This article appears as the third of a three part series by Bemnet Malaku, a seminarian of the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission, studying at the Congregation’s Internal Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Bemnet is originally from Ethiopia and shares his experience of an immersive apostolic formation experience in Africa. Part One, ‘To Ethiopia, Kenya, and Missionary Life’ can be found here. Part Two, ‘A First Experience of the Life of a Missionary’ can be found here.
With a Painful Heart
It was very painful for me to see some very poor people and not able to do anything to change their situation. I saw a little baby crying so hard of hunger that his mother gave him a little rock to suck on to help him with his hunger. I literally cried at the sight.
For many, poverty is an everyday reality. People are dying of hunger. And the animals and plants are equally affected by all of this.
I had never seen little children so hungry. I could think of nothing but the baby Jesus Himself. I was able to see Jesus through the poor and especially for the children of the very poor families.
It also reminded me Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25: ‘whatever you do for one of the least, you did it for me.’ (Matt 25:40) I observed so many things that I never knew existed. I had never imagined the dilemma that confronted these people on a daily basis: eat the few precious grains and satisfy one’s hunger, but lose the opportunity of a future crop or go hungry, plant them and risk losing everything in the drought.
Blessings to My Soul
Though the situation of the poor was painful to my heart, I knew also that they were blessings to my soul. I learned so much from the people of Kenya.
I was extremely impressed and inspired by the humble, hospitable, and generous culture. I was touched every single day by the strength of the peoples’ faith, even under the severe circumstances that they were living in. I experienced God’s presence among the people in the way they lived their daily life. Their attitude of thankfulness for the little they have and being able to be happy in their life touched my heart in so many ways.
My experiences forced me to be creative in order to find ways to help the community. I used music, sports, and every little God given talent I had in order to support the community. Little things like ping pong became tools that allowed me to establish a deeper relationship with the children. Even in that short time we were able to expand the youth program and considered the possibility of organizing a youth choir.
I am so grateful to the Western Province, the Eastern Province, my formation directors, and the members of Western Province who are working in Kenya, especially Fr. Gary and Fr. Tom Esselman, C.M. who made this grace-filled experience possible. I am also very grateful to the Kenyan Vincentian confreres and the Daughters, especially those that are working in Thigio, Kamulu, Nairobi, and Kitale. I am very grateful for their hard work and openness in involving me in their ministry and providing me with an opportunity to have a hands-on missionary minsitry experience.
Above all, I am very grateful to the poor themselves for teaching me how to live with nothing but faith, hope, and love. I thank them for continuing, in so many different ways, to bring Jesus into my life. I will always remember them and pray for them by saying, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor, blessed be the Lord.” Psalm 34.
Learning from the Poor
Working in the Catholic Charities Refugee Program in Fort Worth, Texas, for five years provided me with some experience with regard to accompanying strangers in a new land. However, going to Kenya provided me with a further experience on how to live as a missionary in a foreign land and how to become involved in the life of the poor. There is so much to learn from the poor. Their culture is full of wisdom and their attitude in life is motivating and gives meaning to life.
As I write this reflection I can’t help but think of those beautiful people. Their faces are sealed in my heart and I can even smell the variety of traditional food dishes that they prepared. Life is very beautiful when lived with people who are filled with hope and faith in God, energized to love and live in a better way.
Their dedication to their faith, their family, and their future is inspiring. God does hear the cry of the poor. Their happiness doesn’t depend on their money or material goods, for they have none of that. Rather, it depends on their faith, and on their hope in being able to provide for their family that they love so much. What a blessing it is to be with people who love God and one another!
Mutual Enrichment and Being Evangelized by Those We Serve
They truly live Jesus’ teaching. Sometimes it makes me wonder if we Vincentians are helping the poor, or are the poor helping us? The latter makes more sense.
We can be there to help them with whatever we have, but they teach us so much in their struggle, hope, faith, love, and dedication; in all of this, they also express a true sense of joy that can only come from God. We live for them but more importantly, they live for us.
As I look back longingly, I can now say that I indeed experienced the pain and the blessing of what it means to minister as a Vincentian missionary with the very poor in Africa.