Leaning against the vestment cabinet, he intently scrolled through his phone after concluding Thursday’s adoration. I paused in my sacristan duties but he was a million miles away. “There’s so many,” he muttered. “So many what?” I asked. “So many people back home who need help. I’ve sent them all the money I have.” Looking back at his phone he sighed, “What’s a poor priest to do?” I studied the face of my great friend. “You look tired, Fr. Vin,” I remarked. He kept scrolling, brows furrowed. “Listen to this,” he said and then launched into reading one heartbreaking message after another, appeals and cries for help coming from his homeland in Nigeria, a country over 6,000 miles away. Throwing his hands up, “What can we possibly do to impact a situation like this? I feel so helpless. Sometimes it helps just to talk to someone, you know? It can help when someone listens.”
COVID-19 hit the planet like a tsunami. Its waves overwhelmed and reverberated to every corner of the world. Countries were hit in different ways, some had high death tolls while others suffered economic woes. Africa, however, was a different story. In my mind, it was always the powder keg. COVID case numbers were nominal there, but the virus was never their real problem. In Africa, there are no economic safety nets, no stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, no soup kitchens or rental assistance programs. Government-imposed lockdowns can have catastrophic ramifications for the people due to poor government oversight and corruption. In Africa, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Honestly, my fear for Africa from the beginning of COVID was the very real possibility of a government-imposed famine. It would be created through saving them from COVID by starving them to death. This was early May, and the situation was taking an ominous turn.
While Fr. Vin poured out his story, I began thinking about a Maryland priest in a neighboring diocese who organized a walk for the hungry in the earliest days of COVID with great success. He walked from his parish to a Marian shrine, some 60 miles (96 km) away to raise money for those affected by COVID and the lockdowns. Explaining to Fr. Vin all the funds that were raised for those in need by this walk, I saw the glimmer of excitement in his eyes. Chuckling inside, I knew it was a done deal. “Let’s put a group together,” he said with glee. “We can do this! We can walk and raise funds to help the people in Africa. I’ll call a Zoom meeting. We can have…” Yes, that’s how The Family Apostolate rolls.
The coming weeks were a whirlwind of meetings, strategizing, and activity. Rather than one long walk, it was decided that we would embark on two separate, one-day events. People would donate money to support the needy through the walking efforts of the events. It was also decided that the walks would focus on the intercession of our Blessed Mother, who stepped in to say to her Son, “they have no wine.” The first Walk for the Hungry in Africa was a 15-mile trek (24 km) from Christ the King Church in Glen Burnie to the historic St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis. St. Mary’s was the first Catholic church built in America. The second walk was to be one week later to The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Baltimore, America’s first basilica. Our walk for the hungry was beginning to take shape! The flyer was drafted, and we began our publicity blitz to raise awareness and funds. We formed volunteer teams and told anyone and everyone who would listen to spread the word. The teams worked with a spirit of charity, and with the belief that our efforts would result in food on someone’s table, access to medical care, or the rent being paid.
But nothing in life worth having comes easily, and that proved to be true in our adventure. There were bumps along the way. Our graphic designer, George, graciously put up with us (as he always does!) during our numerous edits to the flyer announcement. Steve, our webmaster at the time, worked hard to get the events and donation page of our website up and running amidst numerous technical problems. We trained for the long walk to Annapolis. Fr. Vin did an 8-mile trial walk but in bad shoes, and his feet swelled up so much that he could barely walk for days. We were working under the legal confines, frustrations, and frayed nerves of a lockdown. The national news was stressful and inconsistent. The churches were closed. Then, like lighting a fuse, the U.S. exploded into civil unrest and riots broke out across many American cities. Walking to the Baltimore Basilica became too dangerous. We shifted gears and decided to change the 2nd walk to a prayer walk at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg. Rather than a long walk to Baltimore, we would pray, attend Mass, and offer people who are unable to walk long distances the opportunity to participate in a prayer walk at the Shrine. The morning of the prayer walk, I had a serious car accident on the way to the parish. My car was totaled but thankfully, I was physically unharmed. After a frantic call to Fr. Vin, he arrived at the accident scene. Shaking, I told him to go, “The people are waiting at the church. The prayer walk must go as planned.” He grabbed the retreat materials from my smashed-up car, and shaking too, made his way through the flashing lights of the police back to his car. Returning to the church, he faithfully, prayerfully, led the people to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. The trials and joys deepened my love for God and others. The walk to Annapolis began on a beautiful, sunny day after an early morning mass. Spiritually armed with a prayer team who remained at the church praying for the people in Africa and for us on the route, we began our walk. The team who walked with us were so committed, and the relief team that met us along the way were a God-send. They gave up their day to drive to different locations along the walking route. They greeted us at each stop with water, food, and smiles while encouraging and cheering us on. Their encouragement became especially needed as we tired toward the end. It was well into the afternoon by the time we crossed the finish line and we celebrated with high-fives and shouts of joy at St. Mary’s Church. It felt like the elation of completing a marathon. A week later, the team that led the prayer walk at the Lourdes grotto really stepped up to help Fr. Vin with logistics. One person grabbed the camera, another distributed water and retreat materials, others led prayers. They prayed from the heart for the people in Africa. The forecast was for rain that day but the Lord delivered another beautiful, Son-kissed day where everyone felt spiritually fed. And who could forget the financial donors? Some graciously gave much out of their abundance, while others gave their widows mite out of concern for those who had even less. In the end, we raised over $13,000 dollars.
There were so many people who gave of their time, treasure, and talent with open hearts. This adventure began with a spark of inspiration immediately following Eucharistic Adoration. Of course, the whole thing was God’s idea. He was answering prayers. Sometimes in life we ask for prayers, other times we are called to be the answer to someone else’s prayers. Many people in Africa prayed to God for help, and the Lord answered by whispering in the ears of people more than 6,000 miles away. We are truly one body in Christ. So, yes Fr Vin, it’s true: it helps when someone listens. One of the lessons I’ve learned from COVID is to be a little quieter and listen for the voice of God. He speaks in the silence. He has much to say, much for me to do, if only I will listen.
Patti Rubin is a cradle Catholic who lives in Maryland with her family. She is the administrator of the Family Apostolate. She writes for the FA magazine