A journey to the heart

On the edge of an unforgiving sea rests a people whose purity of spirit lies at the very core of our faith.


I recently took a 10-day voyage with members of the Blessed Sacrament Life Teen group. We went to the northwestern corner of Peru. We traveled those many miles to meet the people of Zorritos, where Father J. Donald Gorski, a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, is ministering through the St. James Society.

I spent a week contemplating how to write this story. I really wanted to give the experience justice, but I don’t think it is possible. It is unexplainable, so I resolved myself to this fact and trudged onward.

Father Joe McCarthy, who met us in Lima, is a member of the St. James Society. He has spent 30 years ministering in a Lima parish. At the St. James house on our return trip, we fruitlessly tried to explain our experience. Father Joe said, just wait until you get home and try to explain it; it goes in one ear and out the other. It’s truly something you have to experience to feel the effects.

The remarkable participants on our journey where: Father Francis Hanley, pastor of Blessed Sacrament; Terese Soliman, director of youth; Joe and Macarena Keating and their daughters, Kristal and Belen; Jimmy Carter and his sons, Hank and Josh; Dr. Allen Harrell, Jimmy’s father-in-law; Jill and Melissa Tarkany, sisters; Amanda Hample; Samantha Olsen; Jessica and Rebecca Rasmussen, sisters.

July 4, Tuesday

We traveled by bus from Charleston to Atlanta. Waiting on our delayed flight in the Atlanta airport, it felt like we had come farther than we had, yet we had far to go.

Excitement and trepidation were plentiful among the 17 Charleston travelers — 10 teen-agers from the Life Teen group at Blessed Sacrament and seven adults. Among us were novice and world travelers, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, a grandfather and doctor, and a priest — a wealth of knowledge and experience. Only Father Hanley had made this voyage before; we could only imagine the magnitude of our undertaking.

July 5, Wednesday

We arrived in Lima at 4 a.m. Father Joe and his travel agent met us to ensure our safe transport. After a bite to eat, we were off on Tans Airlines to Tumbes, with one stop in Chiclayo. On our way we caught a glimpse of the Andes Mountains peaking through the clouds.

In Chiclayo about half the plane disembarked, and we were off again, retreating from the downtrodden barrios that surrounded the rustic airport.

Around 10:20 a.m. we landed at the tiny Tumbes airport and were met by Father Gorski, or Padre Jaime as he’s called there. All our luggage was piled into the bed of the parish pick-up and strapped down. We all found a seat in one of the three cars.

We traveled by speeding caravan through several towns and saw armed policemen or military men at odd times in odd places. It is not clear what they watch for, but one thing is certain, they were not handing out traffic tickets.

As we sped along, we moved to the center to pass people on the side of the road or the motorcycle rickshaws, which are everywhere, giving a little beep as a warning. Frequently as our car moved toward the center to pass, another car was heading straight for us. No one slows down; they only beep.

We traveled the dusty, barren terrain for a while before entering the city of Tumbes, where we nearly sideswiped every car as we careened through the streets.

On the Pan-American Highway we eventually drove along the coast. The Pacific was beautiful, but trash littered the landscape. Dusty roads and cliffs gave way to an occasional green patch.

In Zorritos, the convent and parish were on the beach separated only by the Pan-American Highway. This intercontinental roadway is constantly abuzz, day and night with charter buses, motorbikes and old cars — and no one slows down.

We had our welcome meal; Carmen and Marguerita were to be our cooks for the duration of our stay. The food was … interesting. The fruit was delicious. We were to have one meal a day, but the bread and bananas supply was all-you-could-eat.

After playing on the beach, or taking a siesta, we cleaned up and waited for the bus to take us to Mass. Padre Jaime and Padre Francisco (Father Hanley) took a truckload earlier, so they had time to hear confessions.

Our bus came, but we needed the parish pick-up to accommodate the 17 of us, the dozen or so Peruvians waiting for a ride, and the dozens we would pick up on the way.

