When you stand at the edge of one of the many villages in Piura, Peru, you ask yourself: Can we make a difference? Is there really anything we can do?
A sea of grass walls wired onto bamboo poles form makeshift neighborhoods. It’s hot and dusty. Dirt floors. Tin roofs. You feel grit in your teeth. You blink rapidly to keep the dust out of your eyes.
Barefoot children outnumber the stray dogs, but not by all that much.
The residents of this particular village moved onto the dried-up lake bed almost 7 years ago. City officials just recently strung a few electrical lines. No running water, no sewer system.
Few jobs and little food.
Is there really anything we can do?
Ask Father Joe Uhen, or Padre Jose as he is called in Piura; he will look you in the eye and tell you it is all about the starfish. He’ll relay the age-old story of the little girl on the beach tossing starfish back into the ocean. A gentleman approaches and rebuffs her efforts. "You can’t possibly make a difference. There are thousands of starfish. It won’t matter." The child reaches down to the sand, tosses one more fish back to the sea and then says, "It made a difference to that one."
Born in Milwaukee, the Rev. Joe Uhen called Oklahoma home most of his early life. He is a graduate of Bishop McGuiness High School and the University of Notre Dame.
Today his home is in Piura, where he shepherds a parish of nearly 40,000 faithful at Santisimo Sacramento. He has been there since 1993. Piura is a poverty-stricken desert region about 600 miles north of Lima.
The tall, thin priest did more than open the doors of the parish and announce mass times. He took his faith into the makeshift villages.
Uhen has studied the ways of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He responds when he sees a need. Mother Teresa’s photo is on a poster hanging on the wall at the mission. It reads: "Since we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to Him. But we do see our neighbor, and we can do for him what we would do for Christ if He were visible."
So Padre Jose built a chapel in one of the villages.
Then he built another one. And then another one.
"I thought we needed more spaces and places," Uhen said.
There are now 28 chapels and churches throughout his parish. He recruits priests to help celebrate mass at the various locations. Nearly 10,000 local parishioners attend the masses each weekend.
The buildings he builds are a thing of beauty. When asked about his designer and architect, a sheepish smile spreads slowly. "I just look on the internet and find a picture of something beautiful." He says his churches and chapels are built to endure the passage of time. "I want them to know these are more than buildings. They are God’s houses and they will always be here for them. And God’s house is beautiful."
The chapels vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some have completed large brick structures, others are still in their infancy — fashioned from bamboo and grass walls. "For about $20,000, we can put up a brick chapel. It has a sense of permanence."
The village chapels serve as a meeting place for the parishioners. Uhen said they have learned to come together and help one another. For example if someone needs money for an emergency, they may organize a fundraiser. "So they will pull together and raffle off a turkey or a duck."
The churches are a stark contrast to the surroundings. They rise above with tall steeples and bell towers, casting shadows on the makeshift neighborhoods below. Villagers walk from miles around to attend mass. There are very few cars, but the motor taxis are plentiful. The motor taxis are a cross between a motor cycle and a golf cart. For many, it is the only ride available.
Every identified need is met with resources.
Uhen travelled back to his home state and rounded up childhood friends to help. He teamed up with St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edmond and Christ the King Catholic Church in Oklahoma City. He started a Family to Family program that connects Oklahomans directly with those in need in Piura.
Monthly donations of $25 send a food packet to a needy home in one of the villages. It consists of rice, lentils, pasta, small cans of evaporated milk, hot breakfast cereal and some pasta.
Mission workers drive into the villages, knock on doors and deliver the monthly sustenance. It is greeted with warm smiles. Women laugh and scurry about their home to pick up laundry or dishes. Even with a language barrier, it is easy to understand what they are saying. Just like in the United States, an unannounced guest can send a young mom scrambling to make her home presentable for company.
She slicks back her hair and waves a hand to welcome the guests to tour her home — her casa. She guides her guests down the narrow hallway. The bedroom has two twin beds pushed together. When you ask how many family members sleep there, she holds her palm open to indicate "five."
There is pride in her voice as she shows the kitchen. Soup is simmering on the makeshift stove; she offers it to her guests even though she barely can feed her own family.
