By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published May 15, 2008
To help the youth of the world, one must ask the youth for advice. That is one of the many things Father Gregory Ramkissoon, founder of the missionary organization Mustard Seed Communities, did during his recent trip to Atlanta.
Father Gregory spent several days in the Archdiocese of Atlanta at the end of April, celebrating the group’s 30-year anniversary and also taking time to spread the word about Mustard Seed Communities and look for suggestions from the youth about the organization’s new ministry called Christ in the Garbage.
The priest, who was born and raised in Trinidad, spent time with students at four Atlanta-area Catholic schools during the week of April 20, informing them of the new program and honestly seeking their advice on how to move it forward in Georgia.
Still in its beginning stages, the Christ in the Garbage ministry hopes to assist the poor in several countries, including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras, where many of their residents live in some of the worst conditions imaginable.
According to Father Gregory, hundreds of children search for food in garbage dumps daily. It is his aim, and the aim of those involved with Mustard Seed Communities, to take a step toward helping and ministering to this growing population.
Atlanta has always been a place of strong support for Mustard Seed Communities, with hundreds of volunteers from several area parishes chipping in whenever they can through mission trips or assistance.
“Atlanta has one of the largest groups of volunteers,” Father Gregory told The Georgia Bulletin. “The churches in Atlanta have helped us move forward.”
He also expressed his gratitude to Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory for their strong support of Mustard Seed Communities.
St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, is one parish in the Archdiocese of Atlanta closely tied with the organization. Groups from the parish take at least two mission trips each year to Nicaragua to aid Mustard Seed Communities in any way they can.
One of Father Gregory’s April visits was to Marist School, where he spoke with three classes and met with the school’s principal, Marist Father Joel Konzen, to discuss ways to bring awareness of the ministry into the school.
After sharing with the students what the Christ in the Garbage ministry is, Father Gregory reached out to the students to ask for their suggestions on how to bring Mustard Seed Communities and Christ in the Garbage into the minds of local youth.
“How can we help these children?” Father Gregory asked the students. “They have nowhere to go.”
While hesitant at first, the students eventually began raising their hands to offer their thoughts on how to spread the word. A common theme was awareness: that the student body needs to recognize the conditions in these other countries.
One ninth-grader caught Father Gregory’s attention when she pointed out that only three classes heard his message. She felt that everyone needed to learn of this ministry and suggested that a few students from each class should serve as ambassadors to the other students, teaching them about the ministry.
The priest’s eyes widened as he nodded his head in agreement. The students smiled in response, as they were visibly excited to be included in the discussion.
“We really want the American youth to start getting involved with the poorest of the poor,” said Judy Ellis, marketing coordinator for Mustard Seed USA . She added, “The roots of Mustard Seed began here in Atlanta.”
The Christ in the Garbage ministry, founded in 2004, was originally established to help those living in La Chureca, a 38-acre garbage dump in the city of Managua, Nicaragua, that is home to more than 1,500 people.
The ministry initiated a feeding program to address the immediate needs of the families living in La Chureca and also provides spiritual direction, education and skills training. Among the facilities in La Chureca is Centro de Costura, a sewing center organized to teach women a trade that gives them a chance for a brighter future.
Mustard Seed Communities is now hoping to spread the ministry to other parts of the world where many people live in similar conditions.
Father Gregory shared with the students his confidence that if the youth can become involved, the parents would then follow their lead. He built on his message of including the youth in this discussion, and the students expressed their willingness to lend a hand, as well as their ideas.
A personal connection with these children in need is important to Father Gregory as well. His goal is to set up some sort of communication between American youth and the youth in these countries so each can come to know the other. This might be done through the Internet, where students providing aid in the U.S. would have the chance to chat with the youths they are aiding. Father Gregory feels it is necessary for these children to connect to one another.
In addition to visiting Marist, Father Gregory also spent time with students at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Atlanta, and Holy Redeemer School, Alpharetta.
At Holy Redeemer, a group of first-graders made a special presentation to Father Gregory and Mustard Seed Communities with a check for more than $3,000. The check was the result of a service project where each first-grader was given one dollar and asked to multiply it.
More than 50 first-graders took part in the project to raise money for the organization. Over two and a half weeks, the students participated in several different activities to multiply their money. Some students made and sold cards or bookmarks, while others held a movie night for family and friends. Organizers believe the transformation of $50 into $3,000 suggests the service potential of the young students here in the Atlanta area.
During his time in Atlanta, Father Gregory also visited St. Brigid Church, where he attended a reception to thank all of the volunteers who have helped Mustard Seed Communities.
Mustard Seed Communities was officially established in 1978 as a response to what Father Gregory was seeing on the streets of Jamaica. He found more and more handicapped children on the sidewalks of Kingston, who were simply abandoned by their families.
After gathering some supporters, financial backing and a piece of unused land, Father Gregory started the first facility to help the poor. Over the past 30 years, Mustard Seed Communities has grown by leaps and bounds and features a presence in Jamaica, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe.
In Jamaica, where Mustard Seed Communities first began, the organization has established a handful of communities, including My Father’s House, where children are not only sheltered, fed and clothed but are also provided with additional care, such as constant physiotherapy for the most severely disabled.
Other facilities are Jerusalem Village and Sophie’s Place, both of which minister to children with severe disabilities.
Across the Atlantic in Zimbabwe, Mustard Seed Communities is focusing on five key areas, all related to children. The programs will continue to address the need for pre-schools, nutrition awareness, residential care, youth training and self-help projects that are designed to help children and those less fortunate learn how to sustain themselves.
In Georgia, a board of directors has been established to organize and motivate those in the area to aid Mustard Seed Communities in any way they can. Laura Doherty, executive director of Mustard Seed USA and a board member, attended many events with Father Gregory during his visit, as did Daphne Nordone, who also serves on the board.
It is their goal, as well as that of Mustard Seed Communities, to spread awareness in the Atlanta area in order to provide as much aid as possible to those less fortunate.
“We need to continue helping them,” Father Gregory said, hoping to encourage Atlantans.
For more information about Mustard Seed Communities, including how to assist financially, visit www.mustardseed.com. For information about Mustard Seed in the Atlanta area, contact Judy Ellis at (678) 644-2393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.