11/18/2010 BOOK REVIEW Knowing the poor makes the difference
BY SCOTT VANDERVEER
When a local convenience store began offering 24 ounces of coffee for a buck, I was excited. Even after tax, it allowed me to trim down my coffee expenses to just over a dollar a day.
As a seminarian, I receive a small monthly stipend from the Albany Diocese to assist with expenses like my car insurance and phone bill. Finances are tight, so I am aware of the value of a dollar more than ever.
But when a missionary came to a parish near my seminary last spring to talk about sponsoring a child in the developing world and told us the cost was about a dollar a day, it sounded like a fortune. The cost of the coffee never entered my mind as I dismissed the possibility of committing one of my dollars to a daily donation.
After Mass, I visited the information table just to look at the profiles of children seeking sponsors. On the cover of the first one I picked up was a photo of a lanky, dark-skinned 13-year-old boy named Fernando (not his real name) standing on a patch of dirt.
I saw that he lived near Cochabamba, Bolivia -- the place that Bishop Howard J. Hubbard and the diocesan Vocation Board were sending me that summer to study Spanish. Amazed by the work of the Holy Spirit, I filled out the sponsorship paperwork on the spot.
When I got to Bolivia in June, I contacted Fernando's sponsoring organization, CFCA (Christian Foundation for Children and Aging), to see if I could meet him. They enthusiastically arranged a meeting for us at their office in the city.
After reading the materials CFCA had sent, I thought I understood Fernando's situation pretty well. Meeting him proved the difference between knowing facts and knowing the people the facts describe.
When they brought Fernando into the office, he greeted me with an ear-to-ear smile. "Padrino," he cooed as he hugged me. In English, his greeting meant "Godfather."
I didn't know I was his godfather. In the materials I had received, I was referred to as his "sponsor." In Latino culture, the title carries even more weight than it does for Americans. My role in his life was bigger than I ever dreamed it could be.
I learned from talking to Fernando and his social worker that he is the second of six kids and lives in an adobe house with metal scraps for a roof. His family has no drinkable water and no electricity. Their only possession is a homemade lantern they rigged with a rusted gas can and a rag that provides them with an incredibly dangerous source of light at night.
He walks five hours one-way to school every Monday, lives there with other rural poor kids until Friday, and walks back home to spend weekends with his family. His social worker told me, "His family is so poor, they just may not survive."
Unbelievably, my meager $1 per day -- the cost of a cup of coffee -- pays for his tuition and room and board at that school.
Our day together marked the first time he had been to the city, the first time he had been in a restaurant and the first toilet he had ever seen. We spent time together telling riddles, which is how he and his siblings entertain each other at night in the country. He told me that he hopes to be a mechanic one day.
At the end of our visit he gave me a hand-knitted chulo (Andean winter hat), a scarf long enough to be a priest's stole (I hope to use it as a stole one day) and a sack of wheat grains.
A Bolivian teacher at the language school told me the sack contained enough food to sustain a starving family of eight like Fernando's for three days. Too poor to get the ingredients to make bread, they toast straight wheat over a fire. They gave me the little bit of food that was keeping them alive to thank me for being Fernando's "padrino."
The power of a simple decision of how to spend a dollar is staggering. Part of discovering that I had a call to the priesthood was realizing that I deeply thirst for the world to become the kind of kingdom that Jesus describes in the Gospels.
No amount of cheap coffee will ever quench that thirst, but using my dollar each day another way is changing the life of one of God's most precious poor ones for the better.
(Scott VanDerveer is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. Learn more about CFCA at www.cfcausa. org.)
The Evangelist is periodically featuring reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development.