BY DEACON STEVE OLMSTEAD
Last month, in October 2016, I had the privilege of traveling to Mexico City with Diocese of Juneau Bishop Edward Burns. We were hosted by Craig Johring, Executive Director of Hope of the Poor, http://www.hopeofthepoor.org. Craig spends his summers in Southeast Alaska sharing Christ’s love through FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and bringing other missionaries to serve the people of our great land. In the fall, winter and spring, Craig serves the poor of Mexico City and is a catalyst for bringing hope and change to those he serves. In addition, Craig hosts over 400 college students each spring providing a powerful pilgrimage and mission experience – much like he provided for us.
The purpose for our pilgrimage was three fold: Praying before our Lady of Guadalupe, studying the Spanish language, and serving the poor. Our experiences far exceeded our expectations. Seeing Jesus in the eyes, hearts, smiles, and tears of the poor provided a humbling and compelling reminder of Jesus’ final teaching in Matthew’s gospel, “What you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Kneeling before the talmud of Our Lady of Guadalupe and witnessing hundreds of pilgrims doing the same was truly inspiring. The miraculous image of Mary on Juan Diego’s tilma is nearly 500 years old. There is no scientific explanation of how the image came to be other than a miracle of God and the power of the Holy Spirit drawing the country of Mexico and myriads of others to the truth of Jesus through the Virgin. The cactus fibers of which the Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) was made of should have disintegrated hundreds of years ago and the image has never faded. This truly is a profound miracle!
Spanish language immersion was challenging, but purposeful. Three hours each morning were spent in Spanish class. The teachers were well equipped and very patient with us. Not only did they help with understanding the language, they also served as pronunciation guides so we could offer daily mass in Spanish. We were housed and fed by The Orden De La Inmaculada Concepcion, the Concepcionistas. These gracious nuns demonstrated true patience and their kindness, joy and humble service provided a wonderful atmosphere for learning and processing our days. The Bishop offered daily Mass for the sisters who gratefully appreciated our efforts. The Bishop and I even preached our first homilies (very short) in Spanish.
We participated in serving the needs of the poor in the afternoons. Craig serves 11 different homeless communities, soup kitchens, homes for unwed mothers, a shelter for abandoned women, and a variety of other outreach missions in Mexico City. Craig’s one-to-one ministry was evident as we walked the streets and were introduced to many “least of these” individuals. One such person was Sandra. Sandra is a single mother of two who has lived most of her life on the streets. Sandra is currently facing health complications with cancer being a real possibility. Craig is working with local doctors to diagnose Sandra’s condition. We were blessed to help provide housing for Sandra and her two young children, Samantha and Adan so they could get off the street and have a safe place to sleep. Please pray for Sandra and her children.
One group of street kids we visited was preparing for their first jobs. Craig and his ministry team, Hope of the Poor, have developed a pilot project with a local business owner who has agreed to hire four street kids to clean buildings. This job requires the kids to be clean and off drugs and will provide enough income for them to get off the street. Please pray for Juan Carlos, Yair, and Martin, as they begin their first job and for the success of this project.
It was an additional blessing on our first weekend to be joined by 40 FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) mission leaders from across the United States. The enthusiasm of these university campus leaders was contagious and provided another layer of connection between the Bishop, our Diocese, and FOCUS. Moreover, many of the students mentioned their hope to come to Alaska.
One day, while the Bishop was in language school, I had the privilege of being interviewed on Mundo Catolico, a Catholic TV station. The primary purpose of the interview was to tell the story of my journey from being a Protestant pastor to becoming a Catholic deacon. If you are interested, you can access the interview via the internet on this site: http://youtu.be/sCpW0n1SF5c.
There are too many additional blessings to sharein this article, but the Bishop and I would be happy to share more about our experience anytime you ask. God bless you!