ages event that included two nights at Owl Group Campgrounds in Kananaskis. On Sunday, July 14, the campers rose early for mass with Fr. Hagel and two other Diocesan priests, Fr. Wilbert Chin Jon, Vicar General of the Diocese and Fr. Avinash Colaco of Ascension parish.
Soon after, the keenest hikers (priests included!) headed for Grizzly Col, an 8-km trek to Grizzly Peak. The rest hiked Ptarmigan Cirque, a 4-km round trip completed in less than three hours, about half the time it takes to hike Grizzly Col. The day ended with a potluck supper served in the campground hall.
If you plan it, they will come
“I think this year was the best so far,” says Papke. Promoting the July 13-15 event as “fellowship weekend” encouraged parishioners to bring children of all ages. “All of a sudden we had families with little kids and we had a lot of parishioners I’d never met before.”
This year’s AOH also attracted people from outside the parish. One of the hikers, a senior who read about AOH in a Diocesan newsletter, came for the fellowship and the chance to hike Grizzly Col.
Instead of asking people to collect pledges, this year’s hikers (and the larger parish community) were encouraged to donate directly to the building fund. Fr. Hagel likes the move and believes it’s a good fit with the parish’s mission to be a church that welcomes and creates opportunities for people to gather in friendship and faith.
St. Gabriel the Archangel parish owns the land where the new church will eventually be built in Chestermere. The parish has more than $1 million in the bank, and while it’s likely to be years before the sod is turned, Angels on High is already cultivating its place among its people.
“Once we build community, the church will come,” says Papke, who’s already excited about next year’s gathering. “We booked 16 of the camping sites this year, but there are 50 spots, and I think we will get more people next year.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Photos courtesy of St. Gabriel's Parish, Chestermere.
To learn more about Angels on High and St. Gabriel Chestermere Parish community, visit: http://www.saintgabrielparish.ca
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers