Mar 132014

IMG_0834One of the greatest challenges in mission has been our need to regularly navigate vast levels of disparity in wealth and lifestyle.  There are a number of Kenyans with vast amounts of wealth and we, though living simply by US standards, have exponentially more wealth than those whom we accompany and serve in our ministries.  Traversing, on a daily basis, between destitution, comfort and opulence is often exhausting.

A recent week illustrated this for me in stark terms.  One day I was visiting the poorest of the poor in single-room mud and iron sheet structures assessing, with a Kenyan social worker, their needs and fit for our project serving the educational needs of those infected or affected by HIV.  These families are often trying to meet all their needs on the equivalent of $40-50 per month.  With this they are to cover food, rent and various school expenses, more often than not for multiple children.  These families generally live in a 10×10 room without electricity and have to carry their water from somewhere outside.  The communities they live in are strewn with bags of rotting garbage. Plastic bags drift in the wind like autumn leaves.  During rainy seasons it is necessary to dodge large puddles and rivers of waste and mud.


The next day we left our children with a classmate for a play date.  The family lived in a spacious modern apartment complete with security system, fifth floor beautiful view of the ocean and swimming pool on the compound.  The rent no doubt runs $1000-1500 per month.  From this high-end living we went to visit a friend who helps coordinate some of my non-violence work.  Peter and his wife are lower-middle class Kenyans living a lifestyle that many teachers, social workers and nurses might live.  They live in a two room (200 sq foot) dwelling with Electricity, TV, and Radio but get their water from outside the home.  Their two rooms are in a traditional Swahili structure sharing pit-latrine, shower and common corridor with 5 other families in similar circumstances.  Their outside community resembles the mud and garbage strewn byways described above.  This is the life for the vast majority of Urban Kenyans.

 For our own housing we settled on an old mildly dilapidated ‘flat’ with about 900Sq feet. Our Electricity and water is intermittent but largely reliable. We have a small refrigerator and outside space for the children to play safely (the last item was our only criteria in looking for a place to live).  We have a modest but beautiful place to live and are grateful.

I’ve written about choosing a school before but the government schools with regular corporal punishment and 60 or 80 or even 100 student per classroom with no resources was not an option.  Our children immediately found themselves in a more up-scale school.  Yet through our church and respective ministries they have cultivated relationships with the more impoverished majority of Kenyans.  However, as they grow older they are understandably less interested in visiting their friends in the tight, hot, dusty, garbage strewn byways of urban Africa and more inclined to get excited about invitation to visit their friends that have a place to play safely.  All of their friends, poor and rich, treat them with genuine kindness, but on visits to the more congested impoverished areas of Mombasa they are often greeted with an excited and curious chorus of ‘Mzungu’ (white person) from the neighbors. Being treated as a novelty grows old.P1120200We want mission to be a positive, exciting thought-provoking experience for our children so we try to both cultivate the ongoing relationships with the most impoverished of the society while also not pressing the point to a level of resentment or disdain.

There are of course un-ending lessons for us all to draw upon for years, but navigating the disparity and making sense of it can be emotionally exhausting.  Yet our daily lives provide ample opportunity for discussion on fairness, justice and responsibility.  We are fortunate that as our children explore these ideas that have genuine relationships as reference points to help them make sense of our world.

There are no clear answers to how to bridge the disparity.  One notion that I return to always is that if I genuinely desire some upward mobility for the poorest of the poor, if they are to have the most basic necessities in life than something has to give.  Those of us who have relative wealth must look for ways to be more ‘downwardly mobile’.   Pope Francis pointed this direction recently when he suggested that in order to address the growing disparity many of us must become poorer.  (

Oct 222013

The FAB group with Maryknoll lay missioners and members of the Cor da Rua project.

In August we had a really special experience here in São Paulo – a Friends Across Borders (FAB) trip. FAB is Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ immersion program, taking people from the U.S. to visit MKLM mission sites around the world. I volunteered to be the in-country coordinator here because I’d had such a positive experience leading trips like this while I was a campus minister at Georgetown University.

There were six participants on our trip – father and son Barry and Conor, husband and wife Matt and Brenda, and Gail and Cathy, who came from the same parish. They had spoken on the phone before coming, but didn’t all meet until they got off the plane in São Paulo! They were a great group — animated, flexible, and up for anything. Perfect for Brazil.

