The priest and the poor

by Riley Durkin

Riley Durkin during his seven-week mission trip to Chimbote, Peru last summer. (submitted photo)

“Why do you need to travel to work with the poor? We have poverty here!” This was a question I received a lot when I first started speaking about traveling to Peru this past summer. And to be quite honest, it was a question I had often asked myself. Yet, I still had a desire to experience what it was like to live among the poorest of the poor.

This was only part of the reason I decided to request spending my Spanish immersion summer in Chimbote, Peru. While the rest of my seminary classmates were learning Spanish in Mexico, I traveled alone to one of the poorest cities in this South American country. Growing up, I had always heard of Chimbote. I knew of Father Jack Davis, a priest from Devils Lake who started the Chimbote mission, and I had family and friends who traveled to Chimbote come home on fire to help “the least of these.” I heard the stories of the lack of running water and poor infrastructure. I knew of the crime and terrorism Chimbote faced in the 1980s and the lack of work. But despite all this, nothing could have prepared me for what I would experience over my seven weeks there.

The charity I worked with is called Asociación Civil Apoyo Familiar (ACAF). They work closely with the poverty stricken people of the region by — among many other things — hosting American missionary groups, building homes, running soup kitchens, and educating the people in trades such as baking or sewing. During my time with them, I fed over 600 people, built five houses, and built countless relationships with the locals. Not bad for being a gringo with mediocre Spanish!

I met a woman who needed to carry her 18-year-old wheelchair bound daughter up and down a hill every time they needed to leave their house. I met a family who recently rebuilt their house after a fire only to have it burn down again three months later. I met teenagers who dropped out of school to take care of their little siblings while their single parent was at work. I met fathers who would work day and night only to bring home $15 per week to take care of their family. I met a woman who cut meat out of her diet so she could send her son to school, hoping that he would break the cycle of poverty in her family. This was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to hearing the experiences, and often horror, that intense poverty can bring.

But it was the faith of the people that was most inspiring to me. No matter what trauma the people faced, they would always smile and say, “Dios nos protégé.” God protects us. In the seminary, we live comfortably. We get three hot meals per day served to us. We are safe, warm, and loved by the people of the diocese we are studying for. Yet negativity and cynicism is a plague we often fall into. I once heard someone say, “You can tell how good someone has it by listening to what they complain about.” In my time in Chimbote, I never heard one complaint from the poor.

It is true that we have poverty in the United States, but nothing like I witnessed over the summer. We have a different type of poverty. St. Teresa of Calcutta, upon leaving a visit to the United States many years ago, was asked by a reporter to reflect on her time here. Expecting to receive an answer referring to our beautiful cities, plentiful amenities, or government assistance to the poor, the reporter was shocked when she said, “The United States is the poorest country I have ever been to.” What the reporter didn’t know is that she was referring to spiritual poverty rather than physical.

I have thought about this story frequently since I’ve returned from Peru. While it’s not often a priest from the Diocese of Fargo is building houses or feeding hundreds of people every day in a soup kitchen, he does spend a lot of time ministering to the spiritually poor. He catechizes, counsels, and spiritually feeds his flock. Just like the biological fathers I met in Chimbote, the priest is the father who works tirelessly day and night to provide for his children.

My time in Peru reaffirmed my vocation to the priesthood and changed the way I look at my everyday life. I have found that I am more patient, loving, and appreciative for the graces the Lord has given me. I pray that the people and experiences of Chimbote will always stay with me and will make me — God willing — a better priest to serve the Diocese of Fargo. I hope to one day return to Chimbote, because, as I was told on my last day, “No es adios. Solamente hasta luego.”

There is no goodbye. Only see you later.

Durkin is a Theology III seminarian studying at St. Paul Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Editor’s Note: Seminarian Life is a column written by current Diocese of Fargo seminarians. Please continue to pray for them.