2013 Mission Trip
By Mike MacCarthy
In our hearts, Kathy and I wondered silently how dangerous the “unexpected” would be in Ecuador. We’d heard stories about kidnappings, but as we left LA, we felt at ease because we were traveling with our friend Katie, who had made this journey annually for the past 10 years.
Father PJ Hughes greeted us with his infectious laughter and warm hugs.
As we traveled along, cane wood and partial cement block shacks side-by-side dotted each side of the road, down steep valleys, and up rugged hills in all directions as far as the eye could see. Most huts measured less than 15 feet square and had a flat tin roof nailed at a slight angle on top of four cane wood corner posts to provide rain drainage to the rear. These homes had limited access to electricity and polluted city water through a hose that ran by their house, but none had access to city sewer—just outhouses. Many families slept on a dirt floor.
I’d never seen so much merciless poverty in such a large and heavily populated area—even in Tijuana. A few days later, Father arranged for us to go into the elementary school and teach English to some of the students using guitar music we had brought. After the music lessons, Katie pulled white T-shirts out of her bag for each student to decorate with colored fabric markers. They couldn’t wait to put them on and strut around, showing off their new creations. These children were so happy you’d have thought we just bought them a completely new wardrobe in an expensive store.
At the end of our first week in Ecuador Father drove the three of us into downtown Guayaquil on Sunday to the residence of Sister Annie Credidio, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has dedicated the past 33 years of her life to bringing care and dignity to Hansen's (leprosy) patients. In the early 1990s, Sister Annie and other local nursing volunteers came together to found Damien House, a medical and patient care facility dedicated to transforming the lives of patients infected with and recovering from Hansen’s disease.
Before our trip to Ecuador, Kathy and I didn’t realize that the extreme prejudice and disgust toward those afflicted with leprosy in Biblical times still exist today among the people of Guayaquil. There are about 40 men and women who live at Damien House full-time. There are many dozens more who come each week for out-patient treatment of their Hansen’s disease. Sister never turns anyone away, no matter how badly they’re infected or angry at the world. She understands the emotional pain of those infected and has great patience with them, but makes them agree to treat everyone at this facility with kindness and grace. That’s her only rule—their religion is of zero concern.
Even though none of these mainly senior citizens had ever met Kathy or me, they welcomed us with open arms, hugs, and genuine warmth. Here they were, these incredibly loving diseased survivor strangers with missing digits, hands, arms, feet, legs or worse, hugging us and whispering, “Mucho gusto,” in our ears, and then, “¿Hasta mañana?”
They weren’t sure if we would be coming back. You see, that’s a big thing with Hansen’s disease patients. They seldom have visitors. They love visitors—any visitors, even complete strangers.
Over the next several days, Kathy and I played and sang for both the women and men in the morning hours, in their separate wings and common areas. At one point, some of the women joined in with percussion instruments—miniature marachas, tambourines, and shakers. They shouted and cheered almost like they were at rock concert.
Kathy and I are still stupefied when we think back on a Mass held there, because the spirit of the Lord was so powerfully there in that chapel with all those people whose only possession was their complete love of the Lord and His Mother. Everyone felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, and commented about it afterward. Kathy and I had a hard time hiding our tears of joy.
These people own no material goods or wealth except the clothes given them. These diseased people run the gamut of any population with respect to education or sophistication; their main cross is that they’ve been struck by a disease for which modern medicine has found treatment that will terminate its growth, and if caught early, can be completely cured.
In the song, “Be Not Afraid,” we hear and see the words, “Blessed are your poor, for the kingdom shall be theirs. Blessed are you that weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh.” For Kathy and I, the thing that left us speechless and beyond tears about these wonderful people at Damien House was that they are those about whom this song was written. Yes, they’re poor, and yes, they’ve known days of mourning and tears, but today they were laughing and clapping and singing for people they barely knew. Why? Because we came to see them and spent time with them and listened to them and sang with them.
They were indeed the face of God! We were and remain humbled to the very marrow of our being into speechlessness. All we could think to do was to hug them back, and tell them that they will always be in our prayers—no matter where we go.