Hearts for mission

Dr. Deborah Rodriguez, a member of St. Theresa Parish in Federal Way, helps bring medical care to Honduran families during an annual mission sponsored by Tacoma’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish. In the background is Dr. Henry Retailliau of St. Leo Parish in Tacoma. Photo: Courtesy Amigos de San Carlos, St. Charles Borromeo Parish Dr. Deborah Rodriguez, a member of St. Theresa Parish in Federal Way, helps bring medical care to Honduran families during an annual mission sponsored by Tacoma’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish. In the background is Dr. Henry Retailliau of St. Leo Parish in Tacoma. Photo: Courtesy Amigos de San Carlos, St. Charles Borromeo Parish

Parish mission groups give their time, hearts and sweat to those in need

Arriving in El Salvador for his first parish mission in 2012 was a sensory and economic jolt for Andrew Feucht III.

“You look different than everyone else. It’s hot. It smells different,” said Feucht (pronounced Foyt), a member of the Mission Ministry Team at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline. “You’re in a place where the best cars are something you wouldn’t drive. You see the abject poverty, like right there.”

Villages resembled a collection of sheds, cobbled together with chicken wire, chunks of lumber and corrugated tin.

The poverty and economic disparity with the U.S. can be “tremendously overwhelming,” said Feucht, who is a lawyer. He remembers questioning why he was journeying to El Salvador to help Project Fiat build houses: “I know what I make for the week — why don’t I just send the money and pay people to do the work?”

But it was Feucht’s presence, not his money, that interested the project’s director, Sister Gloria Petrone of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “She said, ‘You need to be here with the people, you need to have your heart touched. If you can serve, you should serve,’” recalled Feucht, who has returned twice to El Salvador.

The people there warmly welcome the volunteers who come to work side-by-side with them, building and painting houses, erecting water towers and digging ditches for household water lines. “They have next to nothing. They want to invite you in; they want to share with you,” Feucht said.

Going on a mission, he said, “is about service and … deepening your commitment to service,” as well as being open to the way other cultures approach life. “Just being in community with people is so much more powerful than writing a check.”

Destry Seiler
Destry Seiler of St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland made her first Mature Trek to Tijuana with her parish in May. Seiler, 23, is a veteran of eight high school and college treks with the parish. Photo: Jan Kline

Around the Seattle Archdiocese, parishes like St. Luke are responding to the call to help the poor through mission trips to places like Honduras, Tijuana and El Salvador:

St. Charles Borromeo, Tacoma: Medical mission to Honduras

In the Honduran high countryside, more than 100 people are waiting in the tropical heat outside a school when the medical brigade from St. Charles Borromeo Parish arrives by bus at 9 a.m.

The volunteers stop to say a prayer before setting up areas for triage, exams, a lab (a table next to some outhouses) and a pharmacy (medications hanging in closet shoe bags). Tarps are often put up to shade those waiting in line.

In five days, the team of up to 58 parishioners and community members — including six to eight doctors and usually a priest — visits five villages, providing basic medical care to about 2,000 residents.

“It’s a very big day when we come. People will walk 4–5 miles just to get some vitamins and blood pressure medications and Tylenol,” said Jackie Murphy, a board member of Amigos de San Carlos (Friends of St. Charles), who has been making the annual trip for nearly a decade.

People may still be waiting when the team closes up shop at 4 p.m. — which allows them to return to their lodging before dark (the U.S. State Department has a travel warning about crime and violence in Honduras). “You can’t help everybody,” Murphy said. “You have to help who you can and you just sort of have to give it up to God.”

The St. Charles group works with Sociedad Amigos de los Niños (Society of Friends of the Children), a Honduran nonprofit based in the nation’s capital, Tegucigalpa, that was started by Franciscan Sister Maria Rosa Leggol. The group stays at Nuevo Paraiso, a rural compound about an hour from the capital.

Serving the physical and spiritual needs of Honduran people with a Christian presence is the goal of the medical mission trip, said Dr. Alan Gill, a parishioner and family physician who is the group’s medical director. His first trip was in 2009, and he’s missed just one since then.

“I was very impressed by the people and I think it was eye-opening to see the need,” Dr. Gill said. “There’s a lot of need, and not much resources.”