The women cook over propane-powered stovetops or an open fire. Rice and beans keep their families going.
The tour ends up at the back of the house where laundry is done by hand and strung on lines to dry. Plastic tubs are used for bathing. Some of the homes have running water. Others must haul water from a nearby well.
Some of the families receive extra shipments from their U.S. sponsors, affectionately called Padrinos — or Godfather in English. Delivering those boxes is like playing Santa Claus. Children gather around and peek inside to see what treasures are forthcoming. Canned goods, shoes, clothes, toys, dishes. It is all met with squeals and giggles. Their gratitude is palpable. Clothes are pulled on over whatever they are wearing. Shoes are immediately put on their feet. Smiles spread from ear to ear.
Mothers in the little bamboo houses work hard to care for their children. They make food stretch out for days and piece together whatever they can to clothe their children. Are they clothed? Are they fed? Are they sick?
When a mother reaches to feel the warm forehead of a sick child, she knows help is available. Uhen recognized the need for medical care and he answered it with a clinic. Immediate needs get immediate attention.
The clinic was built in the wrap-around structure to what was the original church at Santisimo Sacramento. Not only is the clinic available to the poor; medical, dental, surgical and eye teams travel from Oklahoma and other states to care for those most in need. The teams work from 7 a.m. until late into the evening doing countless procedures.
They stay in the missionary quarters also built by Uhen with money from U.S. supporters. Dormitory-style rooms offer restful sanctuaries after long days of practicing medicine, building houses, delivering food, teaching vacation Bible school or any number of the myriad opportunities offered to the missionaries.
Missionaries come largely from Oklahoma, Milwaukee and northern Illinois, but missionaries of all faiths and from all places are welcomed by the warm staff. Nearly 500 volunteers come through the mission annually. This was their record year for missionary numbers. Youth groups have helped build structures. Families have turned vacations into missions. The lessons learned on a mission trip are ingrained in the soul. To see poverty at that level is humbling.
To see what one man can accomplish is miraculous.
A school, a medical clinic, soup kitchens, a hospice, a drug treatment center, a home for victims of domestic violence. The list goes on and on.
"Needs began to appear," said Uhen.
When word got out that Santisimo Sacremento wanted to help parishioners with services as well as spiritual needs — the needs became apparent.
"Battered women came to us. They would say ‘I have just been beaten.’"
Uhen and his supporters from the U.S. have built a refuge for the women and their children. The rate of abuse is not disproportionately high, but nevertheless the need was urgent. And urgent needs are met. "They can stay here until they find something else or reconcile." The parish also offers the aid of two attorneys to help with their challenges.
The upstairs part of the shelter is used to house girls from the orphanage who are trying to integrate into society. When they turn 18, many need a place to stay while they go to school, get training or look for work.
The girls come from the local orphanage operated by nuns. Uhen and his U.S. supporters have improved the lives of the young orphans. "They gathered in prayer and would sing like angels." But their living conditions were sparse and cramped. They sold candy on the streets to pay for their rice and beans.
Now they have a dormitory, classrooms, a chapel, dining hall and more, thanks to the kindness of strangers from a faraway place. The girls learned to sew and make things to sell. Their lives have been greatly enhanced by the generosity of others.
That same generosity helped transform the farming community as well. Uhen raised $300,000 to start a micro-loan program for the farmers. The land had been granted to them in 1969 through agrarian reform. But the farmers never had any training to fully develop their land. Many had already lost their farms. Uhen recruited help from Oklahoma State University. Now the farmers know which crops to plant and how best to get them to market. Rice is now exported to India and beans to Columbia. "They are prospering. It is beautiful. God said go forth and cultivate the earth and make it fruitful."
Uhen was no different than his peers at Notre Dame. He had a sports car and wanted to someday live in a penthouse. But he paid attention when the president of the university told the graduating class they were blessed. He told them they were part of the 20 percent in the world who enjoyed 80 percent of the resources. He reminded them there were 80 percent in the world that needed them. That started a path that led Padre Jose to Piura.
"There is a great deal of warmth here," he said. "They suffer but they feel that aid has been given. God answers our prayers.
"I’ll live the rest of my life here. That’s what I was called to do."