By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 23, 2006
Published: March 23, 2006
ATLANTA—The trash truck rumbled into the city dump in Managua, Nicaragua, and men and boys living in surrounding metal shacks ran up to it to scavenge frantically for food to sell, eat or use, as dirt softly rose and enveloped them in a cloud of dust.
Daphne Nordone observed the putrid site at “La Chureca” dump while leading a recent Mustard Seed Communities mission trip to its Hogar Belen (Bethlehem House) orphanage there, as she stood by the grayish black waters of a drainage pond in the dump and shacks of tin, cardboard and barbed wire with no running water or electricity. She and other volunteers went to the dwelling of community leader Doña Ramona, the distribution coordinator of the slum for roughly 150 families, and began to distribute bags of dry beans, rice and dehydrated vegetables and clothes as vultures hovered, pigs slept and flies buzzed amidst emaciated cows and horses. When children saw her and other Americans they lit up and ran up to talk to them and to see their faces as images in their digital cameras—for some the first time they’d even seen themselves in a picture. One 4-year-old danced as he was dressed in a blue seersucker suit. Some naked children approached her and she recalled Christ’s message to serve Him by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
Nordone, a member of St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, made her first two mission trips there in 2002 and now volunteers year-round for the organization on the Mustard Seed Nicaragua board of directors. In Nicaragua at least half of the 5.4 million residents live in poverty.
The dump “is just such a desperate, desolate place, but at the same time you see people laughing and smiling and you want to help them, do all you can to get them out,” she said.
She and others are indeed doing what they can to help Nicaraguans, as for this year’s annual mission trip Feb. 18-25 missionaries on their own raised $108,000, the largest amount one Mustard Seed group has ever raised for one mission trip. They also lugged down 46 suitcases bulging with donated goods and set up a sewing center for women of the dump.
Mustard Seed, which serves abandoned children with disabilities and others of society’s most vulnerable, asks missionaries to raise $2,000 to participate in a mission trip, so when Nordone led 23 people on the mission, she was overjoyed to learn that 21 people raised that much. Also participating were Msgr. Bill Hoffman and staff member Dawn Stark.
Nordone said that many participants, who were encouraged to pray about from whom to request support, wrote personal requests to friends, family and former coworkers across the country. They were also encouraged as they asked for help to focus on the children they would serve and not on themselves.
The nonprofit “feels that it’s important for each missionary to be put even in the most miniscule way in a position of begging because that’s what the children of Mustard Seed have to do their whole lives—they are abandoned and disabled,” she said. “As they think about going out to help these kids they just kind of glow and are on fire, and people just really want to help.”
Nordone added, “It’s often the people who they don’t think will donate that will donate the most.”
Participant Mike Penney, who was making his first mission trip, was daunted by the fundraising goal of $2,000 as he wrote his request letter at Christmastime.
“I was stunned at the response—I hit the number within two and a half weeks and just kept going from there. I was thankful and grateful for the generosity of so many people. I was also taken aback by the interest and curiosity that so many people had about the trip,” said the parishioner of the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Mustard Seed was founded in 1978 and is active in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua, operating orphanages and other programs for those in desperate need. Mustard Seed USA, the financial and spiritual support arm of Mustard Seed Communities International, has its Southeast office in Atlanta, across the street from St. Brigid’s, and this year 26 groups from across the United States, from students at Duke University to parishes in Nebraska, will make Mustard Seed mission trips.
Participants and supporters of the St. Brigid mission trip gathered six times before the trip to participate in the “Work the Word: Beyond Our Boundaries” program created by Paulist Press in collaboration with Mustard Seed, which is to renew faith communities through prayer and service to the most vulnerable both locally and abroad. It helps persons to reflect on the meaning and spiritual foundation for service and is designed for missionaries and for other groups considering some form of service.
Martha Gaynoe, Mustard Seed director of faith formation, said “Work the Word” has been used by 15 parishes or groups including Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults programs and for Lenten reflections.
“What we’re finding is that it’s useful for parishes who want to focus on prayer and service,” she said. “It has a global dimension, but it’s meant to just draw people deeper into prayer and service.”
Nordone said that through St. Brigid’s participation “I really feel that the group got knit together from sharing (experiences) and feelings before we had even left.”
On the trip missionaries spent time at the orphanage for 17 abandoned children with various levels of disabilities, where they played with them, and painted, built shelves and rebuilt storage closets and gutters. They also searched for more land outside the city, as they hope to open a second home to accommodate more youth and provide a separate space for the older children. They held an appreciation dinner for 20 staff members, and a fiesta for the children where they whacked away at candy-filled piñatas. Penney found that “one week of no running water, close quarters and little sleep binds a group very quickly. … Combined with our purpose for being there, daily prayer and hard work, we got very close.”
