What’s next?

It was about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday and I couldn’t sleep. I was still on South Africa time, which would have been about 10:30 a.m.

I was thinking about greeting our family and friends at the Des Moines International Airport upon arrival, getting luggage and going our separate ways.

The image in my head was of paper dropped on a windy day, with pages going in all different directions. People who’d never met before went on an extraordinary voyage together and bonded. Upon arriving at home, we all wanted a hot shower and a nap. We were going back to our own lives.

But will our lives be the same?

At Mass the day we were to leave South Africa, Father Ray talked about St. Paul’s conversion story. God doesn’t usually hit us on the side of the head to make a point. He talks to us in the stillness, in the quiet.

As we fly in different directions, back to our routines, how will God talk to us? How will we become his instruments?

And what about you, dear readers? Hopefully, you’ve learned about Blessman Ministries through this blog, about the many needs of the poor in South Africa, and about ways in which we can help. Some of you may be thinking about being a part of next year’s pilgrimage. Father Ray has already reserved a week in January, 2017 for St. Francis Parish. Contact Blessman Ministries if you want more information. Maybe you’d like to coordinate a journey to Blessman Ministries for your parish? Maybe you’d like to help with Days for Girls, or spend some time in South Africa with Dr. Blessman. Opportunities exist for individuals to spend 9 months with Blessman Ministries.

Be open, in the stillness and quiet, to hear God.

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Closer to the Lord

As our mission trip comes to a close, we have a contribution to the blog from our teammate, Randy.

Our mission trip to South Africa is coming to a close and there is so much to ponder and reflect upon.

When first arriving in Johannesburg, it was the middle of the night and my first impressions were mostly about the differences of the language and the people’s faces.

Johannesburg is a large developed city with heavy traffic and shopping malls, which did not seem that much different from home.

After a three hour drive away from the city, we arrived around midnight at the Blessman Ministries campus, a beautiful African style lodge and cottage development located on a one lane unsurfaced road in the rural bush country.  Here things seemed to feel much diferent – very remote, peaceful and quiet.   It was late so we went straight to our sleeping quarters.

We were all invited by Doctor Blessman to join him on his routine morning walk at sunrise the next day. I decided that sounded like a great idea.  The next morning just as promised, Doc was ready to go, complete with walking stick, bush hat and Afia the family dog  named for the combined abbreviations for Africa and Iowa.

After a short distance, I was immediately taken by the beauty and peace of the African bush in early morning.  I took in the sounds of the birds, the fragrant smell of the native vegetation and the vistas were breathtaking. I remarked to Doc that this was a beautiful place.  “Yes” he said, “I know.  I am always anxious to get to this place after being in the states.  The Lord  just seems to be closer here.” Those words stuck with me and over the next 10 days I came to know their truth.

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Our various mission projects included several outreach visits to schools in small villages and remote rural areas.  We were coming to these places to bring shoes for the children and eye glasses for the children and adults, and to also bring our love and support in the name of the Lord, for these impoverished people.

To my surprise, the people seemed very happy, with big smiles.  They would often bless us for coming to give them help. As I soon discovered, many were Christian and while very poor in a material way they were “rich in spirit.”

How can they be so happy while being so needy with little hope for a better future?  The answer was the presence of the Lord God in their daily lives.  Unlike at home, where we are so busy with our focus given to the race to get ahead and to have more things, here the focus is on today. They would say to us: “Today is a good day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad.”  This theme was reaffirmed over and over as we spent our time serving and praying with the small children, high school students and adults – many not understanding our English but always understanding that our prayers were to our common God.

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Part of the Blessman ministry is the support of the pastors, facilities and transportation for several small churches in the area.

We attended services at two of these churches where we were overwhelmed by the welcome of these loving and generous people.  On our last Sunday we attended a small African Catholic church service where we were welcomed as their guests.  The church had no regular priest so Father Ray was asked to preside and to provide the homily.  The Scripture reading was about the Church and all of us being “one body”  in Christ.

As Father moved through the service in English, it was interpreted to the people in their native language.  The all African congregation would then sing the most beautiful harmonic music in their language inserted in the same places we are accustomed to with our services at home.  Even though our worship had different languages and music, it was a unified service for our common Lord.  At the close of the service the lead Eucharistic minister told us that our visit to their church was a blessing to them and living proof of the scripture that we are all ONE in the body of Christ – whether African, American, black or white, rich or poor.  At that moment there were no differences between us and the Lord felt very close to us.

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Father Ray McHenry preaches during a communion service at St. Omaar Church in South Africa.

