An Unexpected Journey

An Unexpected Journey

Call me irrational.

Despite COVID, I just purchased my tickets to Uganda East Africa as I plan to visit the eight-healthcare clinic projects I started there in 2013. It is my fourth trip — and hopefully not my last.

As a deacon in Chicago ordained in 1988, I never expected being called to work side by side assisting midwives in Catholic parish-based clinics serving the poor.

While I love parish ministry at Our Lady of the Wayside in Arlington Heights, my ministry has been far from conventional. In 2003, I was appointed to serve as Vicar for Persons with Disabilities on the staff of then-Auxiliary Bishop Jerome Listecki (now Archbishop of Milwaukee.) That surprise appointment outside my parish grew out of starting a ministry for paralyzed high school athletes. (I recommend seizing opportunities to explore how God can inspire, discern and apply one’s talents beyond the scope of a parish deacon!)

But that was just the beginning of a remarkable journey that led me to becoming the first permanent deacon serving several bishops and 14 dioceses in East Africa.

All this, from my home in Arlington Heights.

To set the record straight: officially, I am a Senior Deacon assigned to my home parish in suburban Chicago. My mission work in Uganda is technically “volunteer work” connected with the U.S.-based 501c3 charity I founded in 2018.

So, how did I get here? And how does it work?

In 2013, I received a “call within a call” to minister to the people of Uganda.

That year, I went to Uganda initially to attend the ordination of a seminarian friend in Uganda, John Bosco Ssekomo, and attend his first Mass in Kampala. I also booked a safari travel experience for Father John Bosco and my adult daughter.

During our 10 days, we took some time and toured an orphanage and some parish projects working to obtain fresh drinking water. Father Bosco arranged for a priest friend, Father Wencislaus Kkonde, to escort us and show us tourist and church related projects. During our travel on the rough, largely unpaved roads, we made a stop at a ramshackle health clinic owned and operated by the escort’s Aunt Teo.

That unplanned stopover became a launching pad that propelled my diaconal calling. I went inside to stretch my legs and discovered an unforgettable scene. Nurse midwife Teopista Nakuwandu (Aunt Teo, Mother Teo as she is called) provided a tour of the facilities.

That two-hour tour profoundly changed my diaconate ministry and my life.

Walking in the rooms, I observed several newborn babies and mothers lying connected to IV tubes as they lay clinging to life. Each was suffering from complicated malaria. The experience knocked me off my feet, as tears struggled to fight back tears. I noticed that Mother Teo, nurse midwife in her private clinic, was holding these lives in her professional hands. It would be her medicine and care that determined their fate.

This experience and the subsequent emotional and spiritual impact shook me to my core. I felt acutely aware of the hand of God reaching out. Here was light meant to overcome the darkness in that clinic — and, for that matter, in the world.

Mother Teopista Nakuwandu and I became friends and mission partners. Teo welcomed me to assist her in work there, especially since she feared the clinic might soon financially fail. Teo’s midwife calling — and a deacon’s calling to serve God and his people — blossomed into an expanding partnership.

At first after returning home to parish work, I began questioning what one person could do to address thousands affected by rampant malaria. I began mobilizing friends to help me send Teo and her clinic small amounts of money for medicine. I stepped up my begging, asking for a much-needed modern microscope and some examining tables.

Through long distance correspondence — and three trips to Africa — Mother Teo and I kept working to support Teo’s steady stream, as she welcomed some 100 mothers and patients each day.  Mother Teo makes it her business to offer every mother and child an opportunity for a healthy birth experience.

This new calling to minister with her inspired me to join her cause in many ways. I began to see how deacons and others can empower and work together to have an impact, even on great big global concerns like healthcare for the poor. I came across an African word that helped me understand the phenomenon I was witnessing in the teamwork involved in giving healing services to the poor: ubuntu

The late Desmond Tutu put it beautifully:

Bringing people together is what I call ‘Ubuntu’ which means ‘I am because we are.’ Far too often people think of themselves as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out for the whole of humanity.

Here, in one word, was a diaconal calling that resonated in my heart.

Like many deacons who get behind a project, I began collecting and sending funds. It was not always easy, but many U.S. donors helped Teo pay her bills. Later a new, more sustainable plan was organized. Two agribusiness farm enterprises (pigs and dairy) were sponsored by U.S. friends. The Saint Jude Clinic farm continues  to bring in sustainable supplemental income that supports Teo’s open door policy where mothers and babies are not turned away because they cannot pay.

I have seen Saint Jude Clinic grow and see it now as a far cry more advanced from the time of my first visit. Teo beams proudly when she shows a government certificate proclaiming her clinic is rated today as a Level 4 hospital. From humble beginnings Teo’s midwife clinic is now a fully equipped surgical center. She is a survivor.

In 2018, I spoke with Bishop John Kaggwa of the Masaka Diocese about exporting and sharing the success model of the Saint Jude Clinic and U.S. donor alliance support partnership with another struggling clinic. Bishop Kaggwa, Teo and I adopted a project to lift up the Bikira Village Community Clinic. With the full support of the bishop and local officials, U.S. donors provided 18 pregnant dairy cows. The idea was to train new local village dairy farm families, so they could prosper. Farmers receiving the loan of the heifer promised to boost the work of the midwives of the local Bikira Clinic. The plan was for the entire village to receive medicine and care by sharing monies gained by selling milk. Ubuntu!

Since 2018, more Uganda bishops have embraced the Teo-inspired partnership model. In 2018 Microfinance Alliance Africa Projects Foundation (MAAPF), a US 501 charity, was officially formed. Today, a small board of directors works with me and enlists volunteer donor sponsors to fund start up agribusinesses. Each new Uganda community works to adapt the Teo basic plan in order to provide quality professional and financial support for the poor.

In the big picture, Uganda has an exploding population of 42 million spread largely across a vast rural expanse. Now with eight clinic projects going, Microfinance Alliance Africa Projects Foundation, my 501 charity looks to add four more clinics. We hope to get the word out via this blog and other means to invite donors who might fund the 2022 $50,000 ambitious budget plans.

The blockbuster success of “Call the Midwife” on PBS, based on the books by Jennifer Worth, seems to have awakened global interest in human birth and motherhood. While in Uganda, I hope to gather Mother Teo and her midwife daughter Evelyn and together assemble a medley of stories for a forthcoming book we hope might increase awareness of our work — hopefully, stimulating interest and raising funds so we can add more projects and, by God’s grace, give dignity and hope to more Ugandans.

Many people perceive that Catholic deacons are mini-priests or altar servers or ones to bless religious articles.

We are so much more than that! We deacons are limited only by our imaginations and vision.

I hope this brief account of my own vocation might open some eyes (as mine have certainly been opened!) Deacons can and do serve parishes both at home and abroad — and I dream that others will seek ways to do this, as I have done, and help share the redemptive good news of Jesus. You never know when you might get “a call within a call” — and you never know where it might take you!

Please visit our MAAPF website to learn more.

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Written by
Deacon Don Grossnickle