“A Smile on my Soul”

For many who work here at the Catholic Center at 1011 First Avenue and 56th Street to describe last week’s commute as a “challenge” would be an exercise in understatement. Every year at this time – because of the opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly – the area of the city were we work, known unofficially as “midtown east”, becomes a car-free zone for almost all but the important (or self-important) who are here in the city for the opening ceremonies; First Avenue transmogrifies into a corridor where the powerful, the famous and sometimes the infamous are ferried down past our building to the United Nations’ compound in Turtle Bay to the sound of blaring sirens and the honks of horns. All in all, to the native New Yorker – especially those who work in the general vicinity of the United Nations – the occasion is about as pleasant as root canal.

While I certainly share some of my fellow New Yorkers’ annoyance at this annual inconvenience, I have to admit that this year I feel just a little more tolerant of all the commotion caused by the visiting dignitaries; this is primarily because this year the United Nations dedicated its opening session to evaluating the world’s progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals: 8 specific 15 year goals dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poor – including reducing hunger and cutting poverty in half, reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, providing universal primary education to all and reducing by ½ the number of people without drinking water -  that the developed nations of the world agreed to pursue back at the start of the new millennium, and the gathering at the United Nations this year was the world’s 10 year on “report card” on meeting these goals.

As someone who tries in his professional life to encourage the living out of the principles of Catholic social teaching (including a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable), I can hardly imagine the global body undertaking more important work, but all the more so because I have just recently seen with my own two eyes how policy vehicles like the “Millennium Development Goals” can have a real impact on the lives of our brothers and sisters in the developing world. You see, last week I returned home from just about one of the most incredible journeys I have ever been on – a 10 day visit to Africa with Catholic Relief Services to observe the work that they and their partners do in the countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania. The trip was extraordinary – not just for the breathtaking physical beauty of both the African flora and fauna (although they are beautiful!) – but more importantly for the people we encountered there: the fact that we were traveling with CRS gave us unprecedented access to meet the men, women and children in the villages and centers where CRS and its local partners do their work. Unlike the dignitaries that I mentioned earlier who hurry down avenues of power to their designated meetings, the roads that we traveled with CRS were pathways of solidarity – our destinations: embodiments of dignity whether we were visiting with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the homes for the destitute and dying that they run in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, meeting with villagers at a Maasai Boma (encampment) in the Diocese of Same, Tanzania, or speaking with health care providers at an AIDS Relief Project in the Babati region of that same country.  What I witnessed in those places wasn’t just “a lot of talk” as those who assemble in that building in Turtle Bay down from our Offices are sometimes accused of; instead – though the hard work of CRS staff, their local partners and the people themselves – what I witnessed were the Millenniums Development Goals come to life, particularly in the provision of safe drinking water – overwhelmingly the most significant problem confronting the parts of Africa I visited and the thing that those we met requested the most – as well as assistance for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

One of the things that was most striking about those that we met on our trip – indeed about almost all of the people that we encountered in our travels – was the overwhelming friendliness and welcoming spirit of the African people. Whether we were traveling in the big cities of Arusha or Addis Ababa, or the rural villages of Dire Dawa or Same – in both the countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania – as you traveled down the road and waved at those that you passed by, adults and children alike, invariably your gesture would be returned with a broad smile and hearty wave. It was for me one of the most striking images I took away from my trip, perhaps because I hail from a place where everyone basically walks very quickly and avoids eye contact at almost all costs. So deep was this impression of welcome on me that when our hosts at CRS asked us on our last day to sum up our impressions of Africa a picture of a group of beautiful smiling children waving heartily formed in my mind and remains with me still, putting not only a smile on my face but – more poignantly and indelibly – on my soul as well.

Me in the Diocese of Same, Tanzania in the Maasai Region

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