By Connie Berry
Maryknoll fathers, brothers, sisters, lay missionaries and affiliates all have a common purpose: to live out the Gospel by serving those in desperate need. Maryknoll celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Father Mike Bassano, MM, a Binghamton native and former diocesan priest, has been home visiting the Syracuse Diocese and sharing stories of his latest assignment — serving at a Home of Compassion in Musoma, Tanzania.
Musoma is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, one of the largest lakes in Africa. It is also located on the western edge of the Serengeti Plain, making it one of the more attractive tourist areas. Unfortunately, that does not mean the people who live there all reap the benefits of a travel-related economy.
Culturally, Father Mike explained, there are many unwanted people there. Those who are mentally or physically challenged, those who are orphaned by AIDS, and the sick and the elderly who are often abandoned by their community and in many cases, their families.
A local priest, Father Godfried Biseko, could not continue to drive or walk past all the homeless and neglected people he saw in the streets of Musoma, Father Mike said. This parish priest opened up the original Mji Wa Huruma, translated to Home of Compassion, in 1988. Now, Father Mike said, there are three homes for the young and old.
“Some of them just show up or the priest [Father Biseko] finds them in the street and he brings them,” Father Mike said. Someone donated an ambulance and Father Biseko uses it to pick up the abandoned he finds along the roads.
“We’ve become a family,” Father Mike said.
Father Mike arrived in Tanzania three years ago and spent the better part of one year learning Swahili so that he could communicate effectively and celebrate Mass in the common language there. This meant he arrived at the Home of Compassion right around the time President Barack Obama was elected. The Kenyans were joyful about the election and Father Mike is usually referred to as “Padre Michael Obama” or simply “Babu,” which means “grandfather.”
Father Mike lives at the compound five days a week, spending the other two days with the Maryknoll fathers and brothers who live in the area.
He considers himself lucky because his life consists of “work and prayer combined.” Every morning begins with prayer, followed by afternoon, evening and night prayer, as well as daily Mass.
After Mass in the morning, Father Mike helps to wake up the residents, empty their bedpans and get them ready for the day.
“We are right by beautiful Lake Victoria out in the countryside,” Father Mike said. “It is a beautiful setting where we live together. There are seven or eight little ones running to me first thing in the morning. It’s the place where I’m most fulfilled, where I am able to live the Gospel and serve the people at the same time.”
Before Tanzania, Father Mike lived and worked in Thailand and before that, Chile. He has been a Maryknoll priest for 24 years now. Wherever he goes, he brings his guitar and his love of theater. Father Mike offers the Gospel in music and dramatic reading in Swahili every Saturday in Musoma. He does Matthew’s Gospel from memory having played it in the streets of Chile and Thailand for several years before arriving in Africa. Three other Saturdays of the month he offers a dramatized version of the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John.
Father Mike said there is a little boy there, now two years old, whose journey parallels his own.
The boy’s mother, Pendo, struggles with mental problems and was thrown out of her grandmother’s house, Father Mike said. She has lived at the Home of Compassion for a few years and has another older son. Pendo left the home for the abandoned and returned some months later pregnant. Her baby was born in February 2009 and is named Michael Obama for Father Mike.
“This is their home and we want them to stay of course, but they are not forced to and they are free to come back,” Father Mike explained.
Little Obama, as he is called, is just two but already the older ones shrug off attempts at hugging and showing affection. Culturally, the people there see little Obama as on his way to manhood already.
“I still sneak a little hug in here and there,” Father Mike said.
“There is a village school almost three kilometers away where we send our children,” Father Mike said. “They leave at 6 a.m. to walk there and they used to go without food coming back for lunch at 2 p.m. Now the Franciscan sisters are here and the children walk by their convent on their way to school so now the sisters will provide them some bread and tea on their way.”
Father Mike said education is extremely important for the children because they are tested in seventh grade and if they fail, they often drop out and the girls will go back home to be married at 12 or 13 years old. The missionaries try their best to help the students study because it means a real difference for their future.
Not all of the people at the Home of Compassion are Catholic, Father Mike explained; some are Muslim and others have tribal religions. “The liturgy here is a celebration of life,” he said. “They believe everything is permeated with the Divine. God is everywhere.”
Father Mike said there are 450 Maryknoll missionaries in 34 countries and the U.S. Like other religious communities, the population is aging. “Our latest survey showed we have only 50 members under 60 years of age so we’re looking more and more to lay missionaries, our sisters, and short and long term volunteers. Our sisters take vocations from any countries but the fathers are not international. We talk about that structure every six years at our chapter but it hasn’t changed.”
Maryknoll headquarters is in Ossining, N.Y. and the priests also study at the Chicago Theological Union. Father Mike’s community is currently considering the dismissal of one of its members, Father Roy Bourgeois, MM, whom the Vatican determined would be excommunicated for taking part in the ordination of a woman. Father Roy has stood by his conviction that women should be ordained, bringing a challenge to the others he serves with.
“Maryknoll tries to be faithful to the freedom of expression,” Father Mike said regarding the controversy. “Some of us are saddened by what has happened to a priest who has dedicated his life to the church for 44 years.”
Father Mike’s own experience in Maryknoll has been one of a growing and evolving spirituality as he serves others and tries to follow a compassionate God, he says.
“The role of the missionary in Africa is changing,” Father Mike said. “They are in the process of taking responsibility for their own church. The people are empowered and they have vocations.”
Father Mike said his vocation goes beyond religion and is “a way of being in the world.” He serves at a place for the poor in the middle of nowhere and that is where he finds his own vocation.
“I am a troubadour of compassion and a little servant. That is my personal vocation,” he said.
Anyone interested in finding out more about serving in Maryknoll may call (800) 627-9566, or check their web site, www.maryknollsociety.org.