It was a dream come true for Bishop Lee Piché.
As a boy, he imagined visiting the exotic places captured on National Geographic’s glossy pages. So when the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis received an invitation to travel to Kitui, Kenya, this summer with a group of teachers, students and archdiocesan employees, he jumped at the chance.
“It was amazing,” he said last week after his return to St. Paul. “I went with a very open mind and said whatever I was going to be asked to experience I was just going to try to take it as it came.”
In Kenya, Bishop Piché visited several schools, an open-air hospital and a village for orphaned boys. He saw African animals in their natural habitat. He toured sites where dams and irrigation systems have been built with Minnesotans’ assistance. He helped confirm 900 young people. He even ordained a transitional deacon.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis formed a partnership with the Diocese of Kitui seven years ago through Catholic Relief Services’ Global Solidarity Partnership program.
In 2004, Archbishop Boniface Lele, then bishop of Kitui, traveled to Minnesota. Since then, two other delegations from Kitui have visited the archdiocese. The June 27-July 12 visit to Kitui was the third for members of the archdiocese.
Bishop Piché said the Kenyans’ joy, their “exuberance for life” and their faith impressed him.
“By and large, they seemed like a people who have hope,” he said. “They obviously have a love for each other, and they treated us with such great generosity and hospitality and care.”
Bishop Piché said he was surprised when Bishop Anthony Muheria graciously invited him to ordain a transitional deacon in his diocese.
“This is what is going to seal the partnership,” Bishop Piché said the Kitui bishop told him, “the fact that we are so identified in oneness through the celebration of the sacraments.”
During the outdoor ordination Mass, about 3,000 people crowded under tents, which provided the only shade.
“It was dusty, dry, hot,” Bishop Piché said. “But the Mass was beautiful.” Children dressed in bright yellow and white uniforms danced while a choir sang in Swahili and Kikamba, the local language.
After Bishop Muheria received the deacon candidate’s promises, Bishop Piché laid hands on him, said the prayer of ordination, and presented him the book of the Gospels.
The following week, he assisted Bishop Muheria in confirming 900 young people from one parish.
“The population of the Catholic faithful [in Kitui] is growing by leaps and bounds,” Bishop Piché said. “It’s just exploding.”
Bishop Piché also witnessed some of the challenges facing the people of Kitui, including HIV/AIDS, food shortages and one of the worst droughts in decades.
“I had been told about the problems with the drought and the shortages of water and the struggles with feeding the people,” he said. “Seeing it firsthand really made an imprint. It’s much more real for me than it had been.”
Because the area hasn’t seen rain for about two years, streams and rivers have dried up.
“You see people along the roads with their pails,” Bishop Piché said. “They’re about 20-gallon cans, and they have two, three, four of these. You need a bike, a burro, or a cart with oxen or cows pulling it.
“Everywhere you go, there are people going to where the riverbed is, which is dry, but they dig a hole and they can get some water that way, or there are watering stations where they’re pumping water and people are lined up,” he said.
Bishop Piché and the rest of the delegation saw a series of dams that were built with assistance from Minnesota schools and churches. Members of the archdiocese also have helped dig wells and install water purification systems in Kitui.
“We’re sharing something of what we have with them,” Bishop Piché said. “Whatever it is we give, whether it’s water, money, time or prayer, it’s a gift of ourselves.”
“Their investment,” he added, “is the gifts of their love, their faith, their understanding of the family and the importance of the church community, the way they do catechesis — all these kinds of things that we can learn from.”
For more information about the partnership, contact Mike Haasl, global solidarity coordinator for the archdiocesan Center for Mission, at (651) 291-4504 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.centerformission.org.