Almost two years ago, I met a young priest from Colombia, Padre (Fr.) Julio. Padre Julio substituted for our noon Spanish mass one Sunday and mesmerized the congregation. Shortly thereafter I came to know Padre better (1) as he traveled more than an hour to Stanford University Hospital to pray for my daughter Noelle who was having brain surgery, (2) after he accepted my offer as a volunteer tutor of English when his duties were changed from the Spanish mass to the English mass (a mutually beneficial activity -- as I helped him convert his homilies from Spanish to English, I learned a lot of theology from him and a little more Spanish, too), and (3) during web design working sessions with my family (which consists of graphic artists, computer programmers, web designers, and me, a writer and translator) as we constructed a website for the organization that he founded: Por Amor a los Ninos de Colombia (for love of the children of Colombia). Padre's dream was to help the children of his native Colombia, a beautiful, rural region, full of potential that was being replaced by violence. Padre describes the situation as follows:
In recent years, violence and illiteracy have affected the communities of the village of Palomar and surrounding hamlets. The distance between the school and the houses where the children live can be between one and six hours, making school attendance impossible.
Because their families live in poverty, these children cannot afford transport to nearby towns or cities either. This has resulted in young people between the ages of 12 and 18 having no other choice than to join guerrilla or paramilitary groups, commit petty crimes, work in the fields without the possibility of an education, or worse yet, becoming addicted to drugs.
The need to provide alternatives to solve the many problems this school-age population is facing is an urgent one. They have neither the economic nor the material means to do it themselves.
But let me step back just a bit in time. When I first became acquainted with Padre as a result of his describing Por Amor during mass, I wanted to donate a little something -- and "little" was the right label for any monetary amount I could hope to scrape together. Having come from an impoverished farm family and then spending most of a lifetime raising children with serious medical needs, even spare change was hard to find. I reasoned, however, that I could offer family skill in lieu of money, and Padre and I began a conversation about how the website would look. In the midst of this conversation, I ended up being sent to work in Bahrain for three weeks, just as Padre was beginning a push to raise the initial funds for Por Amor. Padre and I maintained a running e-mail conversation, he in Spanish and I in English, about the website plans, but somewhere in the back of my mind was the understanding that most of our work would be in vain if he could not get together a reasonable fund in a reasonable amount of time. I would have liked to help with that, too, but I am no fundraiser. So, on both counts -- giving money and raising money -- I was not much help to Padre until a marvelous thing happened.
As soon as I had arrived in Bahrain, a friend, who knew I was coming, showed up in my hotel room and dragged me to dinner, in good Arab fashion refusing to allow me to pay. But I had per diem for my meals, one thousand dollars, in fact, to cover the time I would be abroad. As I walked up to my room, an idea flew into my mind (from where?). There would certainly be another friend or two who would react in the same way over the next three weeks and the Ministry of Education would also likely host me for at least one meal, so I might have a hundred or even a little more than a hundred dollars left over from unspent per diem. I made a promise to God that whatever amount I did not spend on food in Bahrain, I would give to Padre for His children in Colombia. After that, friends and colleagues appeared out of the woodwork, and none would allow me to pay my own way (it does not fit with the culture there). In addition, the Ministry of Education had several socials and formal dinners which were also free to me. When I left Bahrain at the end of the three weeks, I had not had to purchase even one meal. When I reached the USA, I handed all $1000 of my per diem over to Padre for his children.
Bahrain might be little more than a desert to some, but it does have the famous tree of life that flourishes in sand. How symbolic for what had just happened! I was living in a philanthropic desert and yet out of that wasteland tumbled one thousand dollars for children in need half a world away. Would God re-create the fishes and loaves miracle today? You bet!