Photo: Felix Carroll
His Excellency, Marie Daniel Dadiet, Archbishop of Korhogo, addresses the Missionaries and thanks them for their help and prayers for Cote d'Ivoire.
From June 12 through June 21, Felix Carroll, editor of thedivinemercy.org, traveled with the Virginia-based group Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy as it made its first voyage through the poor, west African nation of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The Missionaries spent the trip meeting the poorest of the poor, assessing their needs, speaking with Church and political leaders, and opening a House of Mercy in the northern city of Korhogo. The following is part 6 in nine-part series documenting the mission.
We're rarely sure where it is we will stay at night. By we, I mean the passengers on this 32-seat bus that's been dubbed the Caravan of Peace and Reconciliation.
By Monday, the French-English language gap is still gaping. Add to that our general confusion from culture shock and all the silent wonder we do during bumpy rides about the lives of all these peasants hauling mangos on the roadside. What do they do when the sun goes down? What do they sleep upon? What do they dream?
Pretty much we're all out of sorts, trying to gain our bearings, trying to arrange for places in our minds to store the things we've seen.
In the evenings, we arrive somewhere, and just when we think it's bedtime, it's not. The bags stay on the bus, we're exchanging the news with new friends. Then, we're back on the bus, and it's chicken-walking its way through urban streets, weaving through mopeds and push carts and potholes. And then we're whisked off and into a roadhouse chapel where a crowd is awaiting our arrival.
Two, three, four hours later, past midnight, we emerge out beneath the stars that twinkle with a million mysteries. We're sweaty. We've just been to the most powerful church service ever, even though many of us didn't understand a single word of it. Maybe you've been to Rome, and of course Mass in St. Peter's is powerful, but it's literally no where near as powerful as this — a Mass with the poorest of the poor, people who would drown in the misery of their surroundings if not for clinging to Christ. People who have learned to trust in Him — to truly trust — because He's their life raft out of here.
The celebration made you smile, laugh, and cry and want to hug a complete stranger — which we all did — and then call home collect and tell your family to sell the house and pack the essentials and get on a flight to the Cote d'Ivoire quickly. But then we're back in the streets, and we see the eyes peering from tumbledown shacks where the mosquitoes are as big as bumble bees and carry malaria and yellow fever and Dengue Fever, and there is no drinking the water because you can get Hepatitis A or Typhoid Fever, and the coughing fits you hear could be flinging meningitis toward your respiratory tract, and the street dogs could be carrying rabies.
All the pain and chaos and hardship — you see it out the window, and you just want to lay your head down and close your eyes and be still and dream your way down a gentle sweet river, take all these people and place them into life rafts that leads out of this old and broken world into an ocean of mercy. You just want to dream with them, dream your way to heaven.
But the bus then jerks to a stop and you are abruptly and unceremoniously deposited who knows where, hauling your bags into a room with a bare cot and a family of lizards that crawls on the walls, that stops and does pushups, then crawls some more. You pull the mosquito netting over you and lay in bed listening to bats outside barking, and who knew there were bats that barked?
Now it's Monday morning, or maybe it's Tuesday morning, and a rooster is crowing right outside your window, and it's inspiring other roosters to do the same. You hear roosters near and far crowing their lungs out, a sound as sharp as sin, and there's nothing to do but to get up, because to continue lying down is to consent to doing nothing else but to restlessly anticipate the next bloody cry of murder from the rooster at your window.
We're in a set of buildings arranged like a motor lodge of sorts, low-slung beige buildings cropped up from red dirt with roofs fashioned from sheets of corrugated steel held down by old automobile tires.
It's owned by the Catholic diocese. A woman is sweeping a walkway with a clutch of twigs from a palm tree.
In the distance is the report of a bugle from a rebel militia calling military men to rise and do whatever it is they do here — wait, mostly, is my guess. They wait for war, or peace.
Stressed to the Point of Collapse
At every stop of this mission, the clergy speaks of the coming election. It could sow the seeds of stability. Or it could cause hell to break lose once again here after two years of relative quiet.
