Fr. John Carville's Reflection

Fr. John Carville Visited Liberia Mission in May 2017. Following his time there, he wrote the following letter for The Catholic Commentator, the newspaper for the Diocese of Baton Rouge:

           President Trump has said that he was elected to care for the needs of Pittsburg, not Paris.  America should come first, before we do anything for the planet or the advantage of poor countries.  That seems to make sense to many Americans today.  At the end of May I was visiting former classmates in Detroit.  They took me on a tour of the city which I had not seen in 40 years.  Downtown Detroit is still intact, a little worn, but still looking like the prosperous city I remember as the hub of America's auto industry.  However, today one doesn't have to drive far from that center to see some of the worst urban blight in our 50 states.  Whole blocks are abandoned, boarded up.  They look like the lower ninth ward in New Orleans after Katrina.  I thought to myself, “So this explains the vote in the presidential race.”  

            Where are those people now?  They have moved, found new work—probably not as lucrative, without as good benefits as before—but they are finally back to work according to labor statistics of last month.

            America is resilient, America is wealthy.  We have our ups and downs, but we can come back from financial recessions and natural disasters.  This is not so in many other countries of our world.  Before flying to Detroit I made an 11 day trip to Liberia, Africa, at the beginning of May to visit and work for a Catholic mission there.  It was my third annual trip.  Each yearly visit has taught me a little more about what we can do to help people who are caught in a terrible cycle of poverty. 

            Joe Sehnert, the chairman of the board of directors of Franciscan Works (Archdiocese of Chicago), the non-profit mission company that finances Liberia Mission (Archdiocese of Monrovia), explains the cycle of poverty in this way:  A child grows up in poverty lacking education and job skills; when he comes of age, he cannot find work; he begins his own family, and his children grow up in poverty lacking education and job skills; and the cycle continues.   

            One of the mission's main objectives is not only to feed and house the mission's fifty orphans but also to give them and 375 more children in the poverty area around it a solid education.  This is the only way to break their cycle of poverty.   Joe, who ran the mission in Liberia for four years during the Ebola outbreak, published the following statistics in the Franciscan Works 2017 Spring Newsletter: “Over 80% of its (Liberia) population lives on less than $1.25 (USD) a day.  65% of primary school age children have no schooling.  Only 20% of students enrolled in Grade 1 stay enrolled until Grade 12.” 

            Liberia Mission began in 2003 as an emergency response to save orphans left by a 14 year civil war.  There are still orphans to be saved, now from the Ebola epidemic that took so many lives three years ago.  Children who lost their parents were often abandoned by their own villages out of fear that they could spread the plague.  The Archdiocese of Monrovia asked the mission to take in 25 of these orphans.  The Ruckstuhl Foundation, founded by Dick Ruckstuhl, a parishioner of St. Thomas Moore Parish here in Baton Rouge until his death four years ago, donated $10,000 to help these orphans.  Three years ago the foundation gave another $10,000 to replace a burnt out generator, the mission's only source of electricity.  (I was there when the generator blew. That's how it is in mission countries.  If you want water, you dig your own well; food, you raise your own pigs, chickens, sheep, crops, etc.; electricity, you install your own generator.)  Last year the foundation gave $30,000 to replace rusted, leaking roofs with new sheet metal on the K-9 school, boys dormitory, and girls dorm.  This year we hope to replace a totally dead truck, one of the only two vehicles the mission owns.  The other is a rickety van used to retrieve visitors from the airport and high school students from their school, Booker Washington Institute, about 10 miles down the road. 

            No one who sponsors a child and visits him or her at the mission can not become attached to these wonderful children.  The director of the mission when I first visited three years ago was a young and amazingly capable Irish girl from Dublin, Mary Anne O'Driscoll.  She introduced me to the three youngest orphans, Ben, age six then, his younger sister, Ruth, whom Mary Anne dubbed “Pokey,”and her new best friend Willemena, both five.  Although I was already sponsoring a high school student, Aaron Karmbo, and, after his graduation, now am sponsoring a fifth grader, Emmanuel Tokpah, I still am followed around by the three little ones.  This was especially so last year after Mary Anne was killed in a tragic auto accident.  I carry in my cell phone a picture of her and the little ones, also one of Ben with a school bag on his shoulders half his size, reading a sign above the dining hall door with the prayer,”Thank God, Ebola Gone!”  

            Liberia Mission is now in the charge of an American family—Greg and Kristen Caudle, who brought their four children with them: Eliana, eight, Liam, six, Caleb, four, and Lucas, two.  Eliana is easy to spot every morning at the St. Anthony School assembly outside in front of the Liberian flag where the students line up by grade to pray and pledge allegiance.  She lines up with the third grade and is the only child with blond hair and fair skin.  Liam is being home-schooled via computer and momma until he is prepared to assimilate into the school.  Caleb is enjoying his last year of freedom before kindergarten and Lucas is happily learning to walk and talk.  Greg is an ideal fit at the mission since he comes there from serving as a middle-school principal in Colorado.

