By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2015
ATLANTA—Joy is the souvenir from a recent mission trip to Tanzania for Father Tim Hepburn, director of vocations for the archdiocese, and seminarians Jack Knight and Juan Carlos Pacheco.
The three traveled from Atlanta to the east African nation in July for a 16-day trip with Renewal Ministries. The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based ministry focuses on evangelization in the church by helping others to know the personal love of God.
“Most seminarians in the summertime have a traditional parish assignment,” said Father Hepburn.
He had been following the work of Renewal Ministries and was interested in providing a “mission summer” for seminarians to experience the simple truth of the Gospel.
“That’s how we got to the idea of a mission trip to Tanzania,” said Father Hepburn.
Renewal Ministries takes teams of lay people, clergy, sisters and brothers throughout Africa, Europe and Mexico to conduct rallies and workshops on various topics.
“They bring the Gospel to the people,” said Father Hepburn.
This approach is different from traditional mission organizations.
“Almost all the ones I see are (offering) social services,” said Father Hepburn.
Many cite the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” The idea behind the work of Renewal Ministries is the reverse. It’s to “use words,” explained Father Hepburn.
The missions have a charismatic dimension and offer prayer, healing services and the sharing of testimonies to reach others.
Thousands attend Gospel rallies
In Bukoba, Tanzania, on the western shore of Lake Victoria, thousands camp overnight to attend the rallies. Between 2,000 and 6,000 people attended daily while the Atlanta trio was there. Families sit in the hot sun with their children daily for the two-week events.
“That was just amazing me to me to see the openness and thirst of the people” for the Gospel, said Father Hepburn.
All events were held outdoors. The children who attended were well behaved and sincere in prayer.
“It was organic to them,” said Pacheco, who is studying at St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana.
For team members, the daily routine included Mass, breakfast and then a planning session. They shared the responsibility of preaching at workshops on a variety of subjects ranging from prayer to evangelization or St. John Paul II’s teaching on the theology of the body. Participants could choose workshops that interested them.
The joyful spirit of the Tanzanian people became evident quickly.
At the offertory of the Mass, “they dance up with their gifts,” said Father Hepburn.
For offerings they would give all types of items to glorify God, even large slabs of handmade soap.
“They brought whatever they had,” said Father Hepburn. When they had nothing to give, many would make the motion of releasing an empty hand, showing a desire to give, he said.
“Juan Carlos and I had an unusual summer experience in preparation for this trip,” said Knight, a seminarian at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. Both worked at Life Teen camps in north Georgia and did research.
None of the Atlanta group had traveled to Tanzania before.
“The most powerful thing to come out is the image of who the church is,” said Pacheco.
Whether young or old, all were hungry for the word of God, said Pacheco.
The seminarians enjoyed attending Mass in Swahili and visiting churches, including the cathedral in Bukoba. What they found more interesting than the architecture was that the churches are packed to overflowing, the people are very animated, and lots of children are in attendance.
Seminarians find their gifts
Knight, in his sixth year of formation for the priesthood, said this call to encounter the Lord in another way has added to the seminary experience.
“We are formed so well with such high education,” said Knight. “This takes the theology and connects it to your heart.”
The trip offered the chance to see God in all circumstances. All three travelers became ill, one right after the other, and had to make hospital visits where conditions were primitive. No one took their vitals and they were offered what appeared to be different medicines for the same symptoms. They met others in more dire situations than their own while there.
All of their encounters in Africa and with its people reminded them of what priests are asked to do.
“We’re called to live this life of simplicity,” said Knight.
As diocesan priests, they won’t take a vow of poverty, noted Knight, but they should look for ways to practice simplicity.
The mission trip was also the opportunity to see Christ working through each other.
Knight said Pacheco’s ability to play soccer in the fields with the children was a charism. “He brought inflatable soccer balls,” he said of his friend.
For Knight, his gift to offer others was the ability to pray with them.
Team members would pray in English when people asked them and hoped they would understand.
After one particularly long day, someone approached Knight for prayer.
“I was exhausted,” he recalled. Knight thought he would just close his eyes, offer a prayer and be on his way. When he opened his eyes, a line of 20 or more people had formed with a need for prayer.
Knight likened the experience to a tired parent continuing to care for his or her children. He heard the words, “Do you love me?”
The seminarians also enjoyed working in pairs as the apostles did.
The mission team members had the shared duty of preaching and teaching.
In seminary, students are given advance notice about speaking. While in Tanzania, both were given a couple of days’ warning that they would be preaching about inner healing.
“For me, it was very consoling,” said Pacheco. “I found a lot of joy in the preaching. You rediscover Christ in your life as you’re preaching.”
For example, the speaker might start with one message and then share additional thoughts not planned. They had to rely on translators to share their words.
“It was very beautiful,” said Pacheco.
Some nuns from Texas were part of the team and started a fundraising effort to help a man who was disabled.
“I’m sure he thought that was a miracle,” said Pacheco, who is in his fourth year of formation.
“It’s almost like it’s ingrained in you … that joy,” said Knight.
Trip was ‘transformative’
One afternoon of the rally included an invitation for politicians to come during a time of political unrest. Only an acting governor attended.
“It was an afternoon of intercession for Tanzania,” said Pacheco.
The enthusiasm of the Tanzanian people also carries over to their colorful dress and music.
“Their music is astounding,” said Knight.
Father Hepburn made another observation about the evangelical Catholics of the region.
“They have a much more vivid appreciation of the spiritual world,” he noted. That sometimes includes “manifestations of spiritual fervor.”
“There’s much more of a fear of curses and witchcraft,” he said.
The workshops regularly included a call for conversion for those practicing witchcraft, and often people would come forward.
“We’re used to a pretty church,” said Pacheco.
“They know we’re eternal beings,” said Knight.
There was one day for rest and relaxation. Team members went to Serengeti National Park to see the natural beauty of Tanzania and its wildlife.
“We went on safari,” said Pacheco.
“We saw a lion kill a wildebeest,” added Knight.
The lion stalked the lone wildebeest for a while, and the team leader said they had not seen that happen in the 15 years of the trip. They also saw cheetahs, hippos, giraffes with babies, baboons, ostriches, impalas, gazelles and zebras.
They all made it walking across a suspension bridge with hippos below. Father Hepburn was delighted to show a video of Knight, who is wary of heights, advancing slowly across with encouragement from others.
They sampled the local food and dined on a lot of chicken, rice and cooked bananas. Father Hepburn and Pacheco even tried sautéed butterfly, minus the wings.
While the vocations director didn’t care for the dish, Pacheco said, “it kind of tasted like ramen noodles.”
Each shared photos from the trip including Father Hepburn blessing a cow to be sold for a monetary offering, a blessing of goats, and scenery. Their favorites were of the smiling people they met along the way.
Attending Mass in Swahili was important. “People get to see how big the church is,” said Father Hepburn.
They didn’t understand the language but could easily distinguish the parts of the Mass. “The preaching is not gentle,” he added.
The criteria for being selected for the mission trip were not stringent.
“I floated it out to see who bit the bait,” said Father Hepburn.
When the net was cast, it was Pacheco and Knight who got drawn into the boat.
“It’s transformative,” said Knight of the mission. He said he is “still mulling over” the varied experiences and encounters and likely will be for a long time.
Pacheco expressed gratitude for all who prayed for and supported them while in Tanzania.
Father Hepburn hopes to make the trip a regular mission for those studying for the priesthood.
“I’ve been telling all my brothers here, I hope that they get to experience this as part of their formation,” said Knight.