Padre Jaime had rented the Zorritos city bus. It sat maybe 40 people, but Padre says, “The truck’s never full,” so we were loaded down. The bus had torn seats, was missing every other window, and the windshield was held together in six places with tape.

Jimmy was nominated to drive the pick-up since he could drive a stick shift. He followed us with his own packed car, the bed of the truck, while never “full,” was brimming with Massgoers.

We arrived at the church in Punta Mero. The people had saved a place down front for the “gringos.” (The first pew, which was an arm’s-width from the altar, and the floor to the right of the altar.) Joe made the observation that his garage was larger than the church.

We all filed into the small parish that had about 10 rows and sat five or six people on either side. There was no tabernacle, only a table behind the altar that was as sacred as the most ornate tabernacle in the largest cathedral.

Poncho, the handy-man of sorts for Padre and a man whom we all came to know and love, sang his heart out in celebration of the Lord. He stood left of the altar, across from us, along with Eddie (the token guitar player, who doesn’t know what a chord is, but plays solely by ear, including a few Beatles classics, such as “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude”) and several other men and women who made up the choir that night.

The music was turned over to the gringos for the offertory song. We did our first of many renditions of “Here I am Lord,” which we sang at each Mass during our visit.

During Mass, night fell as the faith of every person in the church, from the kids sitting in the window sills on either side of the altar to the old man behind us, radiated from the florescent bug lights that illuminated the overflowing church. From their resting place on the altar, the lights were the only ones by which the readings were recited and from which the altar boys read their hymnals and the padres consecrated the host.

About 20 altar boys surrounded the padres at the altar, and Josh and Hank took part. Ranging in age from about 10 years old to about 17, the altar boys sang with enthusiasm and participated with the utmost reverence in the Mass that consumed the barren countryside that night.

While we didn’t follow along very well with the Spanish Mass, we were moved by the sheer strength of the people’s faith. Every person in the ramshackle of a building believed God to be in this place, without a doubt. It was beautiful and amazing. A bad commute to work can ruin our day, but outhouses and little food seem to do nothing to dampen their spirits. From this first outing, I think we all felt and accepted these people’s gratitude and generous spirit toward us, whom they barely knew. Through their actions from a firm two-handed handshake to a simple “bien,” we knew we were welcome.

It is impossible to put into words the effect this ritualistic gathering had on us. For them, young and old, teen-agers alike, gathering for Mass was more necessary than not and more fun than obligation.

The ride home was a true test of faith. The bus seemed twice as full, and if dodging cars in daylight wasn’t bad enough, we now did it with little help from the moon’s radiance, only the occasional headlight shining in our eyes, which made the road even more difficult to navigate.

July 6, Thursday

We worked — good, hard, back-breaking work. We mixed and shoveled, deciphering our instructions from our Peruvian leaders, who had apparently laid concrete floors many times. Their method includes lugging 20 buckets of rocky sand to a central “mixing” location (a patch of dirt near the entrance to the home). Two bags of cement are poured on top of that, then several buckets of water (all of which are lugged to the mixing locale) are dumped in the middle of the cement pile. Allowing time for the water to saturate the cement made the back-breaking mixing a hair less wrenching.

When the floor was completed, we went through the back door to get a good look at the work we had done. The house was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It looked like a junkyard neatly arranged into rooms — kitchen, bedroom, living room. They were humble and generous with their meager offerings. They smiled as we, utter foreigners, walked through their home.

After work and dinner, we played volleyball and enjoyed the sands and sights of the Pacific with our hosts. Poncho, the jack-of-all-trades, joined the kids in the grueling match and demonstrated his competitive spirit. He shouted “punto” each time his team scored a “point” — always in good humor.

Mass was at the Zorritos church, next door to the convent. The painful wooden kneelers that were in every church didn’t seem to bother the natives. (I guess we have been spoiled by the soft cushion in our churches back home.)

