Diocesan Staff writers Katy Beedle Rice

A life-changing visit with the Missionaries of the Poor

by Katy Rice
Father Ho Lung
Fr. Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor.

When you go on a retreat led by a man largely regarded as a living saint you expect to be moved and Fr. Thomas Weise, Pastor of Saint Rose of Lima in Wrangell and Saint Catherine of Siena in Petersburg is no exception. He said of his recent experience on retreat with Fr. Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor: “It was like sitting with someone like Yoda or something. On the retreat he spoke right to the center of your being and you could not ignore it.”

Sponsored by two Petersburg parishioners, Don Koenigs and Gloria Ohmer-Koenigs, Fr. Thomas travelled to Jamaica to join the Missionaries of the Poor (MOPS) for three days of volunteer service and then to attend a retreat led by Fr. Ho Lung. Though people have travelled from all over the world to volunteer with MOPS since its founding in 1981, Fr. Thomas believes that Don and Gloria were the first individuals to travel to Kingston, Jamaica for this experience from Alaska. “They had gone on this same retreat [I attended] in November 2012 and had come back transformed. They found Jesus in the poor. There’s so much joy down there among the desperately poor. One of Fr. Ho Lung’s [famous] quotes is: ‘The invitation to care for the poor is an invitation to happiness.’ They have it on t-shirts and stuff.”

And joy is a cornerstone of the Missionaries of the Poor. The main tenet of their community is, “to be in union with Christ on the Cross, as we give joyful service to the least of our brothers and sisters and to one another in the community. We will cheerfully serve our suffering and crucified Lord as He appears to us in the poor, knowing that through the Cross He attained for us Everlasting Life.”

In their dedicated service to the poorest of the poor, the Missionaries of the Poor have been compared in many ways to the Missionaries of Charity. Fr. Thomas comments, “They care for the very, very poor, much like Mother Teresa, but [Fr. Ho Lung] doesn’t like being compared to Mother Teresa. One, because he doesn’t think he’s holy enough. Obviously that’s probably a good sign that he’s more like her than he thinks.” Fr. Thomas continues, “I think yes, he’s very much like Mother Teresa in love for the poor and care for the dying, and then he takes it to a new level. He writes articles in the [Jamaican] paper every month haranguing the government or big business for not caring for the poor. He’s more like Dorothy Day, if you take some elements of Dorothy Day: running centers and holding Church members, and the political system [accountable].”

In his calling to serve the very least of society, Fr. Ho Lung, who began his ordained life as a Jesuit priest before founding the MOPS, found Jesus in the poor of the Jamaican ghettos. When it became apparent that just going to the ghettos wasn’t enough he began establishing “centers” for people who couldn’t be cared for anywhere else. The first of these is Faith Center, a home for adult men with disabilities. During the first part of his trip, Fr. Thomas, along with other volunteers from Jamaica and the US, joined the Brothers (the vowed religious of the MOPS) in their daily work caring for the people in the centers. Of his experience in Faith Center, Fr. Thomas recalled, “Some [of the residents] would just be sitting on the floor and rocking. They were the hardest to feed because for some of them you didn’t even know if they knew they were getting food. Some were blind. Others could help each other but they very clearly couldn’t make it on their own. But they would help too. They’d be sitting with one of their friends who was more disabled and they would be feeding them.”

Fr. Thomas also spent time at Bethlehem Center which cares for disabled children, “All the children that come to Bethlehem Center were abandoned or dropped off at the center, or they’re from the ghetto and the brothers saw them living in an awful condition because the parents are barely making it and they really can’t care for this child, so they ask, ‘Can we offer care for your child?’ So some of the children will have a visitor once in awhile. But normally the Brothers are their family.” While Fr. Thomas believes most people could benefit from an encounter with the poor, he also realizes, “It’s a big challenge for people to come and to see that suffering and to enter into it. To see the disfigured bodies and what we think of as suffering. But when you talk to the children, they’re filled with joy. The one I was feeding was just bouncing and happy and excited. I think the residents are generous in sharing their lives with us.”

Though Fr. Thomas enjoyed the retreat with Fr. Ho Lung, he was impacted just as much, if not more, by his experience with the poor, “Fr. Ho Lung only offers the retreat twice a year. That’s not his ministry. His ministry is to have people work with the poor and most people go down there just to visit the centers. Their whole experience is working in the centers and being with the Brothers and praying with the Brothers. I think I would probably go back just for that.”

Fr. Thomas’ experience has led him to re-evaluate his own priorities: “I’m re-thinking purchasing—what I’m spending money on, what’s important and how to share this Gospel and really live the Corporal works of mercy. This is what [our society] needs. We are so unhappy and we’re drowning in stuff and more stuff won’t make us happy.” Along with sharing his experiences through homilies, interviews, and conversations, Fr. Thomas is also interested in returning to Jamaica and bringing others: “I mentioned the trip to a number of people when I returned to Alaska and there was a lot of interest and people saying, ‘Oh, I’ll go.’”

His experience has also encouraged him in his ministry here in Southeast Alaska: “I’m much more conscious that I need to do more here. I need to go and look for the poor. Fr. Ho Lung went and looked for the poor to help. He didn’t wait for them to come to him.” Through his time with the Brothers of the Missionaries of the Poor and on retreat with Fr. Ho Lung, Fr. Thomas seems to be most affected by the contagious joy of this movement: “I can’t think of anything I want for Christmas. I have so many clothes, so many shoes. The Brothers only have one pair of flip-flops and a few changes of clothes. And they’re so joyful.”

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