Cote d'Ivoire officially gained independence from France in 1960. Until the 1990s, this country of 19.9-million people that's slightly larger than New Mexico was considered one of west Africa's most stable nations, even wealthy by African standards.
"It was a country that was emerging," says Fr. Jean-Claude Atusameso, a native of Congo who's now joined us on this trip to help serve as an interpreter. He and Kellie met in Virginia, where he is now serving as a pastor in Alexandria.
"Cote d'Ivoire was a place people would come to because they knew they could get a job," he says.
But that's no longer the case. When corruption and political mismanagement became endemic, even by African standards, foreign investors pulled the plug. A coup attempt in 1999 set off a chain of political unrest that led to a five-year war from 2002-2007 and continued political unrest to this day. AIDS is widespread. The crime rate is high. The political system is stressed to the point of collapse.
'Remember the Image'
When Kellie Ross agreed this spring to turn her Manassas-based ministry's attention to Cote d'Ivoire, she had no idea that her group's maiden voyage through the heart of this country would be festooned with the hopes and aspirations of so many political and religious figures.
At every stop she's greeted as a celebrity, and it's unnerving to her. She's placed in front of microphones and asked to give speeches, then there are dinners, big dinners on long tables. When she and her fellow Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy landed in Abidjan on Wednesday, June 10, television news cameras were awaiting them at the airport gate.
"They are thrusting me into greatness," she says, "when really my prayer is that people will forget my name and remember the Image of The Divine Mercy."
But she understands that while there is peril implicit in some of the reaction — or overreaction — there is opportunity, opportunity to gather people of good will to focus on the material and spiritual needs here.
"The people want peace," says His Excellency, Marie Daniel Dadiet, Archbishop of Korhogo.
He's the man behind this mission. He's the man who on a visit to the United States earlier in April stopped by the House of Mercy in Manassas, Va., and with hat in hand told Kellie how his people were suffering. He asked Kellie to help his country. That's how desperate the situation is. That's how humble the man is.
He's the man who stayed in Korhogo when he was told he should leave. He stayed with his people when the war began raging and buildings were being bombed. While others were destroying, he was building. He founded a hospital and wants to build a school and wants to establish a new religious order that concentrates on serving the poor.
He's a man with dreams and drive.
How to Build Trust
"Hearing the Archbishop plead for his people — to a ministry that's as small as ours — nearly brought me to tears," says Kellie.
They sat in a McDonald's in northern Virginia, drank tea, and talked.
"People in my country will follow the faith of those who help them," he told her. "People in need see that the missionary who provides relief for their needs is the one they can trust."
And now she's here. She'll cut a ribbon in Korhogo later today to open a House of Mercy. She'll head back home in another week and begin organizing cargo containers filled with necessities for the people here. She'll shake the trees for funding.
There's peril in this trip. Indeed, everyone she meets in every town seems to want something or expect something or try to bend her to their will. And it's clear here, just as everywhere else, there are well-intentioned people and people out for themselves.
But the fact Kellie and the Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy are here at all has startled many of the people in power. As Archbishop Marie Daniel knows, this rag-tag caravan serves as a forceful rebuke to the hopelessness that has descended upon much of his jaded homeland.
To put it another way, if a small, prayerful, well-grounded wife and mother and small-time Catholic humanitarian from the suburbs of America is willing to pack up her family and invite her friends to Cote d'Ivoire, if she pledges support and the support of her country, then doesn't that mean there's reason for hope after all? This caravan is a sign that someone is paying attention. Someone cares. If she believes so much in serving the needs of complete strangers 7,000 miles away from her comfortable suburban home, cannot they believe in the needs and hopes of each other, their neighbors, their fellow countrymen, and their nation?
The Improbable Load
Just a thought: I saw a man walking down the street today with a sewing machine balanced on his head. Women everywhere balance improbable loads upon their head and walk for miles from fields to markets — loads of fire wood, large tin bowls of bananas and mangoes. A country whose people can maintain such balance is a country that can do anything — if it puts its mind to it.
