By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 3, 2016
HIAWASSEE—The missionaries of To the Nations, founded by lay Franciscan Stephen Smith of Hiawassee, practice the corporal works of mercy while serving in Uganda.
They shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison and give drink to the thirsty. In return they have received an immeasurable gift—a lesson on how to love.
Smith, a retired educator and school superintendent, is a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Blairsville. In June, Smith will lead two missions to Uganda with 17 missionaries participating in each trip in the area of Masaka.
The missionaries are teens, priests, doctors, lawyers and senior citizens, which Smith calls a “beautiful mix of the body of Christ.”
“The next one is really going to be a step up from the last one,” said Smith about the summertime mission.
The groups will build two or more houses, feed orphans daily meals, hold medical clinics and take clothing for 1,000 children.
Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, invited Smith to accompany her on a 2014 pilgrimage to Rwanda and Uganda. While there, Smith met Kasozi Moses, who pointed out they were already Facebook friends.
At the age of 23, Moses had started Life Teen Uganda with an outreach of building homes for orphans and feeding homeless street boys.
Smith promised to bring back missionaries, and Moses vowed to prepare a way for the mission team as John the Baptist did for Jesus.
“He’s really a true brother,” said Smith.
First mission trip was in July 2015
On the first mission of To the Nations to Uganda in July 2015, construction of brick two-room homes for widows and children was the focus.
“They are all orphaned or widowed because of AIDS,” said Smith.
The bricks made of a Georgia clay-like substance, are purchased and made in Uganda. They harden through an air-drying process that takes six months.
“It helps their economy,” said Smith.
It costs about $1,500 to make each structure, which includes welded doors and metal roofs. The community’s mayor and elders determine which women and children have the greatest need for a home.
A walk-in clinic served 1,250 people during that trip. Problems of the people arriving ranged from dental issues to malaria and chicken pox.
During the 2016 trip, a two-day clinic will be offered. Classes will be held for boys and girls separately on hygiene and respect for the human person.
Another important component of the mission work is providing meals and clothing.
“We’re feeding 1,000 children a day,” said Smith.
He noted the cost of feeding one child a daily meal throughout the year, usually porridge or rice and beans, is minimal.
“It only costs seven dollars,” said Smith. He suggested money saved by fasting from drive-through meals could be used to feed the Ugandans instead.
By the age of 8 or 9, most boys are already out of their homes and have many needs.
Clothing partners of To the Nations are Little Dresses 4 Africa and Soles 4 Souls. Little Dresses has provided dresses and shorts for missionaries to take, and Soles 4 Souls has offered Skechers-brand shoes to distribute.
To the Nations volunteers have packing parties to mix up the clothes and shoes for easier transport.
Prison visits have been part of the mission trips, and the group takes Bibles in their languages to the inmates and others. The group will also take some medical supplies and purchase medicines while in Uganda.
“I saw Christ in the people of Uganda”
Tyler Chappell and Regina Cothren have both received Youth in Mission scholarships to participate in the June trip.
Youth in Mission is a nonprofit started by Pip, a recording artist and Marietta native who appeared on NBC’s “The Voice.” Pip, whose full name is Phillip Arnold, attended Life Teen at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and has a passion to help young people take part in mission trips. Youth in Mission is funded by donations and the sale of wristbands. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory presented the Youth in Mission scholarships in December.
Chappell and Cothren both served in Uganda on a previous mission.
Cothren, 17, said Uganda was the most welcoming culture she has ever experienced.
“I have never seen such richness of heart in a place of such poverty. Uganda taught me how to love,” said Cothren. “I saw Christ in their warm smiles. I saw Christ when we had to carry water jugs a mile up a steep hill to the house we were building, and I saw Christ in the people of Uganda who gave us love because they had nothing else to give.”
Cothren said she is excited to return to Africa this summer and to see what God has in store for her.
Smith also noticed the mission work triggered a great transformation in Chappell, who is his grandson.
“It totally changed his life. He started praying the rosary every day,” said Smith.
Blairsville parish supports outreach
Parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi have been very supportive of Smith’s efforts in Uganda.
“Our Knights of Columbus have had a couple of dinners,” he said.
The church donated a monstrance and Mass kit to the community there, and potter Kathi Traywick creates handmade bowls for a Soup Supper for Uganda benefit.
Smith was involved in mission work in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010, making more than 20 trips there. He plans some of the same activities in Uganda as provided in Haiti, including catechism and summer camp programs.
Smith, Moses and Father Michael Senfuma, a native Ugandan, all had the chance to see Pope Francis during his visit to the country last November.
Father Senfuma wrote and performed a song for National Youth Day.
“We were actually part of the welcoming committee,” said Smith. “Of course, how could anyone not love the pope?”
In addition to meeting Pope Francis, the experience Smith holds most dear is seeing the energy of the estimated 100,000 people “jumping up and down” at the sight of the pope and their love for the church.
The trips in June will be 12 days in length each. The two separate mission teams will likely pass each other in the airport.
Plans for the month include a prison Mass and an XLT event for youth in two parishes.
“We will take a priest with us each time. You have no idea how appreciative they are,” said Smith of the people’s response.
Anne Krier, a St. Francis parishioner, made a To the Nations trip last year. Krier said she went to assist those in need, but instead the needy helped her.
“They helped me rebuild my relationship with God,” she said. “They helped restore my faith. They taught me that God is enough. I pray every day that they know what they have done for me. The people of Uganda will stay in my heart forever.”
To donate or for more information about To the Nations’ work in Uganda, visit online at www.tothenationsmissions.com.