It was decided that a few teen-agers would talk about their experience each night at Mass. Jill and Hank volunteered to go first, while Macarena translated. They spoke from the heart about what they had seen and experienced during their first two days in Peru. Joe also had a few words to say: “If I were Jesus, of all the people I would have met I would like you the best. Whatever it is that makes you so holy — your parents, your priest, your economic situation — that’s what you should thank God for.”

A bonfire that night welcomed us to their beach. With the ever-present guitar player, they taught the kids songs and dances around the glowing fire. Hank and Josh danced the “Macarena,” which everyone found amusing. Spirits were high when sleep finally quieted the street.

July 7, Friday

Padre warned us that today would be our longest haul. He wasn’t lying. We started with Mass in the convent (in English) for our small group.

We ate an early dinner, and the bus prepared to leave with the usual send off ceremony — Padre blessing the trucks, sprinkling holy water, and praying for our safe return.

While the long mountain trek was beautiful and very dusty, we discovered why the trek is named the “kidney buster.” We were on the road for about two hours and 15 minutes, traveling only 40 kilometers (25 miles). The animals (goats, pigs and horses) and the vegetation (bananas, papaya, pineapple, coconut) were plentiful, but the land was dry and dusty. James, our driver, said that in the rainy season “all the land is green” and the road impassable because rivers flowed through the myriad of seasonally dried up riverbeds that we passed through. The “rivers” were the greenest land around with enough grass and wetness to sustain grazing horses, a family of pigs, and a small grove of tomato shrubs.

We were all piled into two cars for the trip that seemed to take about 30 minutes. Traveling the jarring roads, we climbed and descended, crossing streams and making sharp curves around the mountainside. The kids thoroughly enjoyed the trip. They road the bumpy trails as if they were on the fastest, scariest roller coaster. It was definitely the longest. Their enthusiasm and energy showed no signs of waning.

Our destination was the top of a mountain, upon which we were surrounded by taller mountains. During our journey, travelers joined our merry band, and we all convened in this Sound of Music-like mountaintop for the weekly gathering. Yes, these people spend an entire day each week traveling to this spot to discuss their faith and prepare for future sacraments.

Lilliana, the parish secretary and the resident wherewithal, leads the group of young adults in exploring their faith in Catechesis Familia (Family Catechesis). Parents are required to take part in the program that shapes their children’s faith. If they miss more than three classes, they are “kicked out.” Padre says it is the only way it works, and that in these cases the children usually convince their parents to come back.

We played games and acted out skits with the Peruvian young adults, who spend two years preparing for confirmation.

On the ride home, it grew dark, but the blessing and sprinkling of holy water that Padre sends his travelers off with, was pushing the creaky truck, laden with people, onward — homebound.

When we returned to the rectory Padre and the usual crowd of people waiting for bread and bananas welcomed us home with applause and handshakes as if we’d been gone for weeks.

July 8, Saturday

Today we went evangelizing. We split up into two group and made a much shorter trek. One group went about 20 minutes south to a seaside barrio, Sandia, and the other group traveled a bit farther to a mountain village. We again were sent off with a sprinkling of holy water and a blessing. We made it to the first turn off with Jimmy once again driving the parish pick-up, and we promptly got stuck in the sand. Turning on the four-wheel drive made all the difference, and the truck made the five minute drive to the beach.

We spent the morning huddled in a stick hut on the beach. Blue plastic covered one wall to keep the ocean breeze to a minimum. A crucifix and a picture of Jesus signified that this room was a worship space. We sat on wood benches that were held up by small tree stumps in the room that was about 10 feet by 6 feet.

We said a decade of the rosary, trading the “Hail Mary” in English and Spanish. The service that followed was led by Nicholas, the elder of the group.

