November 26, 2010

‘We are all part of the same family’: Journey helps director see how Catholics in America are helping people in Africa

David Siler poses for a photo with children that he met during a recent visit to Ethiopia. As the director of Catholic Charities and Family Ministries for the archdiocese, Siler made the trip to witness the work of Catholic Relief Services in Africa. (Submitted photo)

David Siler poses for a photo with children that he met during a recent visit to Ethiopia. As the director of Catholic Charities and Family Ministries for the archdiocese, Siler made the trip to witness the work of Catholic Relief Services in Africa. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The memorable moment with the women and the sunglasses was so unexpected and fun that David Siler still laughs when he shares the story.

The scene took place as Siler, the executive director of Catholic Charities and Family Ministries for the archdiocese, was traveling through Ethiopia as part of a recent tour by Catholic Relief Services—the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The tour wanted to show Siler and 11 other diocesan representatives from across the United States some of the Catholic Relief Services’ projects to help people in Africa, but the trip through the highlands of Ethiopia also provided Siler with a special memory of the people there. (Related story: Situations, emotions come to forefront during 10-day journey to Africa)

“Driving up through the highlands, we took a break and got out of the car when all these people flooded toward us,” Siler recalls. “These four women in total African garb came up and took our sunglasses off of our faces and tried them on. They laughed, and we laughed. It was this moment of bonding that came from something as silly as trying on sunglasses.”

For Siler, those moments of bonding became one of the two major themes of the 10-day journey through Tanzania and Ethiopia. The other theme was his pride in being part of a faith that reaches out to people in need across the world.

“It was one of my most intense experiences of being proud of being Catholic,” he says. “I was proud to see the work of our American Catholic Church in remote areas helping to feed people, making greater access to water, educating children and helping people to start small businesses. Catholic Relief Services has been in Africa so long that they have a very good reputation there. We’re living the Gospel there.”

Much of the trip focused on the relief organization’s efforts to make water accessible to people in areas where water—often described as “liquid gold” in Africa—is scarce.

Siler recalls visiting remote villages where the women explained how greater access to water had changed their lives. Where they once traveled several hours every day to gather and haul water for cooking, washing and drinking, the women now use that time to focus more on the education of their children and their care for their family’s crops and animals.

Those visits touched Siler’s heart, too. He shares the story of a couple in Ethiopia who died of AIDS, and how neighbors immediately welcomed the dying couple’s children into their home and into their family.

A father of five, Siler also recalls a visit to a village in Tanzania where he met a young mother, who was about 13, holding a baby.

“Even when you can’t speak the language, there are a lot of things you can do with sign language and gestures to connect with people,” he says. “I just started making baby noises as we do. I reached out my hands in a gesture to hold the baby. She let me, and I held the little girl. I was struck by the trust. She just trusted me. We just had that moment of connection. I’m a parent. She’s a parent. We had that in common.”

That feeling of connection stayed with him as he traveled through areas where homes were made of sticks and mud, where disease and death too often haunted the everyday lives of people and their families.

“I always try to make contact with people’s eyes,” Siler says. “So many people did that there. It was like they were looking right in my soul, and I was doing the same thing. It was this sense of family. All our differences in those moments of eye contact melted away. We all have the same basic desires. We want to be free. We care deeply about our families. We want our kids to be fed and educated. We all want to feel important, and we all want to have a purpose.”

In inviting Siler to see its work in Africa, Catholic Relief Services hoped he would share his impressions of his trip when he returned to the United States—to let people know the value of the organization’s work. Siler has already begun to honor that goal while he still tries to sort through all the memories, photos and images of his first trip to Africa.

One more moment adds to Siler’s defining memories of Africa—a moment of surprise and joy that curiously connects Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and the pop singer Lady Gaga. The moment occurred when Siler visited two of the mission clinics that Blessed Teresa established in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

“One [clinic] serves 800 people, and the other serves 1,400 people,” Siler says. “Both places are for the truly neglected and forgotten members of the community. We met people with leprosy, a lot with AIDS, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, orphans, the dying.

“The Missionaries of Charity sisters live right there with the people, serving them. And there were tons of volunteers from all over the world who came to help. One of the volunteers was this woman from Poland in her 20s. She was a recreational therapist who was working with a large group of mentally ill women. She was teaching them to exercise through dance. She had a boom box that was playing Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face.’ She was happy, and they were happy.”

Siler smiles at that memory. He has the same reaction every time that he hears that song now.

“Who would have thought that Polish woman’s skill would be one that is needed in Ethiopia? It made me realize we all have something to give. It shows the connections we can make if we’re creative.”

The young woman’s example fits with Siler’s belief that people must use their abilities to help others in need wherever God has placed them in the world.

“Whether you help people in Africa or at home, it’s really the same. Need is need,” Siler says.

“Kids here are starving. People here are out of jobs. You don’t have to go to Africa to help people in need, but it is important to help somewhere. We all have the same Father, we are all part of the same family, and we all have something to give. We have to be open to the Holy Spirit to tell us where our gifts are needed.” †

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