“The Holy Spirit calls all of us to leadership as servants of the poor. Sometimes that call is a gentle whisper we can barely hear, and other times the Spirit seems to simply holler at us.”
words from Father Donald Vettese, a Jesuit priest
All this week, we’ve been talking about tools as metaphors for spiritual discernment. We traveled through IKEA, trying to kick-start our sense of vocation, asking, “What kind of tool am I?” Then, mid-week we heard from J. Brent Bill, the popular Quaker writer who suggests that a simple, hand-held compass is a great metaphor for vocation — for trying to discern where God will “make a way” for us.
Well, before we wrap up this series of meditations, we want to demonstrate powerfully that what we’re talking about here is spiritual usefulness that may seem simple, at first, but that holds the potential to change the world.
There’s not a better example of this than the story of Father Donald Vettese, a Jesuit priest from Michigan, who shares with us here — in his own words — one dramatic chapter out of his own ongoing search for discernment.
What he discerned, in this story, turned out to be virtually a full-scale scream from the Holy Spirit.
HERE ARE Father Vettese’s own words:
It was 9 a.m. and already the heat was sweltering in the mid-90s in Guatemala City.
I was with a group of high school seniors from St. John Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio. We were on our way to work at a home I founded for street children called Esperanza Juvenil, meaning “Young Hope.” I had given these seniors a talk at St. John about how I felt I had experienced a gentle call of the Spirit to establish Esperanza Juvenil as a direct and clear service to those who were obviously and literally the least of God’s children. A few of the students said they wanted to witness the poverty present in the developing world that I talked about. So we arranged this trip.
A car accident caused a detour on our way to the Esperanza, directing us into the Guatemala City dump. We saw horrid fires and smoke. There were huge pigs and dogs fighting with children for food — as vultures with 5-foot wingspans hovered around us.
The stench was horrible. One of the kids vomited. Nobody talked. We just sat there taking it all in. I had seen similar sights earlier in my life in Mexico. At the time, I prayed that if I ever had a chance to do something about this I would. Of course, you forget and your life goes on.
Later that evening in Guatemala City, I was examining, with the students, the way the Holy Spirit seemed to be moving in our day and the students asked, “What can we do about that horrible stuff we saw today?”
I had a high school to run. I told them to pray about it. When we returned to Toledo, the students reminded me that they wanted to do something about the conditions in the dump. In fact, one of the students told me he thought we were being “hollered at” by the Holy Spirit to do something.
So, I reluctantly agreed to contact the mayor of Guatemala City. I emailed him and he answered with a document that he had prepared regarding his plan for the dump. He had a plan for housing, but he didn’t have the money. Nevertheless, I made a commitment that if we could find some money we would build a few homes for these people –- who lived in shacks made from metal and wood refuse claimed from the dump. A local foundation gave us a generous gift and Colonia San Juan, the first housing development at the Guatemala City dump, was built.
The seniors who took that first trip into the dump with me graduated — and I was left with a promise to the mayor of Guatemala City, who eventually became president of the country. That promise led to a graduated approach to offering a way out of the dump, beginning with a nursery and nutritious food, single family homes, elementary school education, and soon a high school (basico) for over 300 students.
To feed, clothe and house people is not enough. They need to find a way out of severe poverty.
(The two photos above show the dump during a visit in the late 1990s.
The photo at right shows a housing unit we’ve helped to build over the
I will never forget that first morning in Guatemala City. People become horrified when they see something like we saw.
My life was very dark for a few days after that experience. I was not as resilient as those kids were. I think I was even more devastated by it than they were. I don’t know why. I couldn’t let it go. I think maybe it was because I had seen this before and hadn’t done anything about it.
I recalled a prayer 25 years earlier: I had gotten the answer.
“If not now, when?” I thought, “If not us, who?”
Beautiful things, terrible things stir the soul. When you see terribly devastating things, it can transform you. It gets right to the viscera of your existence. I put more and more effort into this, while at the same time running St. John. I started taking students and donors to visit every year.
You can look at a situation like this and the human misery throughout the world, throw up your hands and say it’s impossible to do anything about it. But if you look at it as a caring relationship with one person or a group of people whose dignity and hope are sustained by a nursery, homes, health center and school, then you have contributed to something lasting to improve the human condition. I find myself compelled to serve when I look upon their faces.
We often find God in the faces of the poor.
It is that simple, uncomplicated, profound.
The Spirit works in ways that only the Spirit knows. Its time is not our time. While an experience that happens much earlier in life, such as my own, seems to have dissolved and had no effect, you never know when it’s going to take hold. Leaders sometimes never know for certain who is leading whom. In retrospect, it seems clear that I was following the lead of my students.
I received a letter from a former student five years after he went on one of our mission trips to Guatemala City, with a newspaper clipping from Calcutta, India. He was putting up homes for street people. He said, “I attribute this to my experience in Guatemala City.” Sometimes it takes time for the experience to take hold in people. You have to reflect on it in the light of Gospel values and always consider that the call of the Holy Spirit is personal.
My students asked me why God would allow this human misery. I tell them: God doesn’t allow it. We allow it through greed. God does not show us this to leave us in futility. God isn’t allowing us to see this garbage dump to be devastated and demoralized. God is trying to bring life out of it. Hope may increase. Faith may grow. Generosity may expand.
You can look at that horrid scene and go the other way. You can throw your hands up in the air and say, “I can’t look at that any more. Nothing good can come from that.” Then, you really are saying, “I won’t follow the lead of the spirit.” It’s your choice to allow such conditions.
No one can give an adequate theological explanation for the mystery of suffering. However, we can say that the resurrection comes only after the crucifixion. God can bring good from evil and does. God is in everything, including sin. When you see the results of such poverty, which is really human selfishness and greed, and a lack of generosity, you know it can also be an opportunity for life. You may not know how at a given time or given place, but you know that through the working of the Holy Spirit, God can bring good out of anything, and does.
Today, we are serving more than 7,000 people in the dumps of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — and soon Panama. We are also considering expanding our work to the dump in Cairo, Egypt, said to be one of the world’s largest.
As much as we have accomplished, I still struggle with the notion that we haven’t really made much of a dent in world poverty. Sometimes, I wonder what measurable difference we are making, and yet I know if we compare the “before” and “after,” it has made a great difference for both those who give and those who receive. And there are many who sacrificed time and money who would say they received much more than they gave.
If you ask the Sisters who run the grade school whether we have made a difference? They’d say, yes, of course. If you ask the parents who are recipients of the services of the nursery? Yes, of course. If you ask someone who has one of the hundreds of homes we built –- that’s thousands of people living with cement floors, solid roofs, electricity and water who didn’t have that? Yes, of course.
If you ask Marlon Arevalo, who got a good start in the nursery when it opened 13 years ago and did well in his studies at Francisco Coll elementary school and has gone on to study in high school, perhaps even college? Yes, of course.
Sometimes the Spirit does holler.
WANT TO READ MORE?
We asked Father Vettese to send us more of his life’s story. So, here’s a short autobiography of the priest’s work.
Or, you can visit the Central American Ministries Web site and read about the wide array of programs.
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