Legates are ambassadors of hope on one of the world’s poorest continents . . .
When Legate Chuck Ormsby Jr. and his wife Linda started praying about where their parish youth group might expand its outreach to the poor, they agreed to be open to wherever God led them.
But the Pennsylvania couple never expected it to be Africa.
Nonetheless, when a visiting priest at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Richboro, Pa., pointed to the youth group at Mass in 2006 and said, “You must come to Uganda,” Linda Ormsby jumped up and said, “We’re coming!”
Her enthusiastic “yes” was the seed for Building a Bridge to Uganda, a crosscultural partnership between the Pennsylvania parish and St. Charles Lwanga Bubaare Parish in southwest Uganda.
As the Ormsbys have gotten to know the people of Uganda over the years, they and other American Catholics are discovering another face of the universal Church, one that inspires them in their faith and spurs them to action.
“The Church in Africa is a vibrant church,” said Steve Hilbert, foreign policy advisor on Africa and global development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though not the largest of the continental churches, the African church is the fastest-growing with 154 million members in 2009, compared to just 2 million in 1900. Africa has seen a 54% increase in the number of priests since 1994.
“Africans are very spiritual, very religious,” Hilbert added. “They have a lot to teach us about what it means to be happy and how little it takes to be happy — and how much hope a person can maintain in their heart and soul despite poverty, conflict, suffering and even misery.”
Indeed, at the opening of the recent Synod for Africa last October, Pope Benedict XVI called Africa “an enormous spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.”
Partners, not saviors
Even as Africa lags behind the rest of the world economically, environmentally, socially and politically, Hilbert said, the Church there has recognized the need to step up and become more unified, prominent and prophetic within individual countries.
Thanks to evangelization efforts in the early part of the 20th century when thousands of Euro-American missionaries went to the continent, Hilbert said, the Church has a huge footprint through its network of schools and health clinics. As a result, “Even in countries where the Church is a small part of the population, its impact and influence are larger than the percentage of people who are Catholic.”
This means that when Western Catholics like the Ormsbys want to get involved, they do so as partners, not as saviors leading the charge. Although Westerners are often able to provide disadvantaged people with everything from food to funds, those who know the African terrain recognize the value of looking to the people and local organizations for direction.
“The Church in Africa is very active and doing some excellent work,” Hilbert said. “Our role is to support them and to support their efforts.”
Chuck Ormsby recalled that when he first talked with Fr. Joseph Sserugo in 2006 about going to Uganda, he was thinking in terms of what his group could build. “We’re Americans,” he told the priest. “We build things.” But Fr. Sserugo responded, “You are not going to build anything other than relationships. I want you to come and love my people.”
The St. Vincent group agreed and sent the Ormsbys’ daughter, Ashleigh, who was then 23, and Bill Monaghan, the parish music minister, on an initial visit in 2007. They spent a month teaching classes and blending into the culture.
One of the first things Ashleigh noticed was the children’s lack of toys. Ormsby said his daughter asked him to bring suitcases filled with stuff for the kids when he made his first trip to Uganda.
“I wouldn’t have thought of that,” he explained. “We have these preconceived notions about what they need. It’s not until you sit down with them and start to understand their life that you come away with a completely different sense.”
As the Pennsylvania group deepened its relationship with the Ugandan people, they saw other needs and were able to purchase mosquito netting and new mattresses for dormitories at one of the schools.
In 2007, Building a Bridge to Uganda was formed in order to take on bigger projects, such as drilling a well and building a church. They are now raising funds to build a high school on 30 acres of donated land.
The group’s approach of supporting structures already in place and working with local people to identify needs is employed by many Catholics who do mission work in Africa. It was in this spirit that Legate Christopher Hoar of Milwaukee, for example, started CARITAS for Children in 1998.
The group works with Catholic religious communities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to help orphaned children through a sponsorship program that supplies food, school uniforms and other clothing, books, educational supplies, basic medical support, clean drinking water and, in some cases, tuition.
“To be successful in developing countries, especially on a limited budget,” Hoar said, “we start with the most dedicated women. These are the ones that will get the job done — who have vowed their lives to this work. They know the many languages, the culture, the people most in need, and have the gift of the Holy Spirit working in them that you simply cannot buy with a paycheck.”
Hoar said his philosophy is based on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which says that matters ought to be handled by the lowest or least centralized competent authority.
“I would not do it any other way,” he said. “It has made all the difference.”
Likewise, Art Wigchers, a Legatus member from Brookfield, Wis., said he has seen the importance of working with partners on the ground in Africa through serving on the board of the Catholic Relief Services Foundation.
Wigchers has been an “ambassador of hope” to several African countries, including Uganda, where he has evaluated programs for their effectiveness and cost-efficiency. Back home, he advocates for CRS by giving presentations to church, community and neighborhood groups about the organization’s work.
“When you go into one of these countries,” he said, “there are maybe four or five international staff and another 95 locals, plus the partners are all locals. That’s why they’re so effective. They develop the program around what the people need.”
Wigchers said traveling to Africa has made him realize that he can no longer look at the Catholic Church strictly through American eyes. “You have to realize the Church is much bigger than the United States, and that the culture of other countries is very important.”
He said Africa’s gift to the worldwide Church is its people. “I see people — selfless people — so willing to help. Some of the young deacons and priests in Africa have been some of the best human beings I’ve ever met.”
Hilbert said Catholics who want to help the Church in Africa can start by doing research about the continent and learning what the Church is doing there. They can also get to know one of the estimated 400 African priests serving in the U.S. today. “Find out where they are in your diocese, invite them to your parish and have them talk to you about Africa.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.
Building a Bridge to Uganda
CARITAS For Children
Catholic Relief Services