Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Sunday at Kamiti

This past weekend I was with the MC Fathers again. On Saturday afternoon, Br. Juan Pablo and I walked through the Mathare slums which begin near their home and run along the river until they merge with the Huruma slums near the MC Sisters regional house. The people, and especially the children, were very friendly, and also curious to see this large mizungu (white man) in a gray robe. Once again I marveled at the ingenuity of those who live in such limited circumstances, especially the way in which they make use of things other people throw away, turning them into useful objects for daily living.

The next day, Sunday, after the early morning Holy Hour, Fr. Ray, Br. Juan Pablo and I were preparing to leave to celebrate Mass in the maximum security block of the Kamiti prison. When the car wouldn't start (and the engine began to smoke as Fr. Ray tried to turn it over) it was the first sign the day would be a bit of an adventure. We walked two blocks to Thika Road and hailed a matatu, a minibus used for public transport. Many are colorfully decorated inside and out, and some have messages (like the one above) printed on them, perhaps the Kenyan version of "bumpersticker theology." Along the way we passed the local counterpart of Home Depot.

Since our change in transport caused a little delay, we weren't sure we would get to the prison in time for Mass in maximum security, and if so whether we would be able to celebrate in medium security (like last week), and if not whether we could celebrate in another block. Our concerns were dispelled when the medium security catechist met us near the entrance and led us to his section. As we walked across the prison yard the sound of the Catholic choir grew louder and more energetic. As we enter the men were singing with extra vigor:

It was evident that something exceptional was going on, and that special grace continued through the Mass, which Fr. Ray celebrated in Kiswahili.

The men were extremely attentive as he spoke with them in their own language.

Unaware of the danger of asking a Franciscan to "say a few words," after Communion the catechist asked if I had anything to share with the men. I told them how once again I felt spiritually invigorated and revitalized by their enthusiasm, and how important and powerful it is when men direct their strength and energy to the service of God. I mentioned that in New York our friars organize men's days of prayer twice a year to encourage men to draw near to Christ, be alive in their faith and active in the Church, and that I wished the men in the US could see their example. I shared with them Pope Benedict's concern that Christians in the west have become "tired of their faith," but that they (the prisoners) were certainly not tired, but alive and wide awake!

At the end of Mass we prayed a special blessing over one of the men who would be released later that week after serving a three-year sentence.

The extraordinary grace of the day flowed through the hour of Eucharistic adoration which followed Mass, during which Fr. Ray heard confessions in Kiswahili. The men were extremely prayerful, and we all felt ourselves drawn very deeply into the Presence of Jesus.

After benediction the men broke into a spontaneous session of African worship and praise, and the percussion section (above) was really smoking! The expressions on the faces of the men below give you some idea of the joy of the Holy Spirit that was overflowing that day.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blessed John Paul II at Our Lady of Grace School in Kisumu, Kenya

I took an early morning flight last Monday from Nairobi to Kisumu several hundred kilometers west on Lake Victoria. Fr. Martin Martiny, OP, Vicar Provincial for the East African Vice Province of the Dominican Friars met me at new airport which had only opened a few days before.

That afternoon I began a four-day program with the students aged 15 and older from both the primary and secondary division of Our Lady of Grace School. The school has an interesting history. The Dominican Friars had been sponsoring disadvantaged students at a number of schools for several years. However, when it became impossible to send the youth back to school during the post-election violence of 2008, and the compound of a nearby NGO went up for sale, Fr. Martin arranged for the purchase of that property and opened their own school. A team of friars and Missioners of Christ had the privilege of helping to direct an UZIMA! (the Kiswahili word for "Life!") YOUTH 2OOO-type retreat there in May of 2009. I returned a year later to do a catechetical program based on the Lord of the Rings films a few months later.

Since the focus of my preaching for my new "missionary preacher" assignment has been on "Reviving the Legacy of Blessed John Paul II," this time around I decided to adapt that content for a younger audience using the two really wonderful dramatized films on the life of Karol Wojtyla that were a joint effort of companies in Poland, Italy and Canada: Karol, A Man Who Became Pope and Karol, The Pope, The Man. Though fictionalized in some details they present an amazingly factual and positive portrayal of the man who altered the course of the 20th century and led the Church into the new millennium. Each of the films runs for three hours and is divided into two equal parts. The first covers his life from the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in 1939, through his ordination and ministry as a priest and bishop and concludes with his election as pope in 1978. The second begins with his first pontifical Mass and ends with his death in 2005.

