By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 2, 2007
Delores Kovacik looked like one of the millions of tourists that visit Atlanta.
But after paying the $1.75 MARTA fare to travel from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to the city center, Kovacik and her three traveling companions promptly gave their few remaining dollars away to start their sojourn here.
Kovacik was a modern pilgrim with her size 8 Asics sneakers. She made no provisions for eating or sleeping. She didn’t know if people would talk with her.
Kovacik and the three others—two men, one woman—who traveled the streets of steamy Atlanta in mid-July are members of the Neocatechumenal Way, a parish-based movement dedicated to faith formation for adult Catholics. The two pairs sent to Atlanta for the week were part of a larger effort that started in Denver. Groups of two from the Neocatechumenal Way were sent to dioceses across the country.
One afternoon, Kovacik and her companion walked in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood looking for the Missionaries of Charity’s Gift of Grace House. The summer heat was taking its toll on these women from Denver. But it looked like they had missed the home for women living with HIV/AIDS. The walk of a few miles sapped Kovacik’s energy to retrace her steps.
However, a young man on a bike offered to help, and without being asked, pedaled several blocks away to discover the building.
“He found it for us. I thought he was very kind,” said Kovacik.
It was that kind of response that most surprised her.
“People are extremely generous and kind. Even the homeless people were really looking out for us,” said Kovacik at the week’s end. She wears her salt-and-pepper hair in a sensible bob with wire-rimmed glasses. Her shoes look worn, but they were comfortable enough for her miles walked along Atlanta’s streets. “It has been so amazing,” she said.
While in Atlanta, Kovacik was away from her husband, who is also part of the Neocatechumenal Way. He spent the week on pilgrimage in Connecticut. They didn’t speak for the week, because they had no money to pay the long-distance phone bill.
“Really, every night, I wonder where he is,” she said.
Another Atlanta visitor missed his wife’s birthday because they were both on the road.
The goal for the weeklong visit was to visit parishes, religious houses and nursing homes.
They had a simple message: Whatever a person’s lot in life, God loves them. It was a message they particularly wanted to tell priests and nuns.
With no money for hotels, Kovacik and the others slept where they could. One night she stayed at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home for cancer patients as guests of the Hawthorne Dominican sisters. Another night a Protestant minister put them up in the swanky Georgian Terrace hotel after the women asked to sleep in a church pew. Some of the workers at the Catholic Center offered them beds another night.
Phillis Curry, an executive assistant for the archdiocese, was one of the hosts.
“Absolutely, I thought they were crazy! I would never get on a plane and go to a strange city where I know no one; in addition, the thought of being without my wallet, ID, money, credit cards and cell phone and the security those items provide, is just too overwhelming to comprehend,” she wrote in an e-mail.
After spending time with the women, Curry said meeting these people with such strong convictions renewed her own faith.
“I believe these ladies and all those who participated in their week-long mission are really amazing. I am in awe of their belief in God and their belief that God will answer prayers. When I listened to their life stories and found that they had experienced immense challenges and that their faith had never wavered, I knew then, that I had been truly blessed in meeting these ladies,” she said.
Kovacik’s traveling companion was Mary Frances Leonard, who is 63. She is a retired nurse but is working at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way in Washington, D.C.
Leonard learned a new appreciation for the art of listening. She found herself having to repeat herself as she told people here about her trip, as people got tripped up on the idea of the total reliance on strangers.
“You knew people were not hearing what I was saying,” she said.
Missionary work is part of Kovacik’s life. She has spent time in Central America talking about God’s love. But a week spent in Atlanta in the middle of summer without any plans and relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter is new.
“I had a lot of fear. I’m 66. I can’t do it,” she said at the outset.
But five days later, a smile plastered on her face replaced the fear.
“Absolutely! I’d do it again,” she said.