What do a musician, a guy who looks like Santa Claus, and a 19th-century priest have in common? Each saw the face of God in the poorest of the poor and founded life-saving ministries. With Haiti180, Sean Forrest aids Haitian children and the elderly; Ross Hoffman’s Mercy For LIFE gives “growing shoes” to Ugandan children; and Fr. Louis Guanella’s compassion for the poor lives on in the Servants of Charity.
“In Haiti, impoverished families have to choose whether they will feed their children or grandma, so she goes off to die. She lives in a sick hut on the hill with a coffin hanging above her bed and an open grave 10 feet from the door,” Catholic speaker and musician Sean Forrest tells Catholic Digest.
When Forrest talks about the plight of the elderly and the children of Haiti, it’s evident that his work with Haiti180 is a calling. In 2013 Forrest and his Haiti180 missionaries built two homes for the elderly in Duverger. They intended the homes to be hospices, but something amazing happened. With enough food, a little medical attention, and visits from the children of the Kay Mari Orphanage (built by Haiti180 in 2008), the elderly discovered new reasons to live. Instead of hospices, Kay Martina Homes became nursing homes for 20 men and women.
An orphanage visit sparks a ministry
How did an East Coast musician end up founding an organization that has built an orphanage, school, church, elderly home, and clinic in Haiti? While there in 2001, Forrest visited an orphanage. Meeting the gazes of the children, he thought how dead their eyes seemed. Then a little boy mustered enough courage to approach Forrest. “I went to pick him [up], and the director stopped me, saying, ‘Don’t pick him up; he’s covered with scabies.’”
The director then lifted the boy’s shirt to reveal a pattern of open wounds covering his back. “He told me, ‘If you pick them up too much, we get sick, and we cannot help them, so I just pat them on the head.’”
Forrest, a father of three, started to walk away, but an interior voice halted him. “I felt God was saying to me, ‘I’ll die on a cross and wear your sins, but you won’t pick me up because you’re afraid of a rash?’” His 6-foot-4-inch form folded as he bent down to scoop the child into his arms. In unison, all of the other orphans turned to look at this man who dared to hold one of them. “In an instant, they ran over to me. It was like a movie scene,” he recalls.
More than an orphanage
Forrest bought some land in Duverger, Haiti, and started performing concerts and speaking all over the United States to raise money and to find missionaries. He not only wanted to house orphans, he wanted to create a place where they would be held and loved. “I call it a holding ministry,” he explains. “I just knew that if I invited people, they would come hold and play with the kids.”
In 2007 he founded his ministry, Haiti180. A year later, the orphanage — home to 37 children — went up, but that was only the beginning. In 2011 — his school, Immaculate Conception, opened. The school educates the orphans and around 160 other children from the area. They receive a Catholic education, and they are taught to speak Creole, French, and English. “We are raising them to be well-educated leaders of Haiti — leaders of faith. I believe they are going to change Haiti.”
Building homes in the future
As of March 2017, Haiti180 is completing work on a clinic treating people in the villages of Duverger and Dandann. Their next project is home building — providing a roof and foundation for everyone in Duverger in place of their straw huts. “If we like it, then we will duplicate the building project five miles down the road,” Forrest envisions.
To become involved with Haiti180 as a missionary or to help from home as a Team Haiti180 member, visit Haiti180.com.
MERCY FOR LIFE
Inspired by Mother Teresa’s example, Fausta Nalubega, 28, prayed for funding for her mission work serving the poor in her community in Kampala, Uganda. It took five years and social media to make her dream a reality.
In 2015 Ross Hoffman from Boise, Idaho, met Nalubega through Facebook, and their friendship quickly grew into the ministry. Because of social media, nine Americans came together to form Mercy For LIFE. “All Fausta needed were the funds, and I realized that we could put together a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and help her get the money to serve the poorest of the poor in her community. We established a small budget and dove right in,” Hoffman tells Catholic Digest. Their first fundraiser was selling Idaho Ice-Cream Potatoes (which look exactly like real baked potatoes) at the Western Idaho Fair in Boise.