We all agreed that this moment was an incredibly sad and enlightening reality. With our feet in the sand and our eyes and ears taking in their humble offering of sharing their faith with us, grasping the extreme conditions in which these people live was still hard.

Nicholas spoke of their poverty and said that they worked hard to no avail. He seemed to think that they had done something wrong to deserve this needful state.

They told us that the village had been there for about 10 years, and most families came for about a month or two, but many had been there longer, even years, since El Nino. They come for shrimp larvae which they sell to inland harvesters for money. The cool ocean water that followed El Nino has not provided larvae, but they pray for its return, so they can leave this beach barrio.

Their abject poverty seems to do little to dampen their spirits. These people need so much, but continue to hold on to their faith for brighter days.

The situation was extremely disheartening, but their gumption and will taught us that God never abandons us even when we are at our worst. This severe touch of reality knocked us off our feet in way. We had to get back up, swallow the tangibility of our surroundings and accept a renewed belief in the Lord. The people of Sandia earnestly worked to understand their faith, and they shared with us their interpretations of the Scripture that we read together — first in Spanish, then in English.

With so little they still gave of what they had. For Kristal, who worked so hard translating their words, a shell necklace, and for whoever wanted to join them a ride on their handmade raft. The four tree trucks about 12 feet in length were tied together and directed by a well-carved oar. The raft while a ride for us, is used for catching shrimp larvae. One man excitedly showed us the few larva they had caught recently. It was a large improvement from nothing. Hank traded his own necklace for a seashell one, and the people promised to make one for all of us.

That night we traveled to Mass in El Pino. It was heart-warming when Padre introduced and welcomed us, as he did at every Mass, and the people continued clapping well after Padre had stopped.

Jill spoke during the teen’s segment of the homily. She said, “Your spiritual richness can make you the wealthiest people in the world.”

That night we entertained ourselves. Our group and the Peruvians took turns doing tricks, dancing and being goofy. After each silly trick the Peruvians spread the wave around the rectory’s garage as if they were in a large sports arena. It was quite a sight.

July 9, Sunday

We headed to Mass three times that day. The teens gained strength and courage with each one as they shared their feelings: They felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit and share their faith with them. They told the Peruvians how strong and wonderful their faith is and that their own faith has grown stronger during the visit. They said how beautiful their country is and how much fun they had playing with the friends they made. They hoped to bring what they learned in Peru back home with them.

The group of teens, 14 to 17, rose to the occasion and really began to understand the magnitude of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The last Mass that day was in La Cruz where a weekend youth retreat was coming to an end. The Mass was held specially for the retreatants and their parents. It was a huge turning point in many people’s lives. Padre tried to explain beforehand that many fathers don’t reach out physically or emotionally to their children. Many have never hugged their children or told them that they love them.

First the parents were given a brief talk and were asked to embrace their children during the retreat Mass. They were then sent out the backdoor, and their children came in the front. They took their seats and were asked to put their heads down and close their eyes. The only other people there besides us and the 38 retreatants were the teens who had already made the journey and were helping to lead this year’s retreat.

As the youth minister talked with them, the emotion quickly built. When the parents were quietly brought in to stand behind their children, four kids were left without parents. Padre took two retreatants and Joe and Jimmy were directed to lend their support for the other two. When the kids opened their eyes and turned around searching for who was awaiting them, the sobs came loud and fast. For the boys Joe and Jimmy helped support, it made no difference that they were complete strangers, the boys clung to them.

Jimmy later said that the Holy Spirit moved him and his retreatant. They didn’t need words or even a common language to share in the emotional experience.

July 10, Monday

I have no idea how Padre does it. As Jimmy said earlier we just spent a week in the life of Father Gorski. And a hard life it is. While I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way — it is.

I asked him how he does it. The 67-year-old priest, didn’t know. He said, “I couldn’t have done it 20 years ago,” but now he can — a perfectly divine intervention.

