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Globalization of a different sort


The journey from St. Cloud, Minn., to Homa Bay, Kenya, takes a minimum of 20 hours under the best conditions. Once inside the country, Kenya offers few attractions -- other than its safari parks -- for travelers.

The nine-hour ride from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, to Homa Bay -- a new diocese on the western shores of Lake Victoria -- bumps along some of Africa’s roughest roads. Despite the jarring ride, a group of St. Cloud-area Catholics has made the journey twice in two years, and another group will depart in February.

In between, a number of Kenyan Catholics, indigenous to the Homa Bay diocese, have visited St. Cloud, staying with farm families and with local Catholics in small towns in central Minnesota. Other Kenyan Catholics plan a second visit in 2003.

Together the two groups are partnering each other in what Catholic Relief Services calls its Harvest for Hope program. The program links rural U.S. dioceses with those in other countries so they can share resources, ideas and friendships to the mutual benefit of both. Similar relations are underway between the Trenton, N.J., diocese and Catholics in Uganda, and between the Madison, Wis., diocese and a group of Ghana Catholics.

Emily Maeckelbergh was only 20 when she journeyed to Kenya last year. She has not stopped talking about it since, she told NCR. A junior at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., Maeckelbergh said she brings her Africa experience to all of her classes.

She enjoys telling about the vibrancy of Kenyan liturgical worship, the sight of sugar cane becoming brown sugar or women weaving baskets and selling them in local markets. Her stories have religious, economic, feminist and cultural contexts. She is preparing to become a secondary school teacher and said she will continue to inform students wherever she goes about the problems and the promise of Africa.

Maeckelbergh keeps in touch through letters with an African mother and her children with whom she developed “a special bond” during the two weeks she spent in Kenya. When the delegation from Homa Bay visited St. Cloud in August, Maeckelbergh received more letters and prepared news and gifts to send back with the Kenyans.

Similar exchanges have begun between Ron Pagnucco, director of peace studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. -- one of Maeckelbergh’s teachers -- and Peter Kimeu, who helps coordinate the Harvest for Hope partnership from Kenya. Pagnucco and Kimeu are collaborating to develop an African Learning Community that would take place in Kenya and would include three-week-internships and longer stays for St. John’s and St. Benedict’s students.

Pagnucco called the endeavor “one of the positive sides of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” the 1990 papal document that called for a strengthening of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education. Currently three young Kenyan religious are studying at St. Benedict’s, and Kimeu’s son is enrolled at St. John’s. The St. Cloud diocese is looking at longer-term links between the two sees.

Planting the seeds

Although the relationship between the Minnesota and the Kenyan diocese began in 1999, St. Cloud Bishop John Kinney planted the seeds years before. As bishop of Bismarck, N.D., Kinney set up a commission, whose members traveled to East Africa in the early 1990s to establish Bismarck’s own missionary program in Kenya.

When Kinney became bishop of St. Cloud in 1995, he continued his interest in and support of mission links. “Bishop Kinney believes that mission is an integral part of every local church,” said Fr. Bill Vos, director of St. Cloud’s Mission Office. “Contemporary missiology demanded we look at our relationship with the world church,” Vos told NCR.

Vos and Kinney studied ways in which “twinning” could occur on the parish and the organizational level between St. Cloud Catholics and those in Africa.

Vos’ interest in Africa may have preceded that of the bishop. A longtime friend of Mill Hill Fr. John Kaiser of Perham, Minn., Vos worked 19 years in Tanzania and Kenya. “John Kaiser was the single most important person in my decision to work in East Africa,” Vos said, adding that he visited Kaiser several times before seeking release from the St. Cloud diocese to work as a Maryknoll mission associate.

Kaiser died of gunshot wounds to his head on Aug. 24, 2000, a death many believe was a political assassination aimed at silencing the priest who was a strong critic of the Kenyan government’s abusive human rights record. The violence of Kaiser’s death has meant that nearly every Minnesotan knows where Kenya is and is acquainted with stories of its crime, government graft, famine, poverty and disease.

But thousands also know about the spirituality of African people, their vibrant styles of worship, devotion to family and village life, their hospitality and hard work in the face of hardship. Those returning have enthusiastically shared their stories, Vos said. “This is a ministry to St. Cloud as well as to Africa. Both sides are sending and receiving.”

In their November 2001 statement, A Call to Solidarity with Africa, the U.S. bishops encourage dioceses to help Catholics educate themselves about Africa in much the way that St. Cloud and other sees are doing. Twinning happened when St. Cloud expressed a desire to work with an English-speaking diocese, preferably one that was largely rural as is St. Cloud, which stretches across several counties and counts some 148,000 Catholics in 140 parishes. In addition to English, Homa Bay Catholics speak Luo and Swahili.

