Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Franciscan Connection

While in New Mexico recently, I met a man who prays and then acts. He seems to have a deep prayer life, somewhat contemplative, which opens him up to hearing the promptings of God.

His name is Don Ryder. He's a Secular Franciscan. And he was in Albuquerque to accept the National Franciscan Peace Award from the Secular Franciscan Order.

He has worked in soup kitchens and shelters. He has traveled with church groups to Jamaica to build churches, clinics, and homes for the poor. While in Jamaica, he met a missionary priest from Kenya who suggested a visit to his African homeland.

That led to a trip to Kenya to help build a church and repair homes. While there, he got to visit a Maasai tribal village in the semi-arid Great Rift Valley. Six months after returning home to Wausau, Wisconsin, Don got an email from the Vatican describing a worsening drought in Kenya. He emailed a Kenyan contact, who confirmed the Maasai were particularly hard-hit. Livestock were dying. People were sick and dying. Infant mortality was high. Maasai women had to travel by foot up to 15 miles one way to fetch water from dirty waterholes or contaminated streams. Some were getting raped enroute.

Don prayed. He decided to open the Bible at random. His eyes fell to John's Gospel, where Jesus, hanging on the cross, cries out, "I thirst."

"That impacted me," Don recalled. "It hit me that the Passion continues today with our Maasai sisters and brothers."

But he also thought, "Who am I? What can I do?"

He tried to put it out of his mind. He couldn't. A few days later he opened the Bible again, deliberately avoiding the Gospel of John. This time his fingers fell to a passage in Mathew where Jesus says, "I was thirsty and you gave me drink."

"Bam!" he said.

He recalled thinking, "I'll see what I can do, but it's in your hands, Lord."

He did some research and decided to raise money to drill a well. It would cost over $60,000.

He spoke to his parish priest about it and the parish got involved. He brought it up to Secular Franciscans and his fraternity jumped on board. Romey Wagner, the man who would become his co-leader, stepped forward.

Soon donations started coming. Coins from school children. $2,000 from a young couple. Word spread. Dollars arrived from all over the country.

They completed one well, drilling down 400 feet. It has a tank and pump house powered by a diesel engine. It's now providing clean water for between 4,000 and 5,000 Maasai and 100,000 head of cattle. Just last month they completed a second well, further north. This one is powered by a windmill. They ran pipe to a school with 400 students and are running pipe to a dispensary. Now that it will have running water, Don hopes it will be upgraded to a hospital.

Since the scarcity of water can lead to harm, even war, the Kenyan water project caught the imagination of the Peace Award Committee.

The award came with a $2,000 stipend. It didn't take long for Don to give it away, wiring it to a priest in Kenya who helped with the water project and who, with funds from the Vatican, built a church in the vicinty of the second well. But he ran out of money and couldn't furnish it. Then Don learned the priest and the people decided to dedicate the church to St. Francis of Assisi.

So now there is a St. Francis Church in Kenya's Great Rift Valley that's going to have pews and other furnishings, thanks to Don's Franciscan Peace Award.