We went to Casitas for Mass, a town about halfway along the mountain trek. We made it there in record time. Padre drove the pick-up, and Jimmy drove the Jeep. Jimmy tried his best to keep up with the speeding padre, but we lagged behind so much we didn’t even see his dust anymore.

We brought toothbrushes for the people of Casitas, but quickly ran out. Padre promptly sent more with the next group of travelers.

After Mass we had lunch in one of the homes. We brought our own food, so we would not get sick from the undistilled water used to cook. We ate in what was supposedly the nicest house in town. The hostess made apologies for the lights being out (a not-so-rare occurrence in the area). The house looked to be four or five rooms — kitchen (which was partially outside, so as not to fill the house with smoke, I presume, from the cooking fire), dining room, living room and two bedrooms, all side-by-side off the dining room. There are no hallways. The altar boys and Padre ate the goat that the hostess served.

Back in the Zorritos church that evening, the Blessed Sacrament and the Peruvian youth groups talked about school life, what they are studying, what they hope to be, and discussed their reactions to the retreat Mass from the day before. One girl said that the retreat taught her to respect her parents more and to love herself and God.

Another bonfire brought the group together again for songs and a farewell of sorts. The Peruvians told the teens that the expanse of beach across from the rectory and convent would always be theirs.

July 11, Tuesday

Our second work day went much faster than the first. The first group worked on a one-room home where an ancient-looking man in a wheelchair lived. The second group traveled to another one-room house where a family lived.

Jaime, the energetic seminarian, ran around filming the two groups.

After work and dinner, the kids played soccer with the Peruvians. Poncho once again joined in with his youthful enthusiasm. The adults went to Sandia. Joe bought their handmade oar for their raft as a souvenir of sorts (they had another one); and Jimmy brought them a suitcase of clothes.

On this our last day, our love for these people — who are kind and gentle; rough and playful; destitute yet thankful for life, health, family, God; generous and loving — had grown tremendously. They are children, teen-agers, young people, parents, grandparents, just the same as us, until they go home to stick and mud or cement houses or reach out hungry for bread.

That night at Mass their gratitude felt enormously strong. It had been there all along, but was so plain to see on this night.

We went to Acapulco, a local barrio, for Mass. It was here that their appreciation overflowed. The people from Sandia brought shell necklaces for us. There were many kisses on the cheek, hugs, and people reaching out to touch us. Many wanted to know when we would return.

I think we provided a glimpse of better things, materially. We were also signs that God was undoubtedly with them, because we who have so much in one sense could learn more about God’s most wonderful gifts — faith, hope, and love — from them.

Lilliana thanked us for coming and told us how much it meant to her and to everyone else. She said that for a brief time there were no boundaries — economy, distance, race — only love.

July 12, Wednesday

We caravaned back to the airport in much the same fashion we arrived. The kids faces showed the weariness of the past nine days, but also the sadness at leaving their new friends.

Lilliana drove with us. She and Joe talked along the way. He said it was unlikely they would ever meet again. She replied, we can have many friends and with the way the world goes around you never know if you will see them again.

A large group came to see us off at the airport and during the ensuing good-byes, a sadness hit us all that I don’t think we were expecting. We had barely gotten to know these people, but that’s all we needed to want to know more. We wanted to give them more. Padre says that God is good to them, because as their needs grow stronger, the money and donations come even faster.

We left knowing only two things for sure, that more prayers than they could ever count will be sent their way and that their faithful persistence will always push them onward.

Thanks to all who helped fund this mission trip. Your donations filled the storage room in the convent wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, and your support helped change the lives of 17 grateful individuals.


To contribute materially to this mission, checks may be made out to the St. James Society and sent to Msgr. Robert Kelly — Missions, P.O. Box 1257, Folly Beach, SC 29439. The Society of St. James will forward the checks through their banking account in Peru, avoiding the Peruvian Post Office. Only one thank-you acknowledgment will be sent to contributors, and it will come directly from Peru.