Father John Lange, M.M.

How I moved full circle in Mission

langeI credit my social worker, Theresa Wangechi, with saving me from having to quit prematurely my ministry in Nairobi's Mukuru slum, home to a quarter of a million poor people.  Theresa not only enabled me to continue to help the people in this industrial area of Kenya for the last 12 years, she transformed the ministry to better serve those most in need.  That allows me now to move on to my next mission in neighboring Tanzania, where I'll join four other Maryknoll priests in the Shinyanga Diocese.

I started my overseas mission in Tanzania back in 1962, and when I moved to Kenya 30 years later, I began working with volunteer, community-based health workers to help the sickest poor residents of the impoverished Mukuru settlement. As I walked the many haphazard alleyways of the slum, I would frequently turn a corner only to find a woman waiting to tell me her tale of woe and ask me for money to solve her problems.  When I turned another corner, there would be another woman waiting for me with yet another tale of misery.  My health workers were not much help in screening these destitute souls because they lived with these very people and would face the music if the begging people did not get the help they were requesting.  This was my life for nine years, until 2001 when sciatica, a severe tightening of the muscles in my back and legs, forced me to go back to our center in Maryknoll, N.Y.

Unwilling to just abandon the people overnight, I handed over the vouchers I would give the people for free medical care to Theresa Wangechi, the parish social worker.  I set up a bank account with the parish pastor, Father Patrick O'Toole, to finance Theresa in this health ministry, and I returned to the States.

During my short convalescence at Maryknoll, I realized that the stress of people constantly begging and my worrying over paying medical bills averaging $8,000 a month were the major causes of my sciatica problem.  When I returned to Nairobi after three months, I began working permanently with Theresa.  She became my bodyguard in dealing with the mendicant poor.  When people approached me for help, I would tell them: "You have to see the health worker of your neighborhood and she will see my social worker and then my social worker and I will talk."

After several years of Theresa's assistance, the number of vouchers we gave out for free medical care dropped from 500 a month to about 25.  The medical bills fell from $8,000 per month to $2,500.  Initially Father O'Toole allowed me to borrow Theresa for three days a week when we made our rounds through different neighborhoods in the slums.  When Father O'Toole left Mukuru in 2009, I hired Theresa full-time as my social worker.

From then on, I never visited the sick without Theresa or a very talented substitute.  Theresa, who was a novice with the Little Sisters of Jesus but left before her final vows, is an expert in sizing up people.  Just recently, she took one look at a 30-year-old man who was appealing for help and asked: "Do you drink?" Here that means, "Do you get drunk a lot?"  She quickly sees through those whose ailments can be "cured" by better choices in lifestyle.  Still, many of our sick people have complicated problems and Theresa is extremely good at deciding where to send patients, as we work with three mission dispensaries and five mission hospitals.  Often the patients speak in their native tongue of Kikuyu or Kikamba, neither of which I understand. Theresa, a Kikuyu, understands both.

In addition to medical assistance, we have provided food supplements of corn and beans for people who are destitute or are recovering from a major surgery or illness, and for those with aids because they cannot take anti-retroviral medications on an empty stomach.  At present we have about 270 clients receiving our food and we purchase over a ton of food a month. Our many volunteer health workers help with the food distribution.  We also sponsor many orphans from Mukuru in boarding high schools and even a few in colleges and universities.  Theresa chooses who gets such educational scholarships.

Yet, Theresa, with her innate wisdom, has always understood that the assistance I could provide would not go on indefinitely, and she has striven to prepare the people for that eventuality.  Over the years, Theresa has reduced the number of people we send to hospitals and dispensaries from 700 a month to about 30.  She has continually hammered home self-reliance to our volunteer health workers.  She keeps saying to them: "What would you do if Father John was not here? Would you tell your people to just sit and die?"  Theresa insisted that the poor pay their small medical bills and half of their major bills.  Surprisingly, they come up with half of the amount most of the time.

Ever forward looking, Theresa has established a store on a main road near her home and will do business from that store.  She says that she would go crazy just sitting around doing nothing.

At 90, I have returned to Mwanhuzi, where as a young missioner almost 54 years ago I started an outstation.  In those days, Mwanhuzi was a small frontier town with just a few stores and homes. Now, it is a government center with a population of some 40,000 people.  I remember fondly helping people mold mud bricks to build the first church building there. Now, they are building a huge new church because the Catholic population has grown immensely.

I shall miss Theresa, Mukuru and its people, and Kenya itself, but going back to Mwanhuzi is like going home.

by John Lange, M.M.