My co-leader for the trip was the fabulous Dave Kane, a former MKLM

Dave and Catherine

Dave Kane and Catherine Heinhold on the FAB trip.

missioner who lives in João Pessoa and works for Maryknoll’s Global Concerns office. Dave used to live in Washington, DC and after I was accepted to MKLM, Dave was the first person to email and welcome me (and invite me over to dinner the next week, even though we’d never met!). Suffice to say, it was a treat to have him here and work with him.

While the group was here, we visited the work sites of our Maryknoll missioners, went to parks and churches, cultural sites and a samba show. The group had a chance to interact with “everyday” Brazilians and get a sense of their lives. While no one in the group spoke Portuguese, several had some Spanish and with Dave and I translating it was possible to have meaningful interactions. Speaking of which, this was my first time translating for a group — not easy, but I really enjoyed it! I learned a lot from listening to Dave’s translations and we had fun trying to figure out how to explain certain things.

São José

Together with the Comunidade de São José for mass and lunch.

The most special moment of the trip for me was when we went to celebrate mass and eat lunch with the Community of São José, one of the five communities of my parish (Sta. Terezinha). The chapel is located in a hillside favela and the community does not have many resources. But the people of this community are very warm, open, and animated and they welcomed our group with open arms! Our pastor, Padre Vidal, presided at the mass and invited Matt, a Eucharistic minister back home, to distribute communion. It was a joyful celebration.

After mass, as we waited for lunch to be ready, we talked in groups of three and four — sharing stories of families, involvement in the church, and learning words in English and Portuguese. Lunch itself was wonderful — a very traditional Brazilian meal of baked chicken, farofa (a toasted manioc flour mixture), maionese (a potato salad with mayo and vegetables), pasta, rice, sausages, and much more. And


Lunch is served!

three desserts. Amazing. Dona Antônia told the story of the beginnings of the community, in which she and her husband were instrumental.

As lunch wound down, we began to say our goodbyes. It was hard to leave, knowing that we had just experienced a very special and sacred moment of hospitality and community. The members of São José and the FAB group both expressed that the others would always be in their hearts and memories. For me, this FAB trip was truly an experience “across borders” — people of different cultures and languages coming together and discovering — through food, faith, and conversation –that they indeed have much in common.

To see more photos of the Friends Across Borders trip to Brazil, visit the MBMC Facebook page. To learn more about MKLM’s Friends Across Borders program, or join in on the next trip to Brazil, check out the website here.

Jun 282013

Bethany helping with laundry while visiting friends in Rural Kenya

On multiple occasions in the past couple months the water went out at our house for several days at a time. I quickly decided that I’d rather be without electricity than water any time. The days involved very careful monitoring of water use. Carrying water only meant walking 300 meters down the road and was really nothing compared to the distances that many Kenyans have to walk for one of life’s basic necessities. The experience did help renew our commitment to careful use of earth’s most precious resource. During those five-day, any left over water from hand-washing clothes or from bathing were used for flushing the toilet once or twice a day. This latter “gray-water” recycling has been something we have tried to continue now that water has returned. Rehema is a real champion at saving. When she takes a cold shower she is sure to turn the water off while she soaps up and only turns it back on to rinse off.

Even though our water returned and all is “back to normal” the experience sticks with me and I’m daily reminded of my water use as I see women (always women) carrying heavy loads of water by hand or on their heads, or seeing children roll 20 liter jerry-cans of water from a public source to their homes. When we return to the semi-rural area where we initially lived Rehema and Bethany sometimes have join their friends in the fetching of water.

Here in Kenya there are parts of the country where one can more easily find coke-cola more readily than clean drinking water. My own water consumption and use continues to be more wasteful than it should be and I’m challenged and converted daily by the lifestyle of Kenyan people to more wisely use the resources of the world.

Apr 192013

Today was one of my better days in mission in recent memory.  I had a reunion with Dismas Omondi.   Dismas recently served 13 years, wrongly accused, on death-row in Kenya and was released in 2010.  Dismas and I first met in 2005 as I began working with the death-row prisoners at Shimo la Tewa.  During our time together I assisted him in some very small ways making some visits to some of his family members, but more often he helped me understand the circumstances and cases of his fellow prisoners.  Dismas indeed served as the “jailhouse lawyer” helping his fellow prisoners prepare appeals and address other legal issues.  Furthermore, Dismas also served as the Catholic leader on his block of prisoners leading prayers and small faith community.

Dismas spent 13 years in prison. Now free he assists curt in prison ministry.

