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Stronger Together — Lessons from a Home Visit and the Incarnation

I recently was privileged to speak to the Eastern Region of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The theme was “Stronger Together.” I drew inspiration from the example of Vincentian Fr. Pedro Opeka, who was recently privileged to have two meetings with Pope Francis. I share with you his story.

[The full text of The Impact of a Home Visit concludes with a reflection on an even greater systemic change we describe as the Incarnation. Jesus came into the world we call home, not to change God’s mind — He came to change our minds by opening them to what it would look like if we really lived as the image and likeness of God who loves us with a “no matter what” love.]

 

 Impact of a Home Visit

As members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, you know a thing or two about home visits. I imagine you have experienced some squalid conditions. But let me tell you of what I think was an Extraordinary Home Visit.

In 1989, Vincentian Father Pedro Opeka was transferred from rural Madagascar to the capital, Antananarivo, to head the local seminary. He’d left rural Madagascar because he couldn’t bear the sight of hungry children anymore. But what he found in the capital was ten times worse.

Upon his arrival, he was struck by the sight of huge garbage dump sites. When he went to see them, he was shocked to find thousands of people, adults and children, scavenging for food like wild animals.

He found children sleeping on the site with cardboard boxes as mattresses and flies as their blankets. He found people who died amidst the garbage, with no one there to give them a proper burial.

“When I saw thousands of children fighting for their food against pigs and wild dogs, I was speechless,” he told reporters at a recent press conference in Rome.

That night he kneeled at his bed, and with his arms towards heaven, said: “Lord, help me help these children.”

The following day he went back and was questioned by the locals. They derisively asked,“Hey, white man, what do you want?” At that moment he experienced the bias of being a “white” person in a country that still bears the scars of white colonizers.  It was one of the many hurdles he had to overcome.

But he was, quite literally, a man on a mission.

He told those confronting him that he was a missionary priest and that he wanted to speak with them… “but not out here, invite me into your home.”

By home, he meant a cardboard structure that was some three feet tall. He had to crawl on hands and knees to go in, and when they sat on the floor — a carpet of garbage — the roof was some 10 inches above his head!

He asked the owner of the “cardboard house” to invite others to a meeting. A dozen people showed up. Opeka asked them a question: “Do you love your children?” When he received an affirmative response, he said: “Let’s work together, give them a future.”

Akamasoa was born that day.

Fewer than 30 years later, they’ve virtually built an entire city, divided into 18 neighborhoods with dignified brick homes for some 23,000 people, connected by paved roads. He taught them the brickmaking and bricklaying skills he learned from his father. With these skills, they literally built these homes by themselves. There are 3,000 masons on the project, and work is never lacking.

What may be just as eye-opening for most of us … some 10,000 of the people living in Akamasoa attend the Mass Fr. Opeka celebrates each Sunday. A shed becomes an open-air cathedral. The liturgy is a three-hour affair, where the faithful take time “to pray, to sing, to look at each other.”

He continues… “Of course, I will not fail to mention the Sunday Mass, which is a true celebration for all the people because everyone participates: we all pray, we dance, we sing in communion – it is an expression of gratitude to God for all the people of good will who have helped us.”

All this because of a home visit, a man on a mission who asked questions, listened and worked side-by-side with his friends.

Today, the lively communities Fr. Opeka literally helped build are considered a “miracle” in Madagascar. Salaries in this country average $900 a year, and 76 percent of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty, making less than $1.90 a day.

Full text (PDF)