A team of Ugandans joined Nalubega and Hoffman’s efforts, and they were able to assist the Kampala Ghetto with basic needs.
“We built houses for two families and renovated and paid for rentals for four more families, taking them out of extreme poverty,” explains Hoffman, dubbed “Fr. Christmas” by the locals. “One of our beneficiaries named Rose was living in horrible conditions when we met her.”
In Rose’s rickety shack, sewer water ran through her home when it rained. A meal for her and her three children would typically include the heads and guts of chickens she got for free. There was no money for hospital care or funds for luxuries like education. When Hoffman met her, Rose was severely depressed. “I have come to learn that severe poverty kills the soul, and it’s a slow death,” he says.
Mercy For LIFE was able to radically change Rose’s life with a clean home for her and her children. “These precious souls are dying to make a difference in the world, but they are held back because of poverty,” Hoffman says. “Even in those wretched conditions, I saw a lot of love.”
Magic shoes and other projects
In addition to housing for the poor in Kampala, four of Mercy For LIFE’s major projects have involved providing education for children, sewing lessons, sustainable shoes, and clean water. The ministry enrolled more than 20 children in school. It also sent six of its Ugandan missionaries to sewing school to give them the skills to help the poor; one way they are doing this is by making reusable sanitary pads.
Because of the squalid living conditions in Uganda, shoeless children develop soil-transmitted diseases and parasites that cause painful open sores on their feet. So far, the ministry has given a pair of special shoes called “The Shoe That Grows” (TheShoeThatGrows.org) to 200 children. These shoes are engineered to increase five sizes so that the child can wear the same pair of shoes for years.
One of Mercy For LIFE’s most critical projects was to bring clean water to Ugandan villages. “We have been repairing bore wells for almost two years. For a mere $200, we can fix a government-installed bore well. We have fixed many of these, which supplies thousands of Ugandans with fresh water. The demand is huge, so many of these bore wells break because they are used from dawn to dusk,” Hoffman explains.
To help, make tax-deductible donations through a secure PayPal link on Mercy For LIFE’s Facebook page.
FR. LOUIS GUANELLA: ‘APOSTLE OF CHARITY’
When St. Louis Guanella (1842-1915) was a child, he had two prophetic visions. In the first, an old man approached Louis and begged him for the sweets Louis held in his hand and then the beggar vanished. The second vision occurred a few years later, on the day of Louis’ first Communion, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to him asking if he would dedicate his life to the service of the needy.
Amidst obstacles of anticlericalism, persecution, and resistance, Fr. Louis — dubbed the “Apostle of Charity” — followed God’s will by his lifelong service to the abandoned, the physically and mentally impaired, the aged, and the sick and dying in Italy and Switzerland.
St. Guanella called the world’s outcasts his “treasures.” Bishop Diego Coletti of Como, in northern Italy, writes in Father Louis Guanella: A Priest from the Mountain, Father of the Poor (Pious Union of St. Joseph, 2011), “In Fr. Louis’ eyes everyone was equal …he embodied perfectly the teachings of Jesus: those who for others were the last, were for him the first.”
The saint taught that God places saintly thoughts in every person’s heart — since most people do not receive apparitions — and the individual only has to act on them. He also said that through works of charity, holiness grows, and those who respond to the needs of others are the ones who find true happiness.
With his soul always directed toward God, St. Guanella — canonized in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI — paved his path to holiness by not only aiding anyone who knocked on his door but also seeking out the destitute. Those who lived at one of his charitable institutions became part of his family. “Often, he was spotted walking around the city of Como together with six or eight of his disabled residents called ‘good children,’” writes Carlo Lapucci in Saint Louis Guanella: Parables of a Good Samaritan (The Divine Providence Province of the Servants of Charity, 2013).
To continue his mission to serve the poor and disabled, he founded two congregations — the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Servants of Charity — which grew to serve the needy on five continents, including North America. Also in the Guanellian family are the Guanellian Cooperators, the Guanellian Lay Movement, and the canonically established confraternity of prayer, the Pious Union of St. Joseph.
For more information about the Guanellian family, visit PiousUnionofStJoseph.org.