Hope can be contagious. The archbishop knows this. His country needs a booster shot of hope. It needs The Divine Mercy, a message that says: No matter what you have done, Christ loves you and wants you in His heart, a message that refocuses our hearts at this time in history to the Gospel call of
denying ourselves and following Christ. And this is what this mission to Africa has come to represent. Whatever the outcome of the election in November, the Archbishop wants his people to put God above all things, to receive Christ's mercy, and to extend that mercy to their neighbors.
He's a man who prays the chaplet. He's a man who knows a good thing when he sees it — whether it's a message of hope for a nation in need, or a fellow Divine Mercy devotee who knows how to get things done.
A Strategy for Mercy
Since first learning about Divine Mercy through Marian Helper magazine in 2005, Kellie has developed a ministry that serves hundreds of poor families in northern Virginia. Through God grace, she makes things happen.
She saw the Image of The Divine Mercy and it changed her life. It made her realize that Jesus doesn't want us to only love Him, but serve Him as well by serving those in greatest need, and by forgiving those who do us harm, by loving our enemies.
Over tea in McDonald's, Kellie and Archbishop Marie Daniel would quickly lay out a strategy to make things happen in his homeland. They would quickly come to realize they are two of a kind. When 2,000 years ago people expected the birth of a political king who would lead them to freedom, they got Jesus Christ, a poor carpenter who instead spoke of a revolution of the heart. Now 2,000 years later, when people in Cote d'Ivoire hope for a political savior, they, too, will get Jesus Christ, The Divine Mercy, a revolution of the heart, a poor carpenter among the poor who comes to lead us from the bondage of sin and hopelessness.
The revolution starts now.
"It isn't very often that an archbishop walks into a little schlemiel outfit like ours and says, 'Come to my country,'" says Fr. Jack Fullen, the spiritual director for the Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy. "So, yes, I think God is guiding this. God is in charge. God will give us the resources."
With a blown back tire, our caravan hobbles into Korhogo Sunday. The Archbishop is standing at the city limit on the side of the road, in his choir vestments, accompanied by the mayor, the territorial governor, by fellow priests, and by Muslim members of an ecumenical committee.
They are standing there waiting, smiling, extending hands in greeting. A 15-year-old girl with her arms and face painted with circles as a sign of joy presents Kellie with a bouquet of flowers. The local Boy Scout troop is there, too, all standing tall in starched uniforms on the side of the road as peasant women walk by in wonderment balancing improbable loads the way the Archbishop is trying to balance hope and peace, earthly needs and eternal salvation, in a jaded land facing a critical election.
A welcomed sign has arrived at the city gates in the form of a 32-seat bus. A dusty bus carrying people from far, far away who care and who love and who will hand out thousands of Divine Mercy prayercards before the day is done.
This city is receiving His Divine Mercy. There will be a ribbon cutting later. The Archbishop has provided the building and a small staff. Kellie and the Archbishop will oversee the operations.
Father Telesphore Mulondy of Korhogo, an aide to the Archbishop, put things into perspective.
"The war," he said, "has destroyed not only the peace in our hearts, in our families, in our country, but it's also destroyed our structures such as our hospitals, schools, and so on."
Speaking at a ceremony at the Archbishop's residence he says, "Today, your visit, your presence, is a gift of Almighty God, and we hope it will be a sign of peace."
"These people need our help," says Kellie. "And we're going to help them. I don't know how it's all going to come about, but I'm absolutely confident God will provide us with the means to do what we need to do. When we trust in God, He rewards us."
Part 1: 'No Excuses'
Part 2: Nighttime, Waiting for a New Morning
Part 3: The Caravan Rolls
Part 4: 'They Uphold the World'
Part 5: Where There is Order
Part 6: A Balancing Act
Part 7: 'Pray for Us'
Part 8: 'She's Dying'
Part 9: Mercy is a Verb
Kellie Ross and the Missionaries of Our Lady of Divine Mercy can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 703-659-1636.