By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 10, 2007
For many people of the West African country of Ghana, everything is in a name, and it’s all about their faith.
In the small town of Bibiani, storefront signs such as “God Is Able Salon” and “Trust in the Lord Welding and Machine Shop” become just one more opportunity to praise God for these sub-Saharan people, most of whom have little in their pockets yet exude tremendous joy.
It is a tiny general store called “Clap for Jesus” that has served as the inspiration for the name of a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that has embarked on a mission to raise $2 million for the construction of a much-needed residential, co-educational Catholic high school—to be called St. Joseph Catholic High School—in the Diocese of Wiawso, the Republic of Ghana.
Tom and Julie Clements, parishioners at St. Benedict’s in Duluth, serve as co-presidents of Clap for Jesus, Inc.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tom Clements, explaining the tremendous impact even a few U.S. dollars have on the quality of life in Ghana. Since the nonprofit’s activity is driven solely by volunteers, all donations go directly to the efforts in Ghana.
Already this fall, the first phase of the 20-building campus will open to serve 80 students. Clements commented on the rapid development of the project and the need for this high school to help lift out of poverty a people who presently have little economic mobility, but who reside in a stable democratic country.
He explained that there are 80 regional secondary schools, or what are considered middle schools in the U.S., that feed into only four high schools. Children are turned away, and overcrowded classrooms diminish the quality of education.
“So what happens is that you have kids standing outside the windows looking in. They want to learn; not everyone can fit in the classroom.”
Also, an educated workforce is needed to serve in area hospitals and schools.
“No one (from the existing high schools) scored well enough on the national test” to go on for more schooling, he said. “The point is that they need a good education. Granted, some will move away” but others will stay in the area to fill needed positions, such as the local doctor, who is from Ghana and who was able to receive some training in the United States.
The first phase of the high school, which will eventually serve 500 students, includes the following: a classroom building that will temporarily serve as a boys dormitory; an assembly hall, which will also serve as an administration building and dining hall; and two bungalows, one of which will provide housing for the principal and headmaster and the other which will serve as the girls dormitory.
The story of Clap for Jesus is driven by divine providence. Clements, who started Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, would often speak publicly, telling groups how “I turned my life completely over to God,” he shared.
In one particular speech in 2004, Clements addressed the fear some might have in trusting God, saying, “God won’t ask you to do something crazy like go to Africa to be a missionary. God just asks you to use your talents to the best of your abilities. He won’t ask you to do the opposite of your skills set,” he recalled. “One and a half years later, in October of ’05, I was in Ghana,” he said with a laugh.
While Clements and others have driven the project from this side of the Atlantic, much of the credit for Clap for Jesus goes to Father Simon Assamoah, a native of Ghana.
Father Simon responded to an open invitation for priests to serve in North Georgia from Archbishop John F. Donoghue. He arrived in 1998 in the Atlanta Archdiocese and was assigned to St. Benedict’s from Aberdeen, Scotland, where he had earned a master’s degree in business administration and also served as a pastor while there.
“How would it happen that he would land in one of the wealthiest parishes in the United States, in a vibrant and growing archdiocese? There are parts of the country where this is not so,” Clements said.
The parish quickly embraced the funny and engaging priest.
“He made a tremendous number of friends,” Clements added. “But then the bishop in Ghana called him back two years later. Father Simon couldn’t believe what was happening. … It was hard on him to be pulled away from what he was doing to go back to a remote, rural area after being in the U.S.”
Father Simon, “an engaging storyteller” and the pastor of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus at Bibiani, returned to visit the Duluth parish and other area parishes 18 months later asking for financial assistance in building wells to improve the quality of life in the region. The money came, and Father Simon was able to provide wells and mechanical pumps to supply clean drinking water to 15 surrounding towns and villages. Other projects followed, including building a rectory, a nursery and providing support for the area’s “over-burdened” medical facility and staff.
In 2005 the Clementses, along with Don Madda, visited Father Simon in Ghana “for one purpose—to spiritually, emotionally pick up” their priest friend. After arriving for the six-day trip they found themselves listening to a proposal to build a Catholic high school in the region.
Clements recalled a simple, practical example to illustrate the need for a Catholic high school, saying, “When a well would break, they would call (Father Simon) to fix it.”
These small incidents pointed to “something bigger,” Father Simon had told the Clementses and Madda.
He explained later how “people need to be educated, otherwise they lose confidence in their ability to problem-solve about anything new. If they’re not taught, not educated, then they feel uncomfortable.”
The high school’s program will offer instruction in useful skills and trades so as “to produce a number of future leaders in this area,” according to the Web site, www.clapforjesus.org.
The site for the high school, which was donated to the diocese by a local chief, sits on 105 acres. When completed, the campus will occupy 25 acres and will include, in phase two, a dormitory building and dining hall that will increase capacity to 200 students. Phase three will include more dormitories and bungalows, among other buildings, to serve 500 students.
Clements explained the need for a residential high school, saying that most students live miles from school and it wouldn’t be practical for them to walk to and from school each day.
The project has “much low-hanging fruit,” he said, and gave this example.
“For a small amount of money a carpenter who makes $1 or $2 a day, if he had a $30 saw, could make $5 a day.”
Adding to the problem nationally is the lack of capital the government has to build schools and to make other quality of life improvements.
“There are so many things that we take for granted. We have taxes to build schools.”
On the flip side, however, “costs in the country are virtually nothing” so running the school will be less burdensome and feasible for the local community financially.
“Operating costs, cheap salaries, there’s not insurance, not air-conditioning and the maintenance can be done by students. … The bulk of the cost is the cost of construction,” Clements explained.
His fondness for his new West African friends is evident, as is his appreciation for the depth of faith in a country that is 80 percent Christian.
“People here do not understand. We take a lot for granted. To attend daily Mass there people rise at 4:30 in the morning and walk two to three miles for Mass at 5:30 and then walk two miles back to their jobs. One hundred people show up for daily Mass.”
Sunday Mass is three hours long, he added, and described his participation in dancing down the aisle for the offertory while bringing up his offering. “It’s a joyous occasion and normally there are two collections: One is for your need to give, the other one (at the end of Mass) is because you haven’t been very good and you need to give more or because you’re late. People bring things like live chickens … or toilet paper; whatever they have a little extra of that day.”
Clements, who admitted that “not a lot of grass grows under my feet,” spoke on the impact of “a good Catholic education.”
“The fact is that a lot of us have desires built into us by our upbringing. We are affected through other people and then we affect others.”
His hope is that others will join in the effort to help bring the high school to completion.
“A lot of people talk about how they want to help. This is a very tangible program, and 100 percent of the money goes to costs,” said Clements. “We are called to evangelize, to build up the Catholic community in that part of the world.”
For more information, visit www.clapforjesus.org. Donations may be sent to Clap for Jesus, Inc., 10945 State Bridge Road, Suite 401-179, Alpharetta, GA 30022-5676.