            It takes a yearly budget of 420,000 USD to run the mission and its school, to support 40 students in the vocational high school, and 10 of the eldest who are now at the University of Liberia.  About $100,000 comes from tuition sponsorships.  The rest must come from donations, grants and mission appeals in the United States.  Liberia Mission lives a precarious existence financially.  What it really needs is 100 generous persons to each give it $3,000 a year. 

            St. Francis of Assisi counseled his followers, “Start by doing what's necessary, then do what's possible, and suddenly you're doing the impossible.”  When President Trump met with another Francis in May, I hope the Pope repeated to him what he has said to others like you and me, “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us.”      

Brittany Skolnick's Reflection

It probably won't come as a surprise when I say that living and working with over 50 children can be challenging. Each child is wholly unique, and yet in many ways, children are children no matter what country you are in. They can have attitudes, they get upset over how they performed in their sports matches or in school, and they argue with their siblings. All 50+ of them. Like a parent, I am often frustrated with them, but every day I am reminded of why I chose this type of work. I am reminded when I see their faces light up when they get a letter from their sponsor or when I watch the celebrations they have when they beat other teams in a football or kickball match. I'm reminded when we celebrate the most improved students or one of them comes running to tell me they did well on quiz they were nervous about. I'm especially reminded when I listen to the choir during Mass, seeing the light of God shining through each of them as they sing at the very top of their lungs.

It's not just the kids that make it worth it, but the staff and community that surrounds Liberia Mission too. In one of my first few weeks here, Rebecca, the head cook, brought me to her house that is a stone's throw across the street from the mission. I was introduced to her extended family and neighbors who received me as if we had known each other for years. Her sister then pointed to the patch of land growing potato greens, handed me a knife, and put me straight to work. In the pouring rain, we all got a very good laugh about how ridiculous I probably looked, drenched, covered in dirt, and doing my best attempt to keep all my fingers intact. For Liberians, it doesn't take much for a bond to be formed, and every time I see Rebecca or her family, I'm received as warmly as any blood relation would be. I've also since been given the name of "Liberian Brittany" by Rebecca, which I take as a sign I'm slightly more competent than I was when I first arrived.  

As I write this, I have just passed the 6 month mark of being in Liberia. I've thought a lot about what I would go back and tell myself, if I could speak to myself before I left America. I would warn myself that there is a seemingly endless supply of ants and spiders the size of my hand, that I would sweat more than I ever thought possible, and that silence would be all but eliminated from my life. I would tell myself that there would be days that I would be frustrated to the point of tears or so tired that I am sure I cannot get out of bed. Most importantly, I would tell myself that though this work is hard, these kids and the people of Liberia are 100 percent worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears.



Miriam Copenhaver's Reflection

During the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Liberia Mission. Flying to Liberia was my first time leaving the country. On the plane I couldn't help but ask myself over and over again what I was doing. I'd had a burning desire to go to a 3rd world country to see first hand how other people lived. Now here I was going to a 4th world country!

My plan was to bring school supplies and help with some educational materials/planning for the school (at home I am an elementary teacher). However other than that, I had no idea what to expect. On my way there I couldn't fight this fleeting thought that maybe I shouldn't be going, maybe I should be using my ticket money to donate directly to Franciscan Works. However God had opened all of the doors for this trip and I really felt like He was calling me to go. So I went.

While in Liberia, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the country, to meet the students, see the villages, hear from the teachers, try new foods, see the resilience of humanity and see the raw faith of the Liberian people. I heard all types of stories from the people. I had the opportunity to hear heart wrenching wrenching war stories as well as and fun light hearted stories from the people I met. I loved hearing all of the stories.

It was amazing to see how our donations as Americans are keeping Franciscan Works alive and providing an opportunity for livelihood for so many people. I heard over and over and over again people telling me how thankful they are for all of the donations from Americans. I am by far not the largest donor and a part of me felt bad being the one to hear all of the thanks. However, as I talked to the people and got to know them, I realized how grateful they were to have a living and breathing person to thank. Then it hit me. I wasn't in Liberia to do anything great or majestic. My time in Liberia wouldn't have any dramatic impact on the people or the county, but I was there simply to be with the people. All I could think of was the spiritual works of mercy. I was just there to be with these people who have endured years and years of suffering. I was the fortunate American who got to physically be with these people and offer a face of the American donors. I got the luxury of being able to comfort the suffering in person. I learned that while it is so important to financially support these people, money is not the only thing they need. They need us! We are an universal church. They have endured sufferings for years that our country has not seen. Now it is our duty to offer them our love in action.

I know that most of us do not have the luxury of being able to pick up and fly to Liberia. However, if you can pick and go visit, please do it. If you go and are truly with the people, while you won't make a monumental difference for the country, you can be an ambassador of love. No amount of money in the world can communicate love in the same way that your presence can. Your presence will not only communicate your love, but the love of all of the donors keeping Franciscan Works alive. If you are able to make a trip to Liberia out of love, I urge you to go! These are our brothers and sisters. Visiting the people of Liberia allows you to communicate love in a way that no amount of money ever will.