The students were extremely attentive and very responsive to the program. Three things about Blessed John Paul struck them particularly: 1) how all the painful events of his youth (the loss of his entire family, the occupation by the Nazis and oppression by the Communists)all prepared him for something God would ask him to do in the future 2) his friendship with young people and 3) his visits to Africa. Members of the faculty and staff were likewise deeply moved and inspired by his example.

Students, faculty and staff of Our Lady of Grace School who participated in the program on
Blessed Pope John Paul II. The principal and administrator are on the far left.
Secondary students are dressed in blue, primary students in brown.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

With the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi

Br. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, MC with prisoners.

One of the surprise blessings of this trip to Africa is the chance to reconnect with Br. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, MC. Juan Pablo was one of the early Missioners of Christ long term volunteers in Comayagua, Honduras. From there he went on to join the Missionary of Charity Fathers, being first assigned to Tijuana, Mexico, then on to Rome for priestly studies and now in Nairobi for a pastoral year between his second and third years of theological studies.

Huruma slums,  Nairobi.

I was with Br. Juan Pablo and his community last weekend. On Saturday I had the privilege of celebrating Mass for more than 100 Missionary of Charity Sisters at their regional house in the Huruma slums of Nairobi. There were postulants, novices, professed sisters and a group of formators beginning a retreat. We returned the next afternoon to visit with the many abandoned poor the sisters shelter: infants, handicapped children and disabled adult women. The entire experience was deeply moving.

Adult women (above), an infant and handicapped children (below) 
housed at the Missionary of Charity Sisters compound in Huruma.

On Sunday Morning I was able to join Fr. Ray, MC and Br. Juan Pablo for Mass at Kimati Prison on the outskirts of Nairobi. Fr. Ray allowed me to preach and the catechist translated the homily into Kiswahili. Mass was followed by Eucharistic adoration and Confessions. The men sang vigorously and participated reverently and attentively at Mass and Adoration.

Catholic choir at Kimati prison.

A group photo of the Catholic congregation with Fr. Ray (right rear) and myself.

Following Mass we caught up with Fr. Julius, MC and the MC Sisters who were in the process of distributing sandals to some of the inmates, particularly foreigners (Ethiopians and Somalis) who have no family nearby to assist them. The presence of the sisters has profoundly transformed the atmosphere of the prison and deeply impacted the inmates and staff alike.

Prisoners with MC Sisters, Fr. Ray, Br. Juan Pablo and the catechist in prison yard.

Fr. Julius, MC and MC Sisters distributing sandals.

We ask for your prayers as we plan a chastity-focused youth encounter for October 8 and look forward to other possibilities for collaboration in the future.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Situation in Kenya

I arrived in Kenya last Wednesday, September 14, after flying through Dubai in the Arab Emirates. Dubai itself was a fascinating experience. It's really almost like an "alternate pole" to New York, a meeting place of the east and the south. There were huge numbers of Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans - many dressed in robes not unlike my own (though much more elegant in color, fabric and style; by comparison I looked pretty shabby) - and relatively few North Americans and Europeans.

In my less than a week here, my perception of the situation has been dominated by three principal impressions:

1. The September 12 fire in the Sinai slums of Nairobi, caused by a gasoline pipeline leak, that killed more than 100 people and left many more injured and wounded. It was a horrific incident that underscored the plight and vulnerability of the thousands of Kenyans living in extreme poverty in the shanty towns scattered throughout the capital. 

2. The continuing drought and famine in northern Kenya and other areas of East Africa that threaten the existence of thousands of rural villagers who survive on subsistence farming and herding. This forms the climatic backdrop to the Somali refugee crisis unfolding on Kenya's western border. Approximately 450,000 refugees from Somalia are being sheltered in camps in Dadaab, with an estimated 1500 more arriving each day.

3. The ongoing political crisis that emerged in the wake of the inter-tribal violence provoked by the disputed presidential elections at the end of 2007. More than 1000 Kenyans died, and scores more were displaced, during months of rioting that swept the country. Several very prominent Kenyan political figures- including potential candidates for the 2012 national elections - have been indicted before the International Criminal Court at the Hague, for which judicial proceedings are currently underway.
    This is certainly not a complete picture of what's taking place here. Kenya is a beautiful country and its people are gracious and dignified - which makes the circumstances I describe above an all the more painful scar on a people who deserve so much better. Please remember those affected by these events in your prayers.

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    YOUTH 2OOO New York Team Formation Day

    Eucharistic Holy Hour in the St. Francis Center Chapel.