Once part of the large Kisii diocese, Homa Bay became its own see in 1995. More than 2 million of Kenya’s 30 million people live within the borders of the diocese. Some 380,000 of them are Catholic. They hold membership in 23 parishes and are served by 27 diocesan priests. Each of the parishes has many subparishes, where Mass is celebrated once a month at best, sometimes only once in five months.

In the early 1990s the East African Conference of Catholic Bishops made the development of small Christian communities its top priority. Groups of five to 10 families meet regularly to pray, study scripture, talk together and to see how they can evangelize themselves. The diocese trains lay leaders, who include catechists, parish councilors and youth ministers.

Making grain storage bins

Homa Bay Catholics speak of “holistic evangelization,” by which they mean the development of the Kenyan people socially, economically and spiritually. One novel way in which St. Cloud Catholics participate in this development is by working with the Harvest for Hope program to help local people manufacture metal grain storage bins.

The six-foot tall containers look more like water heaters than like a Minnesota silo. They provide storage and prevent spoilage of the grain used by families for their food.

Crafting the bins has also created jobs and income in a nation where a quarter of the labor force is unemployed and 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line -- the majority existing on less than $2 per day.

While subsistence farming -- sugar cane, coffee and tea -- provides a meager income for most Homa Bay-area families, recurring drought and government neglect of the land has threatened agriculture. The once fish-rich waters of Lake Victoria have been choked by a water hyacinth plant, bringing a sharp decline in the local fish industry.

Amidst such difficulties, Minnesota Catholics said they found great hope and gratitude among the Kenyans. They learned how Homa Bay parishes are working with Catholic Relief Services and other groups to set up irrigation systems, develop sustainable agriculture, care for the sick and elderly, provide for orphans of AIDS victims and prevent malaria.

The Minnesotans traveled to Kenya with backpack crop-sprayers, soccer balls, quilts and jump ropes to give their hosts. When the Kenyans visited Minnesota, they bestowed several handcrafted gifts on their American friends.

The $70,000 annual commitment that St. Cloud provides to Africa comes from all sectors of the far-flung diocese. Schoolchildren and parishes collect funds, and farmers sell their grains and give some of the profit to Africa, Vos said. Last year the money went to help train artisans, provide them with materials and get them started in the manufacturing of the storage bins.

In 2002 the funds will go toward microeconomic credits, said Roseann Fischer, who coordinates mission education for the St. Cloud diocese. She led its second tour to Kenya during Holy Week last year, and has found that the twinning ministry with Homa Bay “has really impacted on St. Cloud.”

“We know we’re on the right track when people say, ‘Wow, we never knew anything about African life before this trip.’ Now when we talk about the Catholic church, they know we’re talking about a big Catholic church in which we all share,” Fischer said.

She recalls Kenya each time she hears: “May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity” at the time of consecration.

Praying along with Africans and attending their rich liturgy of music and dance proved the most favorable aspects of the trip when St. Cloud Catholics returned home and were debriefed, she said.

When Homa Bay Bishop Linus Okok, Fr. Gregory Ombok and six other Kenyans visited Minnesota, they too felt enriched by saying the rosary and attending Mass in St. Cloud area homes and churches. On a visit to the Catholic Charities Family Services food pantry, the Kenyan delegation was surprised when one client filled a shopping cart with a five-day supply of groceries. The Africans thought it was a month’s supply.

Another surprise came when Ombok went into the basement of a farmhouse and noted with wonder: “Can you believe it? There’s another full house underneath the one above!”

Big river but no crocodiles

Ombok canoed the Mississippi with Fr. Gregory Mastey, who pastors three parishes just west of St. Cloud. Ombok said that every schoolchild in Kenya learns about the river, but many would be amazed that it is surrounded by so much greenery and yet has no hippopotamuses, crocodiles or big snakes like in African rivers.

It was that kind of human contact that enriched the “mutuality” for both parties, Vos said. “Both dioceses benefit from the partnership. It’s a sister thing. It’s not a case of the haves giving to the have-nots.”

Although the returning St. Cloud parishioners complained that the least favorable part of Kenya was its roads, they also learned from Ombok to be grateful and not to take for granted things like driving over good roads and having the freedom to preach on any topic.

At a welcoming liturgy for the Kenyans, celebrated by four Minnesota bishops and attended by hundreds of area Catholics on a farm near Spring Hill, Minn., Kinney described the day as a “wonderful gathering of faith and global solidarity. It shows that we are truly a universal church and one human family.”

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

Related Web sites

Harvest for Hope

St. Cloud, Minn., diocese

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002