 Today we met with an embrace and spoke for more than 2 hours sharing a meal and time together on the “outside”.  As indicated above in his legal knowledge and ability, Dismas is a very intelligent man and continues to assist prisoners free-of-charge in minor legal preparations and advice.  Likewise, several times a month he visits the women’s prison offering legal advice as well as prayer and spiritual support.  As you can tell, Dismas does so much to assist those in prison and all in his “free-time”.

After our greeting, Dismas was eager to show me his paid-work.  We walked to the court where I knew he was working and we walked around the back where we sat down near the public toilet. With pride and joy he explained to me how he had arranged with the courthouse for he and another former-prisoner to maintain and clean the public toilet and in return patrons pay roughly 15 cents to use the facilities.  This earns he and his co-worker roughly $5 per day (he works at that from roughly 7am-5pm).  While the wages are low they are higher than many un-skilled factory workers in the area, on these wages he is at least able to provide for he and his new wife (recently married in June) to live in a 200 sq foot rented room in a traditional Swahili shared-house to live in .

Dismas was someone long-ago I thought I might have come to Africa to serve and he became someone who now serves as a role model for me to follow.  Dismas, providentially carrying the same name as the one who suffered the death penalty alongside Jesus, is a Christian to emulate.  As I spoke with him the joy and peace poured forth from him.  In word and spirit he expressed the deep daily gratitude for every minute of life as a free-man despite the many challenges he faces daily.  As Advent draws to a close and we prepare for the birth of our Lord, my prayer is that I can follow the example of Jesus as Dismas does, for all too often I lament my daily struggles and frustrations (which might accurately be considered laughable “wealthy-westerner-problems”).  Yet I know that our loving merciful God looks upon me too with mercy and love and enters into my daily struggles regardless of how trivial I am beginning to recognize they might be.

Jan 312013

“For when I am weak, then I am strong. “ – 2 Cor 12:10

Curt and Dismas in 2006

When we first moved to Kenya in 2003 I remember a Maryknoll priest once telling me that our failures and inadequacies are perhaps the greatest gift we have to offer. He spoke about how meaningful it can be to others, who are often grappling with poverty, illness, lack of education and sometimes a sense of inadequacy, to be able to help where we struggle and fail. I have experienced that in a new way recently. My work in the prison sometimes seems stalled. Too often prisoners are simply asking me to visit the court on their behalf, to check the status of their case or go to see their families, and while the latter can be pretty rewarding experiences, the former is often a bit dull. Both are often time consuming and yield little results. It seemingly requires little skill on my behalf and the one skill it often does require, language, is something that often leaves me feeling inadequate. With that in mind I recently asked Dismas, a former prisoner whom I’ve written about before, to follow up on some of the cases at the courthouse. In return I offer him a modest fee for helping me. When we recently met to discuss some cases he followed up on, it revealed a lot to me. As we concluded our conversation he mentioned that this news would make the prisoners so very happy. This was a good reminder for me because often the news is uninformative and reveals little new progress in their cases. But Dismas was right. He reminded me that the very fact that someone cares enough to follow-up on their behalf is enough to make a prisoner feel cared for. Their dignity has been acknowledged. Dismas reminded me that, years ago, when I did some of those simple things for him, it gave him hope. And the greatest part is that while he shared his findings and explained some of the legal matters that I did not understand, I noticed in him a sense of joy and fulfillment. His eyes shone bright – he had been given the opportunity to do what he so desires – to help prisoners who are in similar circumstances that he once was. My weakness and willingness to turn to him for help turns out to be an asset in my ministry- giving Dismas meaningful work and meeting the needs of the prisoners in an often more substantial way.

Dec 062012

This week we had visitors at HOPE Project.  I asked my students last week what they’d like to do when they come and the resounding answer was drama.  Skits are very popular here as a part of story-telling, competitions or part of events where drama groups get paid for sharing a skit with a certain message. 

These skits often have serious subject matter, although they can also have a bit of comedy.  What I find interesting is how the students’ drama reflects what they experience.  Violence is portrayed as a way to resolve disagreements, which I suppose is all too common in Western entertainment as well.  

The two drama performances had the themes of the dangers of drug use and the importance of education. I was impressed with the number of scenes the children came up with and the layers of issues that came up in the performances: trust, respect for elders (or lack of it with elders without formal education), student bullying and even students’ hygiene!

The Primary Students’ Performance – Scene 1 – Unknowing parents give money to their children for drugs

Scene 4 – Crying about being misunderstood

The closing scene – All ends well when a neighbor pays the fine for the children.

Some issues are not easy to resolve in a 15 minute play!


Moving to our second drama, by the high school students.  “Fredrick” right, faces off with his father.


