Through St. Francis Builds, St. Camillus Parishioners Help Puerto Rico

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

SILVER SPRING, Md. – Before the novel coronavirus hit the United States and brought travel to a virtual halt, a group from St. Camillus Parish experienced mission in an emotional and stirring way.

Earlier this year, they spent a week in Maunabo, Puerto Rico, as part of the St. Francis Builds ministry. The 18 parishioners, along with Chris Posch, OFM, pastor of St. Camillus, lived and worked with survivors of the Hurricane Maria-ravaged island – which has not been the same since the September 2017 natural disaster severely damaged homes and property.

The volunteers of St. Francis Builds from St. Camillus parish pose with Chris Posch, second from right. (Photo courtesy of Jim Perrault)

Although St. Francis Builds participants went to Maunabo to volunteer their time and talent for the marginalized inhabitants of the island, they came away with more than they gave – like many who have been part of previous SFB trips, feeling enlightened and inspired by the experience.

The week spent cleaning and constructing homes was an observation of the human spirit and a time to witness the power of presence. The group saw the poorest of the poor helping the poorest of the poor, according to Chris.

“We were inspired by how hurricane survivors in the southeast area of the island offered rice, beans, water, and clothes to survivors of recent severe earthquakes on the southwestern region of the island,” said Chris, who noted that just a week before the SFB “builders” arrived on Jan. 19, the island experienced an earthquake, one of many so far this year.

The mission of the St. Camillus-based St. Francis Builds project is to strengthen the faith and parish community and to engage culturally with under-served communities in the United States, as well as other countries. Founded in 2005 by Mike Johnson, OFM – who served at St. Camillus from 2002 to 2016, including eight of those years as the pastor – the ministry is dedicated to building relationships through rebuilding damaged homes and dwellings.

A St. Francis Builds participant knocks a hole in a wall. (Photo courtesy of Jim Perrault)

They do this by “emptying ourselves through service to others, as St. Francis of Assisi did, and by building homes, schools and neighborhoods, side by side with the people of the communities,” according to the St. Camillus website. The SFB participants provide their energy – both physical and emotional – to rebuilding damaged properties and constructing new homes.

The ministry enables groups of laypeople from St. Camillus to experience Franciscan spirituality as a mission through nine-day immersion experiences while doing construction work with local communities.

In some countries, participants have built homes, and in others, they have constructed schools and learning centers. Since its inception, volunteers have brought their talent and service to Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia, Honduras, Jordan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Trinidad, and the Dominican Republic.

A key element of SFB, according to Mike, is to give people a hand up toward a better life, whether that is by helping a family in Jordan or Guatemala achieve their dream of a home or building a school that will help educate children and adults.

Members of the multicultural and multilingual group shared vivid thoughts of their recent experience in Maunabo.

Rewarding Experiences
“We saw the damage, still unrepaired, that Hurricane Maria wrought,” said participant Jim Perrault. “There were several abandoned houses. One had just the concrete frame and was waiting for FEMA money to come through. We passed a baseball field and a school, both closed because of damage. And there was a person living in a shack, right next to the remains of his house. Nothing was left but the concrete slab floor and the bathroom.

“All this was a sobering reminder of how much was damaged and how little has been done to fix it. But it also reminded us of why we were there – in some small measure, to be the light of the world,” said Perrault, a resident of Greenbelt, Maryland.

A couple of St. Camillus parishioners prepare a house in Puerto Rico for painting. (Photo courtesy of Jim Perrault)

Emma Henderschedt, a member of the HNP Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, said, “My St. Francis Builds experience in Puerto Rico taught me more than just how to mix cement by hand, how to carefully dig holes for the foundation of a house, and how to seal a roof to protect it from further storm damage. The trip taught me the importance of community and the power of loving your neighbor. It enriched my relationship with Christ. I was able to see how, in the process of creation, there are often messes.

“In order to build a new sturdy wall, we had to break down a previous one, creating dust and crumbles. In order to paint a room a vibrant color, we often got covered in paint,” said Henderschedt, who is stationed at St. Camillus Parish. “To make something new, often the mess and chaos come first. I think this is telling to the process of growth. To get to the beautiful, we often have to work through some ‘ugly.’”

Henderschedt continued, “The people have gone through some major messes with the tragic hurricanes and earthquakes, but there is still so much beauty in Puerto Rico. I admire the way people care for one another, their selflessness, and their work ethic. I pray that as a community, we continue to never forget that God is in the beauty and the messes.