Nicaraguan staff members visit the Managua dump to distribute food and clothes year round. But this year the Alpharetta missionaries wanted to build on that so they began renting a nearby room and set up and stocked a sewing shop, and asked Doña Ramona to identify 14 motivated women from12 to 58 years old in order to provide them sewing classes. Missionaries with sewing skills gave lessons during the week on electric sewing machines they had donated. Mustard Seed will now pay the rent for the room and for the salary of a seamstress they hired to continue teaching so the women eventually can sell garments and do alterations to support themselves. They also left them with manual sewing machines, as they learned that in Managua the electricity often goes out and that the women will not likely be able to afford the electricity bills.
“It’s really great to feed somebody, but it’s even better to teach them how to take care of themselves,” Nordone said.
They brought along reams of sewing materials including thousands of buttons collected by children from Holy Redeemer School in Alpharetta.
Diane Rochford led the sewing project and believes it was a “wonderful success.”
“It gives hope and dignity to the lives of some of the women whose circumstances are terribly limited. It also, I think, breathes some new energy into the already hugely successful Mustard Seed mission work in Nicaragua. The foundation was laid with the orphanage, and I think people were then led by God to see the greater needs of the greater community and try to find a way to help the people of La Chureca,” said Rochford, who made her first trip after her husband went last year and was deeply impacted.
“I think everyone on the mission team, from the people who were at the center every day to the ones who continued at the orphanage, were so satisfied to see such a concrete representation of what we had been striving for in our collective fundraising and prayers.”
She found the sewing students were a little shy at first but warmed up to them and worked very hard as they treated them with love and respect. And when a large mirror with a carved frame was hung on a wall they were delighted to admire their creations in front of it.
“They really were like sponges just soaking up every bit of information they could get. We have been told that the center is still going well and that the women are still attending and getting a lot out of it,” Rochford said. “It is a very personal thing to work hand in hand with another woman. My perception really changed from looking at these women as people from the dump to real women with families, aspirations and talents. It was such a gift for us to feel the warmth and sincerity from these wonderful women.”
For the last 10 years Penney has met weekly at a Waffle House for a prayer breakfast with Daphne’s husband, Al, and John Monroe and Bernie May. They decided to make the trip to mark their decade of meeting together. Penney was impressed that despite destitution the Nicaraguan people keep their sense of dignity. He found the orphanage children were “a delight” and well taken care of and loved.
“Although they had almost nothing in comparison with us, I was most struck by their general sense of happiness, personal well-being and care for one another. At the same time there is a high demand for basic services like food, clothing, shelter, health care, that compels you to help out.”
The Nordones will vacation in Nicaragua this summer and visit the orphanage and also tour the country. They even adopted their fourth child, Angelo, from the Nicaraguan orphanage. The family had helped bring him over here for a shunt operation to treat hydrocephalus and felt called to adopt him, even with uncertainty then about his health, and have found him to be a great blessing. Now in preschool at St. Brigid’s, the 3-year-old is doing well and learning his colors and to play soccer and swim.
When she’s not engrossed with other Mustard Seed projects, Nordone is busy helping other families with the adoption process, as now five St. Brigid families have adopted children from the orphanage, and two more are coming. Her sister-in-law, Maria Nordone of New York, former Mustard Seed executive director, also adopted a girl from there. Daphne Nordone recalled how one of the St. Brigid’s members saw an information board on Mustard Seed that included a picture of a child with a cleft palate whom she felt moved to adopt. “She had a spiritual moment right there in front of that picture and knew they had to adopt that child.”
Nordone, a former nurse, and her husband have always felt strongly about giving of their time, talent and treasure, and Mustard Seed has provided a tangible way to serve.
“I really feel … called by God to work with and for Mustard Seed and for the children, and I really think it has affected all my relationships,” she said, and it has allowed her to meet many new people.
She believes deeply that part of her responsibility is to teach her children the importance of using one’s time and talents to serve humanity. “Mustard Seed has really given me a purpose in life. … It’s really important for me to raise my children and be there for them, but it’s also important for me to teach them to be there for other people, and Mustard Seed has given me the opportunity to do that,” she said. “It kind of puts their wants and desires in perspective. … I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have that to do.”
Her younger son has set up lemonade stands to raise funds, she said, and her oldest son responds to questions from his friends about where Angelo came from by telling them about Mustard Seed’s life-changing work. “He’s really enjoyed talking to his friends about it.”
This year about half the participants were first-time Mustard Seed Nicaragua missionaries. Nordone is pleased that eight people have already signed on for next year’s trip.
When Penney returned from the trip he wrote an e-mail to missionaries: “I keep re-running all the events of the week through my mind: playing with the kids in the orphanage, working outdoors in the hot sun all day, hitting golf balls with the school children, morning prayers, Mass, looking forward to every meal, laughing, the coffee … the Nicaraguan people, soaking in every moment and always being energized by the next thing. … But most of all, I miss the camaraderie of being with all of you.”
He keeps recalling Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given much is required.”
“I will never forget that we live as close to heaven as there is on earth. We live in the land of plenty, overly so. The trip influenced me in that I no longer feel so uptight when things don’t go as planned or I can’t get something I want,” he said. “It is our obligation to help those less fortunate and to do it in a way that is respectful of them and maintains their dignity.”