The other students were captivated.

Our stage is the foyer outside the project office (and the restrooms).

The drama included a Parent-Teacher’s meeting – which revealed a lot about how my students perceive these meetings – and their relationships with their guardians.

Overall, it was a good show!

Our last performance was a beautiful solo about how far education will take you.


After the drama performances, we divided into groups to have reading circles with our guests – as all took turn reading aloud and learning new words – one of the techniques we are using to help improve our student’s vocabulary and reading confidence.

Mary helping two of our girls choose which book to read.
Shirley sharing a story about Patch, a horse.
Jane reading about Junie B. Jones’ adventures.
Fr Bill and the boys read a story about smugglers!


We then divided into two groups to visit the homes of two of my students.
We had an encore performance by one of my student’s younger sister.
A family I am proud to have supported.
Thanks to our visitors for coming and reading with us!

   I’m happy to report that the books that our visitors helped us start are continuing in our daily reading circles.  I have six recent high school graduates who were supported by the project and are now volunteering with us.  They are even helping the students with new words and spelling words!  I love it!  And I hope it helps our young ones learn to love to read.


 Uncategorized  Comments Off
Nov 222012

Thanksgiving Mass

Happy Thanksgiving from Nairobi!    The Maryknoll Lay Missioners of Kenya meet each year on Thanksgiving for a day of reflection together and share our traditional meal (sans pumpkin pie this year) with the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers.  Today one of our reflections presented by Fr John Conway really spoke to me & I’d like to share it with you.  Here it is …


We are grateful for eyes that can see and ponder, for taste buds that know the sensuous pleasure of eating and drinking, for hands that hold and touch and feel.  For ears that can delight in music and the voice of a friend, for a nose that can smell the aroma of newly mown grass or food, and can also breathe the air that gives us life.


We are grateful for the treasures of loved ones whose hearts of openness and acceptance have encouraged us to be who we are. We are grateful for their faithfulness, for standing by us when our weaknesses stood out glaringly, for being there when we were most in need and for delighting with us in our good days and joyful seasons.


We are grateful for the eyes of faith, for believing in the presence of God, giving us hope in our darkest days, encouraging us to listen to our spirit’s hunger, and reminding us to trust in the blessings of God’s presence in our most empty days.


We are grateful for the ongoing process of becoming who we are, for the seasons within, for the great adventure of life that challenges and comforts us at one and the same time.


We are grateful for the messengers of God – people, events, written or spoken words – that came to us at just the right time and helped us to grow.


We are grateful for God calling us to mission, to work with our gifts, grateful that we can be of service and use our talents in a responsible and just way.


We are grateful that we have the basic necessities of life, that we have the means and the ability to hear the cries of the poor and to response from our abundance.


We are grateful for the miracle of life, for the green of our earth, for the amazing grace of our history; we are grateful that we still have time fo decide the fate of the world by our choices and actions, grateful that we have it within our power to bring a divided world to peace.


Wishing you ever so much to be grateful for -


Nov 222012
Fr. Dan explains U.S. Thanksgiving traditions

Fr. Dan explains U.S. Thanksgiving traditions.

I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving — and Thanksgiving itself is one of them.  Every year Maryknollers in São Paulo — the Lay Missioners, Fathers, and Sisters — gather to celebrate Thanksgiving together.   This year we decided to celebrate on a Brazilian national holiday (the Declaration of the Republic, Nov. 15),  invite Brazilian friends, and spend the afternoon hanging out, talking, and playing games.  Everyone was up for it.  All the Maryknollers cooked and prepped and my sisters, who were visiting, brought the cranberry sauce from the U.S.  Everyone invited a few friends — roommates, co-workers, former Maryknoll missioners.  About 25 of us gathered at Maryknoll Father Dan McLaughlin’s house on the northern periphery of the city.


Everyone digs in!

As we gathered to say grace, Dan had each one introduce themselves.  He then explained what he called a very important Thanksgiving tradition in the U.S. — that the men wash the dishes!  The only exceptions would be the dono de casa (the host, himself) and one guest who, upon arrival, had declared himself the best dishwasher in Brazil and had immediately gotten to work at the kitchen sink.



The men, washing the dishes.



We had quite the spread — a total of three turkeys (in Brazil they’re much smaller than they are in the U.S.), stuffing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, squash, green beans, rice and beans (can’t invite Brazilians and not feed them rice and beans), plus some other dishes which I never discovered the names of.  The desserts were amazing too, including pumpkin pie that Lay Missioner Katie made from fresh pumpkin.

