Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Parishioners at St. Joan of Arc (SJA), Yorktown, are striving to be the face of Christ when practicing the corporal works of mercy in an impoverished area of Ecuador. Unexpectedly, they have discovered that the people they are helping are the face of Christ to them.

Erin Morrow helps serve lunch to children at Refugio de los Sueños (the Refuge of Dreams) in Quito, Ecuador, during a missionary trip by members of St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown. (Photo provided)

Since 2016, SJA parishioners have aided San Juan Parish in south central Quito, Ecuador’s capital. SJA donated funds to construct the interior of one of the parish’s two churches and is helping to build space for a rectory, faith formation and social events.

A second ministry is covering the cost for sufficient nutrition for children who spend their daytime at the safe haven Refugio de los Sueños (the Refuge of Dreams), said Father Mike Joly, SJA pastor.

A group of SJA parishioners, who term themselves “missionaries,” made a trip to San Juan Parish and the refuge in 2016. As The Catholic Virginian was going to press, another group of parishioners was planning a trip for late June. This year’s contingent planned to bring shoes, clothing and medical supplies donated by SJA parishioners for the children at the refuge.

The relationship between SJA, San Juan Parish and the refuge began in 2015 after St. Mark Lutheran Church, Yorktown, contacted Father Joly to tell him about the refuge and a Catholic priest in the community. St. Mark has been assisting the refuge for 12 years.

Moved to act

Father Joly then took a two-week vacation in Ecuador where he spent a couple of days in the San Juan Parish area. There, Padre Arturo Pozo, the pastor, introduced him to the community, the refuge and its needs. The parish’s two churches, which were little more than empty shells at the time, are about one-third of a mile apart on a steep mountainside. On the other side of the mountain is Refugio de los Sueños. Many of the people in the area live in such squalor that they reside in caves, trees and crawl spaces under homes, Father Joly said.

“My heart was really moved,” he said.

That, along with the feeling that God was calling him to leave his comfort zone, compelled Father Joly, who is totally blind, to take a three-month Spanish-language immersion in Cuenca, Ecuador. He spent his final three weeks at San Juan Parish in Quito, where he served the poor. Eighteen SJA parishioners joined him for a 10-day mission trip.

“I wanted them to see what the needs are and what we can do,” Father Joly said.

SJA parishioners worked primarily at the refuge, a day care center where impoverished children ages 5 to 17 who are not involved in gang activity may come to escape the dangers of the streets. According to the center’s website, “most of these children suffer severe abuse from the alcoholics, prostitutes and drug addicts who are the adults in their lives.”

The children are fed, taught life skills, receive vocational training, and have an opportunity for a scholarship to go to school. They can also obtain mental health care, as well as medical and dental care.

Susette Goff, who has been heavily involved in St. Mark Lutheran Church’s ministry to the refuge, said the vocational training includes carpentry and baking; life skill instruction runs the gamut from personal hygiene, housekeeping and grocery shopping to skills like how to sleep in a bed and how to use utensils at meals. Eighty to 100 children come to the center each weekday.

“We took care of the children, helped them learn and shared love with them,” said Paul Krieschen, an SJA parishioner who went on the mission trip.

When the SJA parishioners arrived at the refuge, the children ate only “one bowl of dirty soup and rice” each day, Father Joly said.

Parish responds

Upon returning to Yorktown, the missionaries shared their experiences in Ecuador at the weekend Masses and at the new spiritual adoption dinner, now a “joyful annual event,” which hundreds of parishioners attended, Father Joly said.

They Skyped with children at the refuge who danced, sang and talked through a translator. Profiles of the children, including photographs, were passed around to introduce parishioners to the children they would pledge to feed.

“It just stole the hearts of the parishioners,” the priest said.

By night’s end, “the generosity of the parishioners ensured that the children would no longer go hungry,” Father Joly said. They receive a full meal consisting of a soup, meat, vegetables and rice, two fresh fruit snacks, and a hot, nutritious fruit drink for the evenings.

While on the mission trip, each SJA parishioner visited a home of a child at the refuge. Many of the abodes they visited had only one room, a dirt floor, no running water and an outhouse, they said.

“It was unbelievable how poor these people are,” Krieschen said.

Yet many of the residents welcomed the missionaries to their homes with a gift of soda.

‘Face of Christ’

The missionaries said they were impressed with the steadfast faith and joy of the people they met. For example, SJA parishioner Jack Klevecz said the elderly were so joyful when the missionaries participated in a monthly food distribution and meal for them that they wanted to hug each parishioner.

Noting how much love the individuals in the community and refuge expressed to each other, Klevecz described them as the face of Christ. For instance, when the missionaries took a group of children on a cable car ride to the top of a mountain 14,000 feet above sea level, the children looked out for each other.

The weather was cooler at the apex, so without being asked, the children shared their own outer garments and those loaned and given by SJA parishioners with children who did not have adequate apparel. When one child warmed, he gave the coat to a child who was cold, who, once warmed, gave it to another child.

SJA parishioners said aiding San Juan Parish and the refuge is rewarding.

“When you serve someone, it always feels like the blessing rebounds to you,” said Deacon Mark Mueller, who also went on the mission trip. “You think you are doing something for them, and then you find out they are doing something wonderful for you.”