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As Christians, we believe the trinity of God is present in all places and at all times. But I agree with Doc Blessman that, at this place in South Africa, the Lord seems to be much closer.

Thank you, Blessmans, for creating this ministry and special place in South Africa where ​we are all brought closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Blessmans: Dr. Jim, Beth, Dustin and Rene Blessman

Feeding the people

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After attending a Catholic Mass at St. Omaar, we traveled to the Del Cramer campus where Lighthouse church is taking root. Father Ray was invited to preach at this Christian church, which serves the poor. With a translator at his side, Father Ray fed the people spiritually by expanding on his homily from St. Omaar He explained how we are all one body in Christ. Each of us has a job in the Church, he said. It’s our responsibility to discern what that job is and to do it.

This is a congregation that is growing. Adults and very young children gathered in one building, and children attended church in another building on campus.

After church, the children, many of whom are orphans or among the poorest of the poor, flocked to the dining area of campus for a meal. Would you believe that meal came from our community in central Iowa? Meals from the Heartland feeds the children here on campus after church and weekdays after school. For some, it might be their only meal of the day. Thank you to all who contribute time and funds to Meals from the Heartland. Below are some of the children you’re helping directly with your generosity.

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#MealsFromTheHeartland

 

Visiting

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While we were in South Africa, we did a little visiting. Bishop Jeremiah Masela, of the Diocese of Polokwane, had just returned from his country’s meeting of bishops. He was named a bishop in 2013. He graciously received us. We brought him gifts of a music CD produced by a team member, a St. Francis mission team t-shirt and a medal of St. Junipero Serra. His diocese is comprised of 2.5 million people, about 86,000 or 3.5 percent of them Catholic.

We also stopped at Mater Dei Pastoral Centre in Mokopane to see Divine Word Father Sunny John Vattapparayil. Originally from India, he showed us around his retreat center. We celebrated Mass in the chapel, saw the adoration chapel and walked up the side of a mountain, where Father Sunny created stations of the cross with an altar erected at the end. He showed us a large building for youth and diocesan gatherings and provided a fine dinner for all of us. We gifted him with a music CD from a team member and a medal of St. Junipero Serra.

 

 

We are one body

We left the lodge early this morning, ready to experience Mass in a rural Catholic Church. It took us better than an hour to get there and when we entered the village, our driver couldn’t find the church.

We saw people walking along the dusty road dressed in their Sunday best. There was a grandfather with two little children, and a young family with children walking in the opposite direction of our bus.

“Look, there’s a lady wearing a rosary,” said one of our teammates. Indeed, she was wearing her rosary like a necklace. We stopped and asked for directions. She boarded the bus with a giggle and an enormous smile to help us. We drove about a block and she pointed out two of her friends. We stopped and invited them to join us on the bus. They, too, were laughing and smiling!

Within minutes, we pulled up in front of a small white church building, with a cross on the building and a cross on top of a structure with a bell near the church.

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We had arrived at St. Omaar Catholic Church, and it was a priestless Sunday. The congregation was preparing to have a communion service led by a lay communion minister.

Father Ray presided with the assistance of the communion minister.

There were no missalettes. People used their bibles and graciously shared theirs with us, though we couldn’t read their language.

Joyfully, everyone sang, swaying to the music. No microphones were needed for the choir and congregation praised God with gusto!

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Father Ray, in the homily, talked about how we are one body with many parts. At the conclusion of the service, a parishioner stood to welcome us, invite us to breakfast, and said he was thrilled that we picked his church to visit. Our presence was a visible reminder that, while we live thousands of miles apart, we belong to the same Church. Together, the South Africans and Americans represented one body in Christ.

We lingered after the service, enjoying the food put out for us. A little girl approached me with no inhibitions, her arms outstretched. I picked her up and she laid her head on my shoulder. Oh, what a wonderful feeling! Her mama introduced herself and said the girl’s name is Promise. Whispering to the little girl, I said, “You have a beautiful name.” I also met Alfred, a very well-spoken high school student. He said he wants to come to the United States and open his own business to be of service to others. He’d like to become a mechanical engineer. He connected with the right person on our team, the architect. Maybe someday, I can return the kindness extended to us and show Alfred a little bit of Iowa.

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We couldn’t stay long. We were going to Lighthouse church, an apostolic tradition at Blessman Ministries’ Del Cramer campus. As we boarded the bus, Father Ray said, “You have just seen a service of the third world.” We don’t know how often a priest can come and celebrate a full Mass at St. Omaar. But we know they honored and praised God at this worship service with joy and love.