    Last Sunday, September 11, I spent the day with about a dozen young men and women who comprise the team for YOUTH 2OOO New York. We gathered in the St. Francis Center, right around the block. The tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York served as a dramatic backdrop to reinforce the urgent need society has for compelling witnesses who live the new humanity of Christ.

    In the morning we used the text of Pope Benedict's address to youth in San Marino in June as a basis for our reflection, particularly the two questions with which he challenged those young people: Who am I? and What am I living for? This was followed by Sunday Mass, and in the afternoon we watched an inspiring documentary on Blessed John Paul II based on George Weigel's biography of the same name: Witness to Hope, which really ignited the young people's enthusiasm. The afternoon ended with an hour in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Missioners of Christ Labor Day Retreat

    Fr. Herald was in the Richmond, Virginia area over Labor Day Weekend with about 35 young adults (including married couples with small children) for the annual Missioners of Christ retreat. It was blessed and inspiring weekend that included Mass and Eucharistic Adoration each day, praise and worship music and talks on the theme of "Reviving the Legacy of Blessed John Paul II." Our time together helped to deepen our relationship of friendship and collaboration that has spanned the last decade and included joint efforts in both Honduras and Africa. I feel very blessed to have two Missioners of Christ, Maynor Ballesteros and Dr. William Stallings, joining me on the upcoming Africa missionary journey.

    Thanks to Aaron Hostetter, youth minister at Holy Trinity Parish in Norfolk, VA, and participant on the retreat, the recorded talks are available online at:  (playlist) (to listen individually)

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    New Assignment for Fr. Herald Brock, CFR

    Many of you know that we concluded our missionary presence in South Sudan shortly after the referendum on independence in January of this year. For the past six months I have been residing at St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx and helping at the St. Anthony Shelter for Renewal. A few weeks ago I received final word on a new assignment that begins this month, that of being a missionary preaching friar. I will continue to be based at St. Crispin’s , but will be able to travel regularly to mission sites in developing countries, especially where our friars have an existing relationship of collaboration with local friends. This includes visits to places where I have served previously in Honduras and Africa, which makes me very happy. The purpose of these journeys is to encourage the local church through efforts of evangelization and formation, and when possible to offer assistance to those in need. I will also do some limited preaching in the United States, especially for mission-related purposes.

    This new assignment is supported by Franciscan Mission Outreach, a non-profit organization that helps to sponsor missionary endeavors of the Friars of the Renewal. Donations made to Franciscan Mission Outreach will assist in providing for the international missionary efforts I will undertake, as well as for the life and ministries of the CFRs. I will be sharing experiences from this new assignment on this blog.

    My first missionary journey of this new assignment will be to head back to Africa in mid-September for a seven-week trip to four countries on the eastern side of the continent. I will have Maynor Ballesteros and Dr. William Stallings of Missioners of Christ as missionary companions. In Kenya planned activities include a visit to the Somali refugee camp in Dadaab, a week of faith formation for older students at Our Lady of Grace School in Kisumu, and combining with the Missionaries of Charity for youth evangelization in Nairobi. It will be a great joy and a privilege to visit the new Republic of South Sudan, catch up with lay missionary Dennis Kiyimba and reconnect with the missionary youth and other friends in the Diocese of Torit, especially now as Bishop Akio Johnson Mutek has returned from successful medical treatment abroad. The team will be making a brief stop in Uganda to spend a few days at Emmaus Center for Catholic Evangelization and Discipleship and see Dennis' wife Agnes, due with their first child in November. From there I will meet up with Fr. Donald Haggerty of New York, working in priestly formation in Addis Ababa, to explore future possibilities for outreach in Ethiopia.

    In November I will travel to Honduras to assist Missioners of Christ in preparing a group of older Honduran youth to embark on a week of evangelization, and then accompany the youth into the mountains where they will be sharing their faith and inviting the villagers to participate more fully in the life of their local parish. I will also have the chance to see good friends like the young men and staff at Jesus of Nazareth Farm. Being in Central America will also afford the opportunity to make a short trip to neighboring Guatemala to see some friends and missionary contacts in Guatemala City, Jalapa and Esquipulas. Future plans include journeys to Haiti (in January) other African and Latin American countries and perhaps Asia. As my schedule permits, I will be doing limited mission-related preaching in the US.

    When not on the road, and for a total of at least 12 weeks a year, I will be at St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx, participating in the life there as a member of the local fraternity, and helping out as I’m able at the St. Anthony Shelter for Renewal and in the friary’s other activities. I plan to do a little local preaching as well, and do some spiritual formation with the YOUTH 2OOO New York team, joining them for retreats in the metropolitan area when our schedules coincide.