By Michael Rizzo
For the past few months, Margaret Brower and her husband Tony Ercolano of St. Kevin’s parish in Flushing have hosted a special prayer group every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. with any fellow parishioners who wished to attend.
On Aug. 28, they gathered again at their home for 15 minutes of prayer focused on their regular and specific intention – the children cared for in Nicaragua by workers of Mustard Seed Communities.
Mustard Seed is a religious non-profit that provides housing and social services in impoverished countries. The group serves 74 developmentally disabled children in Nicaragua at homes in Managua and Diriamba.
“I’m dedicated to a cause for humanity,” Brower said of her devotion. “These children need our prayers so they receive care and emotional support.”
The Queens grandmother said some prayer nights have attracted as many as 10 people, while on other Tuesdays it’s just been her and her husband.
On this hot August evening, fellow parishioners Robert D’Elia, Estrella Gonzalez and Pat DeMeyere all arrived in time to pray with their hosts. A single candle is lit and at 6:30 Ercolano begins by reading aloud Psalm 102, which speaks of God’s love for His people.
Ercolano then invites the group to reflect on the Scripture verses. They bow their heads in contemplation and the book-lined living room becomes a solemn chapel. All that can be heard is the air conditioner trying to keep the space cool.
Brower breaks the silence with a prayer for Mustard Seed workers and the Church as a whole. D’Elia offers a special intention for immigrant children still separated from their families and the group gathers in a circle to conclude their night of supplication by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“Whenever we pray like this, we are sensitizing each other to the cause,” Ercolano said of the weekly gatherings. “It brings us together.”
He said the Mustard Seed workers in Nicaragua know they are being prayed for. “I believe it makes a difference,” he adds.
“This is a concerted effort,” DeMeyere said. “The prayers are stronger when we come together to do it.”
Brower first encountered the Mustard Seed Communities when she heard a missionary speak about the group. Beginning in 2013, she organized Mustard Seed trips to Nicaragua from Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament parish in Bayside. In 2016, she started doing the same at St. Kevin’s.
This April, protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega prompted a violent government crackdown. Managua’s Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Jose Baez called the government’s actions inhumane and immoral. The violence canceled this year’s trip from St. Kevin’s and Ercolano and Brower established their Tuesday prayer group instead. St. Kevin’s pastor, Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto, supported them by holding a special collection for Mustard Seed at Masses this summer and by providing announcements of the prayer meetings in the weekly bulletin.
Brower said Mustard Seed is in Nicaragua because of a lack of social services for the poor. Ercolano said children who need medical care are turned away unless their families can show the ability to pay up front. UNICEF reports that less than 6 percent of the country’s poorest children receive a secondary education, and 14 percent of children there, aged 5 to 14, are engaged in child labor.
When Mustard Seed trips were undertaken, each one cost about $10,000 for eight to 10 people and was paid for by donations. Brower said participants would also bring an extra 50 pounds of items just for the children. The week-long trips included building or repairing Mustard Seed facilities, a day of tourism and time to spend with the children. Ercolano said the trips made him fall in love with the Nicaraguan people and Brower said it’s an itinerary she sorely misses.
“We don’t speak Spanish,” she said about her and her husband, “but it doesn’t matter. The children just love us being there. Now it’s us missing them and knowing they are missing us.”
Ercolano said the summer’s end will also mean the end of the Tuesday prayer get-togethers. But he and Brower plan to continue them in a virtual community. They’ll compose a prayer each week and distribute it to Mustard Seed supporters by e-mail.
They hope that this new prayer community will be connected in spirit at exactly 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday by their invocations seeking God’s blessings for the children in Nicaragua.