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Mission work is Lifelong commitment

For Joliet's Natalie Bayci, the word "missions" is more than just a thought or even a two-week stint standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone down on his or her luck. It's become a lifelong commitment to helping those living in desperate poverty around the globe.

At the age of 80, this 5-foot-2-inch dynamo not only coordinates university mission trips for the Diocese of Joliet's Peace and Social Justice Ministry, she also actively joins in, lending a pastoral spirit with her open hands. She performs with a smile whatever mundane task she encounters, including bathing babies while their mothers benefit from make-shift clinic services, handing out food, or visiting the homebound.

Having completed nearly 30 mission trips to far-flung places such as Sucre, Bolivia and the Philippines, she also travels with college students and at-large mission goers—the term for which is missioners.

Before leaving on Jan., 1, 2012, for her sixth trip to the slums of the Philippines—a place where she's already working with others to build clean water mechanisms and provide health care for the needy—she offered her perspectives about the mission field. Particularly, she shared insights about working for the first time in Kenya in the fall of 2011.

The Diocese of Joliet, which serves 600,000-plus Catholics in seven counties in northern Illinois, including Will, DuPage, Grundy, Kendal, Kankakee, Ford and Iroquois, has an ongoing, nurturing relationship with a community referred to as Upendo Village,, in Naivasha, Kenya.

Upendo, which means love in the Kiswahili, was established as a local, faith-based response to assisting those living with HIV/AIDS. The disease is at epidemic levels in that East Central edge of the African continent and has taken a brutal toll on families and individuals. As they struggle to survive with the symptoms of the disease, good health care and consistent nutrition has dramatically improved their lives, said Assumption Sister Florence Muia, who founded the community in 1999 with the help of the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters, Wheaton, Ill.

Upendo Village has about 4,000 clients, including work with orphans, vocational training, housing projects and support groups.

"Honestly," said Bayci, "this was a difficult mission trip." The poverty, which is made more complicated by the insidious nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic along with a sometimes volatile and violent political climate, can be hard to grapple with.

People living in that part of the world are prey to economic exploiters, such as outsiders who have taken over the farms for the cultivation of tulips and roses bound for Europe.

They're also facing the consequences of climate change. Persistent drought conditions and depleted soil have left the country wanting for fresh water and nutrients.

"The poverty and the situation is so dire there," she said with a sad sense of resignation and a breathy sigh.

Despite her heavy heart for the community of 400,000 in Naivasha, where Bayci said "about half the population is living on $1 a day and the other half is living on $2 a day," she valued the opportunity to accompany Assumption Sister Agnes Wujna on home visits to deliver chlorinated water. "People with absolutely nothing smile at you. They appreciate everything you do for them. They have hope and faith."

Unlike Americans, the people of Naivasha are more willing to share their stories, said Bayci. They seem to feel somehow validated by talking about their faith and their difficulties.

"One of the most humbling experiences I had was in visiting the home of a young mom. She greeted me with tears in her eyes and said, 'Thank you for coming to my home. My own family and friends live here in Kenya and will not visit, but you have come from the U.S. to visit me."'

Even though their homes are very sparse and small, Bayci said they reserve a space which they call a welcoming area. "You are greeted with joy and always offered refreshments." The welcoming area always features something colorful, such as a piece of fabric. It's a way to bring joy to the visitor, she said.

Many of the places in which Bayci performs missions work experience water problems. The water is dirty and there is no infrastructure to separate drinking water from wastes. Bayci said she's discovered a "real appreciation for water. I don't waste it; it's precious."

Dr. Michelle Tansey, a general surgeon from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, traveled with Bayci as part of the volunteer medical team. It was her fourth mission trip to Kenya, and she's gone twice to Haiti to set up shop in the clinics there.

For her, it's the symptomatic issues and ailments related to weakening of the body due to HIV/AIDS that keeps her coming. "The people there can't afford to go to the hospital, although some do manage to reach the facility in time for some of the free clinic offerings. Due to the danger of infection, "you treat every patient as if they have HIV. …You set up right at Upendo Village, screening patients. They have a clinic, pharmacy and laboratory at Upendo." All total, 600 outpatients were treated–some on the grounds of Upendo Village.

As a general surgeon, she works at breakneck speed to accomplish as much as she can in a 10-day period. "I can do four-to-six surgeries a day," said Tansey. This year, she worked a lot on skin grafting procedures. Since cooking is done primarily on open fires, she noted that the people are at a high risk of getting burned.

This year, Tansey was one among a group of four doctors—two surgeons, an internist and an infectious disease specialists—from the Diocese of Joliet's Mission to Kenya. "We handled 66 cases in 10 days."

What keeps Tansey coming back to the missions world is the idea of faith. "I'm living out my faith. You can see Christ in everybody. Mostly every family has been impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The need is there. You can really see a difference by what you do." In an e-mail discussion, Muia expressed her appreciation to the medical missioners who visited.

"These are poor people who could not afford to pay for the services and been suffering for a long time." For the past four years, the medical missioners have been working at the Upendo Village facility, Naivasha Hospital and at the camp for Internally Displaced Persons, which was set up after a political election turned violent in 2007. About 2,000 people exist in the IDP camps, which lack running water and any semblance of sanitation. They've live in tents and make-shift homes, since their homes were destroyed in that violent outbreak.

The Diocese of Joliet was also represented by a Construction Corps Mission Team. During the 10-day trip, they built three, three-bedroom homes. "It's wonderful," said Muia.

Over the past seven years, Muia said she's been gifted to have formed such a relationship with the Diocese of Joliet and many other outreach groups. The Wheaton Franciscan Sisters have been an integral part of the establishment and operations at Upendo Village, she noted.

"This is the Global Village I envisioned, one where we feel connected with each other as brothers and sisters. This is a village of love, care and hope… It is about partnership and hope to our world as it is faced with so many challenges and suffering."

Sister Muia is planning a trip to the Diocese of Joliet this February. She said she is looking forward to offering numerous presentations about Upendo Village during her three-week visit.

For insights about Upendo Village, view video at:

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