Hampton parish efforts reap material, spiritual benefits in Kenya

Father John Grace, pastor of Immaculate Conception, Hampton, says Mass for schoolchildren in Kenya. (Photo submitted by Father John Grace)

When Immaculate Conception, Hampton (ICC), pastor Father John Grace and three parishioners went to Kenya in January to see how a tree-planting program was working, they discovered that the farmers reap much more than monetary benefits as they develop the program’s core values: honesty, accuracy, transparency, mutual accountability and being servants to each other.

Since 2019, ICC has made annual contributions totaling about $25,000 to plant approximately 25,000 trees in Kenya through The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (TIST). The group went to Meru and Nanyuki Jan. 23-Feb. 1, where they visited about 15 farms, three parish schools, a wildlife preserve, and the rainforest, where they saw an innovative diocesan water reclamation project. They learned how their donations were being used and about the structure of Kenyan life.

Parishioner Eric Wiebke, who went on the trip, said the group learned “that something as simple as tree planting could have such incredibly widespread beneficial effects at so many different levels, whether it’s environmental or at a personal level.”

The volunteer-led TIST program is not a religious organization, but Father Grace said it is in line with Pope Francis’ encyclicals “Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home” and “Fratelli tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship.”

“I do think care for creation is a vital need,” said Father Grace. “We’re all in this together, and we do what we can at the level that we can.”

Mutual support

When selecting a charity to sponsor, Father Grace evaluated how big of an impact the parish, which has about 600 active members, could make with a long-term commitment. TIST has proved to be a good partner.

The approximately 217,000 TIST farmers are successfully counteracting the devastating effects of deforestation, erosion, famine, droughts and floods in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and India by planting trees.

To date (January 2024), Immaculate Conception, Hampton, has invested in 25,000 trees in Kenya. (Photo/Father John Grace)

Farmers, working in small groups of six to 12, decide where to plant trees and change farming methods. They source and own the seeds, keeping ownership of the trees and land. Then, they receive annual carbon pre-payments for each tree established and 70% of the net profit when credits are sold. Many of the trees also produce fruit or nuts, which the farmers can eat or sell.

Every $1 given creates $8 in farmer benefits, which the small groups decide how to spend, explained Vannesa Henneke, who co-founded TIST with her husband, Ben, in 1999.

An important part of TIST is the social aspect, said Alphaxard Kimani, a TIST farmer and member of the program’s Kenyan Operational Leadership Council.

The small groups combine to form clusters of 200 to 300 farmers within walking distance of each other. These clusters promote leadership skills as the leaders rotate every four months, alternating between men and women. The farmers encourage each other to be leaders by pointing out the strengths each person can bring to the position, Kimani said.

He added that he is proud to be a TIST leader because, “I’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives, in my own life and also getting to a place that we are also producing a future for even the young.”

At the monthly cluster meetings, farmers share what they have learned in tending their land and discuss their best agricultural practices, explained Kimani.

“We develop the best practice each and every day. That is how TIST is able to grow,” he said. “We use our head and hands, and we create teamwork and use low-budget yet high result [strategies].”

The “conversation farming,” as one guide called it, is what moved ICC parishioner John White the most on the trip, he said.

“You see people struggling who are also willing to help somebody else out. I thought that if somebody helps you out and they are struggling too, that’s love,” White said. “There was a lot of that, just the respect, the care, the love. Nobody’s trying to get ahead. Rather, they’re trying to lift everyone else up.”

Similarly, Father Grace said the trip confirmed that “What brings happiness is that sense of real, social friendship, communal caring.”

“I didn’t hear a single word of complaint,” he said. “There are tough times. There are difficulties and whatnot, but that sense of solidarity, of working with each other, the kindness and consideration for each other and mutual support was evident everywhere.”

Universal Church in action

Father Grace noted that the reception they received at the farms and schools was “overwhelmingly gracious,” and ICC parishioner Augustin Lopez said he was impressed with the “sincere gratitude” of the farmers.

For example, farmers often served tea to the visiting ICC group. A cluster group greeted them with native song and dance. Children at one school gave sunflowers to the group; another gave small gifts, and the third, where Father Grace celebrated Mass, greeted the group with a band, singing and dancing.

The ICC group was impressed with the self-sufficiency and efficiency of the farmers. They noted a common agricultural practice in which the farmers plant corn in a basin, grow beans around them to add nitrogen to the soil, plant sweet potatoes to keep down the weeds, line the perimeter with trees and use cow manure as a fertilizer. White said he was impressed with their ingenuity.  They used few tools, repurposed objects and used the water from the reclamation project in the rain forest.

“I learned that we all live with abstractions – we hear words thrown around and we think we know what they mean, like sustainability. But then, to see what it really means was stunning,” White said. “What they accomplished was just remarkable.”

Father Grace told the people he met that although his skin, language and culture are different than the Kenyans’, he was visiting because “there are two other identities which are much more substantial: one, that I believe that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God … and two, by virtue of baptism, we’re brothers and sisters, all of us, in Christ.”

As Catholics, Father Grace explained to The Catholic Virginian, “we have a sense of a spiritual web among all life.”

“All life has dignity. I think this trip to Kenya was a wonderful a way to really bring that to the forefront for me and for this parish. They belong to us and we belong to them. It’s the Good Samaritan,” he said. “I think that every once in awhile, you need to be reminded that we’re part of a much bigger dynamic of the world, and that we are in fact in the universal Church.”

Henneke, noting that the parishioners returned to ICC with “on-the-ground stories” of TIST, said she hopes their excitement “will ripple forth through the parish” – and cause other parishes to see, “You can do this, too.”


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