Reflection from Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame

Young boy looks out

When we arrived in Uganda, we were certainly aware that we were visiting a very poor country. And, while we were there, we saw evidence of poverty in the dirt huts that serve as homes, the bad roads, the tattered clothing of the children, the sparse and dilapidated educational and health care facilities, the unemployment and underemployment, the signs of malnutrition and disease, and the absence of comforts we in the US take for granted. As we left, however, we all felt tremendously enriched by this land and its people. Despite their poverty, the people of this country, with their rich cultural traditions, their warmth, their faith, their tenacity, and their joyful generosity, offered us, their wealthy guests, priceless gifts.

Young boys gather

Our first and most important response is to be grateful for these gifts, and to celebrate this nation and its people and culture. If we had gone only with the intention of helping needy people, we would have missed the riches of this land. As we departed, each of us understood this land better and left with memories and stories about all it had offered us.

We went to Uganda also wanting to seek ways in which we could work with these people through the Millennium Villages Project to assist them in their efforts to address their challenges. We learned about this project; we visited a village in which it was under way; and we met with members of the village that will be sponsored in Notre Dame’s name. Notre Dame’s role will be limited; the bulk of the work will be done by the villagers in conjunction with the Millennium Villages Project team. But we will seek ways in which we can most usefully contribute to their efforts.

Tiny traveler

Our participation in this project grows out of our mission as a Catholic university. At the heart of the Christian faith is a recognition that God first loved us, and we attempt to respond by loving God and our neighbors, particularly those in need. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his recent encyclical letter, God is Love, “Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety” (20). It is part of the responsibility of the Notre Dame community. Genuine charity is not in service to an ideology or as a means of engaging in proselytism, but is “…first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” (31). Practicing such charity is not an option for us as a Catholic university, but is as essential as celebrating the Mass or proclaiming the Gospel.

Members of Nyinde Village

The causes of poverty in Uganda and other places are numerous and complex. Economic, political, historical, social, cultural, and climatic factors all contribute, and we must not be simple-minded or naïve in our response. We must be guided by our heads as well as our hearts. Yet the plan of the Millennium Villages Project seems a very reasonable and promising response. Because it seeks to involve the villagers and to enable them to take ownership for problems, it stands a good chance of achieving sustainable results, and lifting some people out of a dehumanizing poverty.

The first step in showing charity to any person is trying to understand his needs and situation. This trip was a chance for some of us in the Notre Dame community to begin to understand the needs of a particular community in Uganda. We all returned grateful for the opportunity.

Fr Jenkins shakes hands

I personally want to thank those who accompanied me on this journey—Tess Bone, Richard Pierce, Frances Shavers, and Todd Woodward. I especially want to thank Rev. Bob Dowd, CSC, and Tim Lyden, who led Notre Dame’s Millennium Development Initiative and who planned this trip. And I want to thank Ray Chambers, a Notre Dame Trustee, whose generosity made our work with this project possible.

I also thank all those who showed interest in our trip and in this project. I believe that through this effort, our community will receive much more than we can give.