While the medical staff tends to the villagers’ medical needs, “I have ended up being the St. Vincent de Paul of Honduras,” Murphy said with a laugh. Her mission is making sure that every person gets an item of clothing — shirt, pants, blouse, skirt or shoes — items donated by people back home in Tacoma.

The weeklong trip at the end of January requires a year of planning and organization: fundraising, sessions to sort and pack clothing, and packaging the $10,000 to $12,000 worth of medications purchased each year.

Volunteers pay their own way, pack personal items in carry-ons and check two bags apiece, each filled with 50 pounds of medicine and donated items — things like school supplies, clothes, shoes, dental hygiene supplies, maternity items, linens and horse tack. (Members of the St. Charles group also work with Hondurans on potable water projects.)

“Prayer and service are central to what we do,” Dr. Gill said. “We all believe that in every person you see the face of Jesus. And truly I think that’s the reason to do it and that’s the reward of doing it.”

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St. John Vianney, Kirkland: Adult trek to Tijuana

It’s not unusual for parish youth groups to head to Mexico each summer to help build homes, but at St. John Vianney Parish, the adults get their own “Mature Trek” to Tijuana to work with the group Esperanza International.

Deana Barrow went on the Kirkland parish’s first adult trek in 2000 and was hooked: She’s been every year since.

“It’s just part of my life. As soon as I leave I’m looking forward to going back,” Barrow said. “It’s something that recharges me every year.”

The adult volunteers, who make their trek in late May, might be asked to dig foundation trenches, build forms or erect walls for the concrete-block homes. They have painted and done yard work at a rehab center for disabled people; one year they helped build a community center.

“Even though you work so hard, it’s relaxing for me,” said Barrow, a medical imaging manager.

This year’s group of 40 volunteers was the largest in the adult trek’s history, said Jan Kline, the parish’s outreach coordinator. The volunteers began work on a house in memory of parishioner Linda Thompson, a leader of the inaugural youth trek in 1992 and adult trek in 2000, who died of cancer last fall at age 66.

Families provide the land and work as volunteers to be eligible for a home and the help that comes from the U.S. volunteers, Barrow said. “To be able to participate in the actual building of their home is really special,” she said. “They’re all so excited to have people come and help them. I think they’re most of the time in awe of why we do this.”

Going on a mission trip, Barrow said, means “giving your time and your heart — and your sweat — to those who need it.”

Read more about St. John Vianney’s 25-year history of Esperanza treks.

Andrew Feucht III
Andrew Feucht III of St. Luke Parish in Shoreline has made three missions to El Salvador. Courtesy Andrew Feucht III

St. Luke, Shoreline: Alaska and beyond

This summer, a group of St. Luke parishioners — ages 0 to 78 — are heading to Haines, Alaska, to help spruce up an interfaith youth camp. It’s part of the Mission Ministry Team’s desire to involve a diversity of age groups on service trips in state, out of state and abroad.

“We want children to see their parents serving and serve along with them,” said Donna Ahron, who is helping lead the Alaska trip. “We really feel it’s important to capture that service in young kids.”

Ahron, along with her teenage daughter, went on the parish’s initial mission trip to El Salvador in 2012. “It was absolutely lovely to be able to travel with my daughter to another country to serve God,” Ahron said.

Going to a country where she didn’t speak the language helped Ahron understand what it’s like for those who come to the U.S. but can’t speak English. And she gained a different perspective about people who may seem poor because they don’t have a big house or Wi-Fi.

“I saw a lot of sad things, don’t get me wrong,” Ahron said, noting that she saw people living in shacks and even boxes. “But I also saw the beauty of people that were spiritually rich.”

St. Luke has sent groups to El Salvador to build houses and water systems, to Cincinnati to work in urban ministries and to El Paso to learn about the realities of immigration issues.

It’s been hard to find mission programs that accept children and young teens, but seeing different generations working together has been worth the effort, said Andrew Feucht III, who has gone on trips to El Salvador with his son, father and daughter.

“We’ve really seen a lot of benefit from the diversity of our groups,” Feucht said. “I can’t stress how much that’s been such a wonderful part of our experience.”

Destry Seiler of St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland made her first Mature Trek to Tijuana with her parish in May. Seiler, 23, is a veteran of eight high school and college treks with the parish. 

Learn more about these mission organizations

Esperanza International: esperanzaint.org

Project Fiat: projectfiat.org

Sociedad Amigos de los Niños: sociedadamigosdelosninos.org.hn

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2016

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.