Playing games!

After dinner, the men washed the dishes.  People chatted in small groups, made new friends and new connections, and played games with the kids.  We rested in each others’ company, and were thankful.  One Brazilian friend, Vitória, said, “O evento teve a cara de Maryknoll mesmo — bastante diversidade, sensação de inclusão, e muito amor!” — “The event had the face of Maryknoll itself — plenty of diversity, feeling of inclusion, and much love!”  Just what Thanksgiving is all about.




Jul 082012

My newest donor is an orphan from Mombasa.  How do you show your appreciation to a gift that you cannot hardly believe is possible?


Last weekend I received a phone call from one of the young men I know, an orphan who I helped get some casual work earlier this year.  He was helping building a new house and was known for his prompt arrival in the morning and for doing anything needed, usually ending up with the dirty physical labor of carrying and mixing cement.  He almost always had the same outfit on and was covered in dust, but he would smile & wave as I passed on my way to the office.


This time Martin called me to tell me he’d found a job – as a security guard for an international company.  He was so proud.  I was happy to hear that he’d be paid a better wage than most guards – 10,000 Kenyan shillings or about $120 per month.  In American standards, not great, especially for 12-hour days, six days a week.  He told me he’d come to see me on his “off-day.”


I was still a bit surprised when Friday Martin came to our office, dressed in style!  He’s being switched to a new site and was called to say that he’ll need to work nights, but he’s still happy with it.  His last assignment was at a tea packing place so they gave him two cups of tea – one in the morning & one in the afternoon, which was good since he doesn’t get a lunch break.  He told me that it was okay, he didn’t need to eat anyway.  He then started telling me about how he wanted to buy a uniform for a student that didn’t have one.  I assumed he meant a neighbor boy that he had offered to have live with him while the other boy was going to school.  But when I asked about the boy, Martin said, no, the money is for one of my students.  He told me he thought 2000 shillings would be enough, and if I’d be around, he’d go to the bank right now and withdraw it.


So he did.

He gave me a fifth of his income.

Two months rent.

A third of the money he’s going to try to save to go back to school.

Can you imagine?


I still can’t believe it.  I know in my head that it was driven by his desire to help someone else, like all of the donors who help me do the work I do.  He told me how grateful he was that he had a job now,  that he wanted to show his appreciation.


And so how do I appreciate someone else’s appreciation?


I am overwhelmed by his generosity.



Jun 232012

Today was my first full day back at work since returning from vacation.

It’s fascinating to be back in a culture different than my own.  I’m more aware of the non-verbal communication than what I may do naturally in my own culture.  Here an glance may mean yes, looking away meaning no.  Hugging on both sides or tapping foreheads as a sign of greeting – those are things that are new again, yet familiar since I’ve now lived in East Africa for 3 and a half years.  Respect is shown in words and in silence.  And working with teenagers, I’ve found silence is also a way of avoiding the reality.


About half of the children the HOPE project supports are partial orphans, which means that they’ve lost one parent to AIDS and their remaining parent is HIV+ and unable to support them to school.  These are the lucky ones.  They still have a mother who’s usually willing to struggle to help them, even if she cannot afford their daily bread.


Two of the students I met today are total orphans, who live with aunt and uncles.  Both of these kids are ones for whom most people would say “maisha ni magumu.”  Life is hard. Whether it’s that the aunt is tired of caring for the children of her sister who passed away 15 years ago or that she finds the constant needs too much for her patience, it’s tough for the child, especially for kids going through the tumultuous teenage years.


Eric did well in primary school and his older brother managed to get a chance at going to a good university.  But the last two years have been a tough transition for Eric, with his brother gone at school, his uncle busy at work and his aunt just not interested in him, his performance dropped and he found that being the class clown was more fun than being serious about his studies.  Now with a reputation and being far behind in his classes, it’s almost too late to catch up.


It’s the students who’s guardians don’t show up – whether it’s at parent meetings at the school or when we try to meet with them – that I feel for.  Life is hard enough for a teenager without being loved by the people around him everyday.  Mercy is another girl who’s aunt doesn’t always give her the care she needs – but today she came with another student we support, who’s also studying hairdressing.  Sometimes having a friend is all you need to make the world seem like a better place and that life isn’t so hard.


Having spent a month with my own family and friends, seeing Eric and Mercy again remind me why I’m here.  Hopefully to help them have a life that isn’t so hard in the years to come.


Thanks to all my friends at home that support me in what I do.