Delegates to Kitui say cultural exchange, faith sharing are partnership’s benefits

| June 30, 2017 | 0 Comments

Schoolchildren in Nuu Parish singing and dancing during the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis delegation visit to Kitiui May 30 to June 15. The parish’s school has two cisterns to provide a consistent water supply through the water project, which the archdiocese helped with. Courtesy Heidi Jones

At the end of May, Dan Belongia traveled to Kitui, Kenya, and visited the water storage dam he had helped to build.

Although Kitui’s rainy season didn’t fill the dam this year, Belongia found it in use during his trip with a delegation from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis May 30 to June 15. As they struggle with an ongoing drought, Kenyans had been working on the dam to have ready for the next rainfall.

“It was good to see that the funds that we invested and all the hard work that the community put into that dam seemed to be well worth it,” said Belongia, who had visited the Diocese of Kitui twice before, most recently in 2011 as part of a similar delegation from the archdiocese.

This year, a delegation of 12 people from the archdiocese witnessed the rich faith lives of Kitui’s Catholics, who live in poverty. Established in 2004, the dioceses’ partnership includes alternating delegations between the countries to develop relationships, learn about the other’s cultural expressions of faith and discern how they can share resources. The Center for Mission, an office of the U.S. Pontifical Mission Societies in the archdiocese, sponsored the recent visit which, the participants funded.

“The people of the Diocese of Kitui that we meet have tremendous faith [and] have tremendous capacity to build their own future,” said Mike Haasl, the Center for Mission’s global solidarity coordinator, who led the delegation.

Although Kitui struggles with poverty and little water, delegates saw how much people of the archdiocese could learn from their Kenyan counterparts and how the partnership benefits both dioceses.

“They’re not dependent on us,” said Father Charles Lachowitzer, the archdiocese’s moderator of the curia and vicar general, who visited Kitui for the first time. “What the partnership does is to allow that exchange of spiritual wealth that they have and our material wealth.”

Father Lachowitzer and Haasl described seeing the benefits of the partnership firsthand at a school for the deaf and blind, and at St. John Eudes Rehabilitation Center, which aids abandoned children. Its leaders provide a source of comfort and guidance for the children there.

“They rescued children off the streets who would be put into prostitution or drugs, and they’re abandoned as young children,” said Father Lachowitzer. “If it wasn’t for the Catholic Church, they probably wouldn’t be alive.”

St. John Eudes houses the children and sends them to area Catholic schools. Haasl met resident Eric Vgong, a young man who will go to college this year in Kenya.

“They’re just loved into their own potential,” Haasl said.

The center has limited resources and run-down facilities, but it plans to move to a new center in the hills on the outskirts of Kitui.

According to Mike Haasl, the Kitui diocese has 300,000 Catholics in 27 parishes and 500 outstations with 80 priests. The area became a diocese in 1964 and was originally served by Irish missionary priests. The Church grew from around 1,000 to 300,000 since the priests’ arrival. The diocese is waiting for Pope Francis to appoint its next bishop, as Bishop Anthony Muheria, its leader since 2008, was installed as the archbishop of the Diocese of Nyeri, Kenya, June 17.

Delegates visited parishes in groups of two and witnessed life at the parishes’ smaller communities, separated by rugged roads. Each parish includes 20 outstations served by two priests on a rotating basis, which often means Sunday Mass is celebrated once a month for each community. Haasl said it often takes two hours to travel to an outstation from the parish center.

Haasl described the parish stations as a “foundational aspect of the Church” in Kitui led by trained lay catechists, the equivalent of parish faith formation directors in the U.S.

The catechists lead meetings for the satellite communities in the priest’s absence. The people hear Scripture readings followed by reflections and discussion.

Haasl said “they always have an action component” in their reflection on Scripture. At a meeting he attended, the community decided to help a community member who had been recovering from serious illness.

“They really understand what the Gospel calls us to, and they act on it,” Haasl said.

The Kenyans also extended extraordinary hospitality to the group, preparing feasts despite frequent food insecurity. That welcome was not lost on Belongia, who has made friends in Kitui over the course of multiple trips and the Diocese of Kitui’s delegations to the U.S.

“To fly that far away, to go to a place that far from my home and get out of the vehicle and be welcomed on a first-name basis by people half a world away, it’s a pretty cool experience [to me],” said Belongia, 58, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings.

Father Lachowitzer said the priests in Kitui welcomed him and connected him with many of the diocese’s clergy throughout the trip. He said he experienced “that international brotherhood of priests” and developed relationships he expects will endure.

“These are priests who comparative to us have so little, but their generosity to me and to the delegates was profound and overwhelming,” he said.

He said the visit to Kitui is “for us to encounter that dramatic contrast between such material poverty” though “the joy of their faith.”

The Kenyans’ joy and ability to live in the present moment stood out to delegate Krista Korkowski, 16. A parishioner of St. Nicholas in Carver, Korkowski also said they take care for the environment, noting their clean streets and stewardship of resources.

“They have little to nothing yet they seem like the people that have the world,” she said.

Helping girls in Kitui Krista Korkowski traveled with the Kitui delegation to help adolescent girls address a common reason they miss school: menstruation.

Korkowski brought 100 feminine hygiene kits with sanitary pads and explained to girls how to use them in presentations at Kitui schools. Girls there miss five to seven days of school each month due to their menstrual cycles.

“They thought this is the greatest thing ever,” Korkowski said of the girls’ response to her presentations.

A parishioner of St. Nicholas in Carver, Korkowski became interested in going to Kitui from her mother, Jodee, who was part of the archdiocese’s 2014 delegation. Her family has also hosted members of the Kitui delegation, and the Kenyans invited her to visit.

Korkowski’s classmate at Chanhassen High School introduced to her to the idea of bringing hygiene kits for the girls. Korkowski’s friend had volunteered with Days for Girls, a Washington-based nonprofit that distributes feminine hygiene products worldwide.

According to a study on menstrual health in Kenya sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 65 percent of women and girls in Kenya cannot afford sanitary pads because money goes to other daily staples.

Korkowski, who raised the money for the project, has plans to present the project as an ongoing outreach with the Kitui partnership. Haasl said the Kitui leadership team will consider it.

The Kenyans’ witness to their faith is a key part of why Haasl believes in the importance of the archdiocese maintaining a partnership with a diocese across the world. He emphasized that there is a “mutuality” to the partnership and that Kitui wants to be “equal partners” in the endeavor.

Father Lachowitzer said the partnership benefits the priests through each other’s support and cultural exchange. The dioceses have launched a clergy exchange, with Kitui’s former vicar general Father Robert Mutui serving at St. John the Baptist in Dayton.

In both his trips to Kenya and in welcoming Kitui delegations to Minnesota, Belongia has found that the dialogue picks up where it left off because of the comfort level between the people.

And while he’s proud of the dam he helped to construct, he understands that the partnership is building something much bigger.

“If this was just a development project for us trying to build dams or wells, I don’t know if it would still be going on,” Belongia said.

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