 

 

What’s next?

Our teammate, Deb, shared her thoughts as our journey comes to an end.

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As time comes to a close for our team in South Africa and we prepare to return to our “normal” lives, one question comes to mind: What now?

This is my second mission trip to South Africa with the St. Francis team. When I asked this question last year, the answer was to return the next year. I knew Blessman Ministries was doing great work here and one of the things I love most is that our work does not begin and end with our team. This is an ongoing ministry and our team helps to continue the good works.

Not all people are able to make this mission trip more than once. However, our lives will be forever changed. But what do we do with this fire that has started in our hearts?

Today, in our second reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 we are reminded we are all one body in Christ. We don’t have to be in South Africa to do good works, to do God’s work. In Father Ray’s homily today, he told us we all have a job to do for the Church. But while we do not always know what that job is (like after a mission trip), we need to listen to the Holy Spirit.

As each team member discerns what they will do with this newfound fire, I know I will rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know when I will return to South Africa, but I know I will take all of my experiences here and continue to do good works at home.

 

We didn’t anticipate what we’d receive

The following reflection is from our teammate, Cindy.

In talking with our team members, many agree that we came to South Africa to give of ourselves and to serve others. We really weren’t focused on what we’d receive. But in the prayer of St. Francis, it says “… it is in giving that we receive…”

So I asked some of our team members what they have received during this mission trip and here is what I heard:

— A closer walk with God’s people

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— Finding God in his beautiful creation

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— Deeper awareness of all of our blessings: food, shelter, the love of one’s family and friends

— New friendships made during our time together

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— Knowledge that the gift of one’s self is of far greater value than money

— Gaining wisdom from the letters written for us by the seventh graders at St. Francis School. What encouragement we received when reading them at daily Mass!

— Smiles and hugs from the children

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— Hospitality extended to us by the schools and a Catholic Church we attended. They have so little but yet they fed us!

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— Learning to be compassionate to everyone, especially the poor

— Confirmation that serving others is a good thing

— JOY when watching the children walk away in their new shoes with BIG smiles on their faces

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— All of the prayers of family and friends for our safety.

We are indeed blessed!

 

 

 

 

Optical outreach has lasting effect

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They say the ticket out of poverty is education. The children we met this week like school and want to excel. They have high hopes. They want to be an astronaut, a lawyer, a policeman, a doctor, an architect, or a pilot.

But what happens when a child can’t make out the letters or numbers on the chalkboard? What happens when a child looks at his or her book and only sees fuzzy marks?

A teacher without training would likely assume the child had an intellectual disability.

A few years ago, Dr. Blessman grew frustrated with the medical mission trips he did because, while he could easily help a patient who needed antibiotics, it was much harder to treat a patient with a chronic illness. It was hard to make lasting positive changes.

He became aware of how easy it is to do a simple optical test. Dr. Blessman is not an optometrist. Yet, he saw an optical outreach as beneficial in three ways: a test is easy to administer, it’s fairly low cost, and if a mistake was made the person wouldn’t be seriously injured. An optical outreach would have a lasting effect on a person. Over the years, he refined his process. He had used eyeglasses people donated, but matching the prescription with the children was challenging, he couldn’t use bifocals or trifocals and keeping the stock labeled and bagged was time consuming.

He found a supplier who would sell him 10,000 glasses at a time. They are prescription glasses that have frames similar to the “cheaters” you can pick up from a drugstore.

During the last week, we helped do a simple test by reading from big to small letters. If that indicated the person might need glasses, the person would go to a station where one of our team members had a variety of glasses in varying strengths. Our team helped the students select lenses that improved their vision far or near. Once the strength was identified, a “runner” would go to the inventory laid out and bring a pair of that strength to the team member working directly with the student.

In the last week, we estimate we’ve given out 700 pairs of glasses.

Dr. Blessman suspects that about 60-75 percent of those who received glasses could figure out a way to cope without them. But for the other 25 percent, a pair of glasses could make a miraculous change in their lives.

One of our teammates encountered such a case. After trying several strengths, the student said a level 4 was helpful. That’s a strong prescription, so the team member called Dr. Blessman over for a consult. After looking at the student, Dr. Blessman determined that the child may be blind in one eye and recommended he see a doctor who specializes in optometry. We gave the child a strong pair of glasses. We don’t know if that child will go to an eye doctor. We’ve been working with very poor children this week and lack of transportation is a major hurdle. But we pray that the pair of glasses he left with help him with the other eye so he can do well in school and reach his dreams.