April 22, 2011

‘I know the Lord is with me’: Young woman’s passion to make a difference leads her to Uganda

Wanting to honor his wife, Mary, who died in January, Jeff Williamson set out this Lent to attend Mass at 40 churches in 40 days. Here, he poses in front of the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Wanting to honor his wife, Mary, who died in January, Jeff Williamson set out this Lent to attend Mass at 40 churches in 40 days. Here, he poses in front of the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By Karen Stroude (Special to The Criterion)

At a recent Lenten faith-sharing group, we discussed spiritual conversions, and I asked the group if my daughter, Anne Therese, might be experiencing a conversion.

I explained that Greg, my husband, and I have always tried to encourage Anne Therese to reach her full potential, but it wasn’t until she discovered her life’s passion that she realized her own desire to excel.

During her sophomore year at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Anne Therese spent her spring break on a mission trip out of state volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.

While enrolled at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., Anne Therese enjoyed participating in service projects. She returned to Cathedral as a retreat leader, and joined a mission trip to Honduras.

At Saint Mary’s, she met Holy Cross Sister Stella Maris Kunihira, a native of Uganda who came to America to be educated and then return home to help the people of her country.

Suddenly, it seemed that Anne Therese came alive with her passion and desire to make a difference in the world. She talked frequently about going abroad to do some type of mission work.

Anne Therese graduated with honors and then enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis to pursue a master’s degree in social work as an advanced placement student.

During the fall of 2010, with her December graduation not far off, she spoke more and more about going to Africa to volunteer.

Our reaction was, “Another continent? Alone? How would she live? Would she be safe? What about disease?”

Undeterred, Anne Therese met with Father James Farrell, our former pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, who now serves as the pastor of St. Pius X Parish and the director of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House, both in Indianapolis.

Father Farrell has made numerous mission trips to Uganda. He met with Anne Therese and gave her a catalog of options to travel with various mission groups for short-term volunteer service opportunities.

But Anne Therese wasn’t interested in short-term mission work. She wanted something more.

Sister Stella put Anne Therese in touch with Holy Cross Father Fred Jenga, the director for Holy Cross Ministries in East Africa, and they began corresponding.

Father Jenga told Anne Therese about the Lazarus Community, a cluster of villages near Jinja, Uganda, not far from the source of the Nile River, where the residents are primarily young children and elderly women.

The “lost” generation, the parents of these children, had fallen victims to AIDS.

Father Jenga told Anne Therese that the women need help with gardening and craft-making to sustain themselves and the children.

The community also was in dire need of a school system because there was nothing in place for the families that could not afford to send their children away to school.

He told Anne Therese that her help was much needed on many levels, and she would be welcomed. He arranged for her to stay with a host family.

Just weeks from her graduation, we noticed that there was a momentum to Anne Therese’s step, excitement in her voice and a peace within her.

Our daughter’s eyes shone with a happiness that we had never seen before. She submitted her application to Uganda for a work visa and booked her 29-hour flight. She sent letters to family members and friends announcing her plans.

Cards, letters, donations and prayers poured in. She received immunizations and prescriptions for preventative medication for a host of communicable diseases.

She created a blog where she planned to periodically post entries about her adventures, and asked her readers to “follow me and pray for me as I will hold you in my heart throughout my journey.

“I know the Lord is with me,” she wrote, “for he has called me to live among his people, our brothers and sisters.”

The day came for us to take her to the airport. Watching her go through security and knowing that we would not see her for more than six months was one of the hardest things we have ever done as parents. We stood there at the gate for 25 minutes hoping for one last glimpse of her.

Anne Therese never looked back.

She has been at the Lazarus Community in Jinja, Uganda, for 10 weeks. She has access to the Internet so we send e-mails and occasionally get to use Skype to talk with her.

Anne Therese stays in a home with a couple whose children are grown or away at school. The home has electricity, but no indoor plumbing. She sleeps with a mosquito net around her cot.

Although English is the primary language in Jinja, the villagers speak their own language—Linsoga—and she is already familiar with phrases such as “mzungu,” which means “white lady.”

Anne Therese has developed a questionnaire for all the 150 households in the community to help compile demographic data for grant writing.

She is working on developing a website for the community so there can be worldwide exposure to their needs and progress. She also is designing a brochure titled “Crafts from the Heart” to promote the items handmade by the women to supplement their meager income.

Anne Therese has accomplished all this almost singlehandedly or through connections that she has made and maintained during her life.

In the long term, Anne Therese envisions a school for the local children, but her goal now is to raise enough capital to allow the community to purchase a few acres for a communal garden.

She writes on her blog that her “hope is to address the problem of low production of both food and income,” and “help the women sustain themselves and their children and grandchildren.”

Our faith-sharing group’s Lenten study guide, Immersed in Christ: Through Immersion in the Mass by Father David M. Knight, defines conversion as “a greater insight and a clearer understanding of what Jesus calls us to believe and do.”

One of Anne Therese’s recent blog posts explains that, “Through these last few weeks, I have been working toward truly finding my place among these beautiful people. Ensuring sustainability has always been my motive, but, ah, I have seen the light.”

Is Anne Therese’s calling to go to Africa a conversion? Or is the conversion the change in the lives of the people of Lazarus Community who will benefit from her compassion? Or is it the number of lives she has touched “stateside” by her brave and selfless journey as evidenced by the outpouring of gifts and prayers from family members, friends, classmates, teachers, professors, clergy, fellow parishioners, neighbors, employers and strangers who are captivated by her journey?

Anne Therese’s blog at www.jinjajourney.blogspot.com follows her experiences as she celebrates life with the people of Uganda.

Consider reading it as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of what Christ is calling us to do. You may discover a conversion of your own.

(Karen Stroude is a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis. Donations to Land for Lazarus can be made at any PNC Bank location or online at www.pnc.com. The account number is 4804541193.)

Local site Links: