By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
DIRIA, NICARAGUA — On the way to his parish on the outskirts of Diria, Nicaragua, Father Eric Garcia asked Deacon Charlie Stump to relay a message to one of Deacon Stump’s young missionaries.
The young student, Deacon Charlie explained, had become frustrated with being assigned to a worksite that did not involve physical labor and wanted to build something for the people he was serving.
“Anyone can create a building out of stone,” said Father Eric through a translator. “It is much harder to build up a human heart that is broken and deeply wounded. That kind of work is heroic.”
That was the challenge that brought 50 Catholic high school students and 25 chaperones from the Diocese of Dallas to Nicaragua for a 10-day mission trip on June 9; a trip during which they would encounter some of the country’s poorest communities.
The mission trip is organized annually by the diocese’s Office of Pastoral Services, which Deacon Stump has led since 1999. The diocese sent its first young missionaries to Trujillo, Honduras after Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country in 1998 and left thousands without a place to live.
In 2012, as violence began to escalate nationwide in Honduras, the U.S. State Department issued a warning cautioning Americans against traveling to the country. As a result, the mission program turned its attention to Honduras’ southern neighbor, Nicaragua; a country then, as now, struggling with poverty.
Twenty-nine percent of Nicaragua’s six million citizens live below the poverty line. Many of those people live in rural settings, with some living in regions beyond the ability of the Nicaraguan government to reach them. For those people, improvisation often takes the place of an established public works infrastructure. According to the U.S. government, 44 percent of people living in Nicaragua’s rural areas have no access to sanitation services and 30 percent have no access to drinking water.
“It’s the second-poorest country in Central America,” said Julia Santos, a senior at Bishop Dunne Catholic School. “But actually having to look these people in the face and know that they are going to sleep on a cardboard mat — it makes you think a little bit.”
For students and chaperones on mission for the first time, encountering that kind of abject poverty served as a shock to the senses. But as they would later learn, the faith of the people they would serve runs as deep as the valleys and volcanoes that grace the Nicaraguan countryside, continuing to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But faith must live alongside the practical demands of life, which are often unmet here due to lack of resources or simple neglect of the Nicaraguan poor. Many of the students said they were surprised how much they had taken the simplest things in life for granted living in the United States; even something as simple as a paved road — something not so easily built in the mountainous terrain and sweltering humidity of Nicaragua.
John Paul II High School senior Ann Platt found out the hard way, as she and a dozen of her fellow missionaries worked tirelessly to re-pave an uphill portion of a road winding through the town of Tepeyac.
“It’s been pretty hot and sticky and the climate is humid out here, but it’s still been a lot of fun,” Platt said. “We have a few aches and pains but we’ve still been getting a lot out of it.”
Platt and the others were never alone in the effort, but always joined by members of the community.
“Our hope is that not only will we always remember (the community members) and keep them in our prayers, but they too will remember how we worked together to finish a project,” said Maritza Fierro, a chaperone and staff member at Bishop Lynch High School. “Maybe the next time they are walking to church, they see those stones and remember that relationship and the people that they met while building that together.”
As a registered nurse for more than three decades, Bishop Lynch chaperone Patricia Barton is no stranger to instances where medical needs surpass a person’s ability to pay for them.
The trip was her fourth to Nicaragua and her seventh mission trip overall, but it was the first time she was able to lead a small medical mission that literally went door to door binding the wounds of anyone they encountered.
One of the homes Barton and six other students visited daily belongs to Martha Socorro Peña Morales, a farmer. The wood planks and tin roof on the small, one bedroom house showed their age. Living under that roof are Peña Morales, her father, niece, sister and sister’s husband.
During one of Barton’s visits to the home, she noticed Peña Morales’ toe had become infected from an open wound. Peña Morales explained she had stubbed it against a log while working outside, but didn’t have anything to treat it.
Barton promptly cleaned the wound and bandaged it, returning every day to do the same to help stave off further infection. Barton said ailments that are easily treatable in the United States with Tylenol, Neosporin, band-aids, or NyQuil are here, often left to fester into something more serious; in this case, an infection.
“They just improvise and use what they have,” said Barton, fighting back tears. “It’s such little things that we are doing to us that are huge to them. I’ve seen it so many times and it still breaks my heart, but it’s just how they live. It’s their reality. It’s part of what keeps me coming back.”
Peña Morales said little things like this make an enormous difference for her and her family.
“It’s the first time we have had this group and I feel so fortunate for the support they have given me, you have no idea,” Morales said.
While Barton and her crew tended to the needs of the physically ill, a few miles away, Father Joseph Van House and another six missionaries ministered to the spiritually needy — particularly the elderly and infirm who don’t often receive the sacraments because of a lack of priests available to make house calls.
Fifty-eight percent of people in Nicaragua identify themselves as Roman Catholic. But for those living in the more remote areas of the country, getting to Mass can be problematic for a number of reasons including lack of paved roads, lack of a church nearby, or even lack of a priest.
On this day, Father Joseph and the missionaries have come simply to pray over a 13-year-old boy named Nenso and his mother Alejandra.
At eight months old, Nenso began developing hydrocephalus, a condition where excess spinal fluid accumulates in the brain, causing the head to grow larger than the rest of the body. He is completely dependent on his mother and cannot walk, eat, or move on his own. He cannot talk, but communicates through his eyes and especially his smile.
“It was very poignant to see such a severely disabled child being raised in such poor circumstances, but also very uplifting to see the simple generosity of his mother above all,” Father Joseph said. “She seems so patient with her lot and so accepting of what God had offered her and her son, and very loving towards him.”
On a separate visit to Nenso’s home, Ursuline senior Andrea Martinez was so moved by the mother and son, that she gave Nenso her cross necklace.
At the beginning of the trip, every student received one and was instructed to give it to a person in whom they saw God’s love.
“Once I walked into the room, for some reason it didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would, until I saw him smile,” Martinez said. “That really got to me. I felt a strong connection to him, having a younger sister at home around his age.”
A lasting impact
By the time the mission trip ended, those connections and relationships formed the core of the mission experience for the students.
From the first day she arrived at her work site, John Paul II High School senior Kate Walsh grew a close friendship with a little girl named Noelia.
“She was actually grounded the first day and wasn’t allowed to come play, but I went over and talked to her,” Walsh said. “She was upset, but I think I was able to make her feel a little bit better.”
On Walsh’s last day at her work site, Noelia clung to her hip and would not let go. When it was time for Walsh to leave, both girls were in tears.
“I think that our hearts went through some growing pains on this trip; experiencing some physical discomfort as well as some spiritual discomfort,” said Bishop Dunne chaperone Greg Scatini. “But we grew in love.”