Seminarian’s Nicaraguan mission trip teaches him about universal church

Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans is the only Catholic seminary in the United States that has a mission trip in the Third World as a required part of its formation program. Each December, seminarians in their first year of theology travel to Granada, Nicaragua, to work among the poor of that city.

The program, Acompaño (Spanish for “I walk with”), is a student-led trip.  Two seminarians with leadership skills and a love of missions are chosen from each first-year theology class  to return and lead the subsequent years’ trips. The student leadership team consists, ideally, of six seminarians — two each from the fourth-, third- and second-year classes.

This was my fourth mission trip and third as a leader.  This year I served as senior leader, with the responsibility of making sure the trip went smoothly and training the junior members of the leadership team.

Notre Dame Seminary  established the Acompaño program to heighten awareness of the universal nature of the church. It is designed to give men in training to become priests a personal experience of the missions so that they may one day relate their experiences to parishioners in America and make World Mission Sunday come alive in a unique way. It exposes American seminarians to a widespread, grinding poverty such as most of us have never experienced. It also heightens our awareness of the church’s teachings on social justice and helps  us to apply those teachings more fully in our own lives.

 The student leadership team trains seminarians with a particular love of missions in the skills necessary to one day lead parishioners on such a trip.

Finally, the trip teaches us the reality that the sharing of the Gospel is a matter of personal relationship.  As much as we show God’s love to the people there in our desire to do what we can to help them, they also demonstrate God’s love to us in their joy amidst suffering and in the warmth with which they receive us.

The poverty that exists in Nicaragua is unlike any I had ever seen before. Although we certainly have pockets of poverty in the United States, it is often far more isolated here and easier to ignore because of that isolation. In Nicaragua, by contrast, the poverty is inescapable. It is literally everywhere, in any direction that one might turn  — grinding, dehumanizing poverty that cannot help but make one view the world in a different way and understand the absolute necessity of Christ’s command that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Although the trip is relatively short, it is packed with activity. Arrival of the main group is on a Friday night after the end of exams in December.  Saturday and Sunday are orientation days as we take the men around Granada and Managua to get a feel for the country and its culture. Monday through Thursday are days to work on a project that has been chosen by the student leadership team.

During our time there, we work with the people, pray together morning and evening, and have Mass each day. Each evening is taken up with theological reflection, in which we are given the opportunity to share our experiences of the day and look for the action of God in those experiences.

We work in various places. The first year I went we worked on constructing a house in one of the poorest neighborhoods that would serve as a shelter for abused women. Those who are more fortunate live in concrete-block homes, perhaps 12 feet by 12 feet, with a hard-packed dirt floor. Often there is no running water or electricity.

On this trip, I became close friends with a family who lived in that neighborhood. It was truly an amazing thing, since I spoke no Spanish and they spoke no English. That we were able to become so close in such a short amount of time is a true indication that the sharing of God’s love is a language that transcends all others.

A very common problem in Granada, Nicaragua, is the issue of street children addicted to sniffing glue which they get from shoemakers. These children are usually orphans, or have been turned out of their homes because their families cannot afford to feed them. They live on the street and get high on glue in order to forget their pain and dull their hunger. They are malnourished, underweight, and their growth is stunted. The glue fumes damage their lungs and often cause eye problems and blindness.

All this poverty, pain and desperation is truly heartrending. The first time I went I could barely stand to behold the things that I saw. Each year, many seminarians literally break down sobbing at the things they witness.

Cristo Sana Los Niños, Christ Heals the Children, was an agency trying to help these street children addicted to glue. Unfortunately, it was a day program, which meant that the children still had nowhere to go at night, except the street. The program was housed in a tiny, dilapidated building in the center of the city. While it was better than nothing, it was not as effective as it could have been.

In 2001, Sister Maria Mercedes of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived from Panama to take over the program. The first thing that she did was to make it a residential program.

Unfortunately, in the cramped, dilapidated building, mattresses for the children had to be wedged into every available nook and cranny. Sister Maria Mercedes, who is an incredibly dynamic woman, set about rectifying this situation. She convinced the Propagation of the Faith Office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to purchase some vacant property.

Then she somehow convinced the Japanese government to donate $70,000 to erect an entirely new building on the property. That building is now complete, and while it is nothing fancy, it is clean, spacious, and serves its purpose well.

We worked at this location this year and last. Our projects included constructing a fence line, a basketball court and beginning work on a small convent for the sisters — Sister Maria Mercedes and Sister Maria Elena. Both live several miles away, and must take the bus to the facility. Sometimes, when no bus is available, they ride bicycles down dark, dangerous roads.

Once, Sister Maria Mercedes told me she had to walk the whole way.  Fortunately, a kind farmer who was taking a large pig to market in town offered to let her ride the pig, an offer she graciously accepted.

Of course, as much as the trip is about doing work, it is equally about establishing and enjoying relationships with the people there. To that end, we play baseball with the children, host a Christmas party for them, socialize with the sisters, and generally try to enter into that idea of finding joy amidst suffering and pain.

Submitted by Timothy Tebalt, a fourth year seminarian from the Diocese of Charleston at Notre Dame  Seminary.