Three Countries, Two Weeks, One Life-Changing Trip For Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns Members
“So often I forget how blessed and fortunate I am to live in America,” says Nia Mendonca. “It seems easy to complain about little things when I forget all that God has given me. Coming to Africa has changed my perspective on life.”
Mendonca is a young parishioner from St. Teresa of Avila Church in South Ozone Park. She was part of a group of 10 in a mission trip to three African countries this summer organized by the Ambassadors Program of the diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns (VBCC).
According to Father Dwayne Davis, project director of the Ambassadors Program and the trip, each country was chosen because of events that have taken place there. “Uganda because of the martyrdom of the 45 Catholics and Anglicans, a feast that is celebrated on June 3. Rwanda because of the [1990s] genocide. South Africa because of Apartheid.”
To pay for the trip, the organizers held fundraising events like the Ambassadors Gala. They also received grants and funds from benefactors of the program.
The group departed on June 29, the feast of St. Peter and Paul, for Uganda, where they spent eight days. The first stop was the Basilica of the Uganda Martyrs in Namugongo, in the Archdiocese of Kampala. They attended Mass with the local faithful to give God thanks for bringing them safe to Africa and to ask for protection during their two-week journey.
“People packed into church aisles and sat outside of the church just to celebrate their Sunday Mass,” Mendonca said.
“Although Mass was in Luganda [a local language], it was so obvious how spiritual these people are and the importance of the Church in their life.”
“I was truly blessed to concelebrate Mass there above the relic of St. Charles Lwanga,” Father Davis said, referring to one of the Catholic martyrs honored at the basilica.
Ministering in the Trenches
After the Mass they traveled to the Diocese of Kabale to work with the local Catholic Charities (Caritas).
“Caritas mainly works with farmers to help educate them in how to make a living for the long run,” said Father Davis. “We visited several villages to help with trenches to prevent soil erosion during the rainy season since most of the villages were on the mountain itself.”
The ambassadors gave toys and sport equipment they brought from America to the kids at the local school. Father Davis said he was impressed to see the ambassadors working side by side with the local youngsters. The local kids, who don’t have much, were “filled with joy for the little they received.”
And the young ambassadors from Brooklyn and Queens were “truly moved by the experience,” according to Father Davis.
The next country was Rwanda. During the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, 800,000 people were killed in just a hundred days. The Brooklyn Diocese young ambassadors visited the Genocide Museum, which was “a truly transformative experience.”
“For three months in 1994, Rwanda’s streets ran red with the blood of Tutsis and Hutus,” said Kayla Joseph-Ollivierre, an 18-year old member of St Matthew’s parish, Crown Heights. “Neighbor turned on neighbor, wife against husband, parents against children, Rwandan against Rwandan. Almost one million people lost their lives during this harrowing ordeal.”
“It always saddens me how hate can corrupt us and turn us against each other,” said Rajae Clarke, a young ambassador from the parish of St. Vincent Ferrer, East Flatbush, who just completed his first year at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“The Genocide Museum should stand as a reminder that hatred only kills and corrupts the goodness of our civilization.”
For Joseph-Ollivierre, who will be attending Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind., starting this fall, the aftermath of the genocide is the hardest concept to grasp.
“People who survived the genocide have been faced with a task harder than escaping with their lives: forgiving those who persecuted them,” she said. “If I were to put myself in their shoes, it would be extremely painful to continue with my life between the anger and grief over the loss of my family, the guilt of living, the constant fear and distrust of everyone around me.
Finding the Strength to Forgive
“However, my time at the memorial showed me that despite how difficult it must have been, many of the survivors have found it in their hearts and souls to forgive their hunters and go on to honor their fallen by living beautiful and fulfilling lives.”
The third and final stop was South Africa, the country where for most of the 20th century, the native African population lived under the Apartheid system imposed by the white minority of European origins. The young ambassadors from Brooklyn and Queens visited the Apartheid Museum.
Under Apartheid, “the whites were considered the highest of the high and had all privileges while colored [people] were inferior to all. Within the Apartheid Museum itself you learn your roots and how we evolved and came about trying to overcome such harsh times,” said Justin David, from St. Matthew’s parish, who will be a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men this fall.
Moved by Mandela
Of course, the visit to the museum was also an opportunity to learn about Nelson Mandela, the leader of the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa.
“Nelson Mandela and his constant ﬁghting along with series of negotiations ﬁnally ended Apartheid in the late 1900s,” David said. “In 1994 he went on to lead his country as their ﬁrst black president.”
For David, there is a lesson to learn from the people of South Africa. “After experiencing this ﬁrsthand, I learned that we in America still have a lot to work on ourselves. Racism in America is rather taking over our lives. I feel that we can all learn a lot from people like this and work on healing ourselves too.”
The VBCC Ambassadors Program hosts a mission trip every year. In recent years they have visited New Orleans, La., and Jamaica, West Indies. They are planning to visit Haiti next year.