“I saw God so evidently in this experience and I am inspired to continue to share what God is doing in my life,” said Henderschedt who, after reflecting on the trip, wrote a poem declaring what God is doing in her life, as inspired by the ever-awake and noisy Puerto Rican roosters.  She was pictured in an article published Feb. 1 by El Pregonero.

Linda Ramirez, who served as a leader of the January trip, said, “What I enjoy most of the SFB ministry is seeing the Holy Spirit work among us to work for communities in need and/or building communities among various facets of cultures, classes, and races. There is no challenge we do not pursue. Our ministry is a great group of individuals of many talents and compassion that is ready to serve.” Ramirez has participated in eight SFB trips.

Other participants expressed their insights and appreciation for the January trip in articles published by the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

In an article in the Catholic Standard’s Feb. 20 edition, participant Mary Ann Marcot described adjustments that were part of being in a new culture and the memories that meant most to her.

“By slowing down and walking and just staying in the moment, it was something for us to know that He is God and He is here,” Margot told the Catholic Standard.

Varied Building Sites
During its 15 years, St. Francis Builds has taken two previous trips to Puerto Rico.

“The ministry takes three or more trips in most years to places in need, where we mix physical labor with spiritual reflection and fellowship with the members of the group and with people of the community being served,” said Tobias Harkleroad, principal of St. Francis International School in Silver Spring and a longtime St. Camillus parishioner.

St. Camillus parishioners working on a house in Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Linda Ramirez)

“Over the years, the ministry has evolved to include international trips, domestic experiences, and local trips. Most years, the ministry makes a week-long trip to build housing and do needed remodeling projects on an Indian reservation in South Dakota,” added Harkleroad, a Secular Franciscan.

“As a Franciscan community called to respond to the signs of the times, we have sought to be in solidarity with those marginalized by hurricanes,” said Mike Johnson, who lives at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. “In recent years, we have sent teams to Houston, New Orleans, and North Carolina. We partner with various NGOs established to provide infrastructure for these trips, such as the Fuller Center for Housing and Habitat for Humanity.”

Since its first trip in 2006, hundreds of people have taken part in the week-long Franciscan experiences with the average team comprising 18 to 20 people, according to Mike.

“We’ve ranged in age from 14 to 90 years old and have found that having intergenerational team members is essential. Since our inception, we’ve included youth from St. Camillus, and teens and nephews, nieces and godchildren of adult team members, as well as students from Siena College and Franciscan Volunteer Ministers,” Mike said.

“Invariably, the youth participants share insights of their young eyes and bless the rest of us with their enthusiasm, wonder, and playfulness,” Mike continued. “They experience true belonging in communal life in mission as we work, eat, and pray together. They experience how disconnecting from phones and media provide the opportunity to connect more deeply with their fellow teammates and with their spirituality and themselves.”

At the end of their work-weeks, SFB participants share in a debriefing session their reflections on where they saw God in each other during the experience. They often share their experiences at Mass with fellow parishioners. Images of last year’s trip to Puerto Rico can be seen in a video that was shown at Mass at St. Camillus Church.

“An important component of the trips is nightly sharing and reflection, such that the participants are able to personally relate the days’ joys and challenges to their faith,” said Beth Hood, chair of the St. Francis Builds Board.  The group has developed a leader’s manual that supports further development and growth.

Most participants return for another experience with SFB, according to Mike. “These trips have put a face on the issues of immigration, poverty, and injustice,” he said, noting that he has seen the strong impact that St. Francis Builds trips have had on returning young participants.

“We have been enriched to see how youth participants return with greater confidence and inspiration to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Mike, a 1979 Siena College graduate. “Some of our young participants have gone on to careers in such professions as social work, public health, and medicine. Some have returned to take on leadership roles in our youth ministries.”

Mike had planned to take nine simply professed friars on an SFB trip to Mexico in August as part of the Brothers Walking Together formation program of the six provinces participating in the unification process. But that trip has been put on hold due to the pandemic.

Trips had also been planned for 2020 to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and to Mexico, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were postponed. Monthly local Saturday SFB projects, held in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity-Metro Maryland, will likely resume once restrictions are lifted and it is declared safe to do so.  The group is also exploring other East coast hurricane recovery projects that could be conducted safely.

Photos of past St. Francis Builds mission trips can be found on the St. Camillus Parish website and on the Saint Francis Builds Ministry-St. Camillus Church Facebook page.

Edgardo Lalo Jara, OFM, the current friar liaison, wrote about his experience with a 2017 St. Francis Builds trip to Peru in a reflection titled “An Experience of God’s Love and Kindness.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communication for Holy Name Province.