Mat-Su resident Sharon Lasselle knew her Catholic Relief Services trip to Ethiopia wouldn’t be a luxury vacation.
“We would be walking a lot, we would be traveling on very bumpy roads, it would be very hot,” she remembers the application stating.
What they couldn’t tell her was that seven of the nine delegates would be sickened by something they ingested along the way. Not exactly an exotic getaway.
So why did the 52-year-old parishioner at St. Michael Church in Palmer fill out the long application and keep her fingers crossed for approval?
Lasselle has served in youth ministry as a volunteer at the parish for years, working with another parishioner to foster high school fellowship.
But keeping kids coming to youth programs isn’t always easy. So when she heard about the trip at a national conference for youth ministers, she felt both a personal and a pastoral tug.
“I thought an experience like this would be something I could bring back to the youth. It could be a good fuel for youth involvement,” she said.
It turns out that groups far beyond her own parish are interested in the journey she was chosen to make with CRS, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ overseas outreach which reaches 100 countries.
Shortly after returning from her trip, she spoke in Anchorage at the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference in June. Enthusiasm ran high.
“Afterward, some of the boys from Juneau declared, as they helped me carry my workshop items back to my vehicle, ‘I want to come with you next time!’”
Another youth leaned toward her during adoration before that Blessed Sacrament and said, “I pray for Ethiopia.”
Her trip began with an orientation at CRS headquarters in Baltimore. The group left May 16 for a whirlwind eight days in Ethiopia where CRS has worked for more than 60 years. Ethiopia is an impoverished, land-locked nation with the second largest population in Africa. The majority of the people are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian or Muslims.
CRS responds to disasters, but also provides aid in the form of agriculture, health, water and sanitation assistance. They support entrepreneurs, promote equality, mobilize for immunization and mitigate the impact of HIV.
It was at a water project that Lasselle had her most touching experience.
“A private donor had assisted in providing funds to bring water to the village we visited by drilling down to the water table,” Lasselle said. Previously, the residents had relied on unsanitary surface water.
“The village had the new water system for only two months,” she said. “It was like getting out of prison, especially for the women who do the major work of carrying water.”
Already, the village was experiencing improved health due to clean water. The villagers lined up with cheering and waving when the CRS delegation arrived. When the elders expressed how the village had changed since the water project, many delegates wept, Lasselle said.
“And they slaughtered a goat for us,” she added. “At orientation, we were told ‘do not eat the village meat.’ But when you see that kind of gratitude, you have to eat the meat.”
Another memorable visit was to one of the homes for the dying and destitute run by the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Saint Teresa of Kolkata.
“They warned us — those words, destitute and dying,” Lasselle said. “But the home was light and airy and clean and dignified. I felt it was hopeful rather than depressing.”
Another thing that impressed Lasselle was CRS’ dedication to hiring locals.
“CRS has a strong guiding principle of not coming in as foreign nationals,” she said. “Out of 275 staff in that region, only seven are not Ethiopian.”
The group also attended the inauguration of a new cathedral.
And that sickness that struck so many? It wasn’t the goat meat, Lasselle said. Ethiopia is famous for its coffee, and the suspicion fell on a coffee ceremony and the fact that between servings the cups may have been washed in unclean water.
Lasselle said her trip has had a profound personal impact. She continues to marvel over how the people she met lived in abject poverty and yet were so joyful.
“Sharing is part of their culture,” she said. “It’s amazing — the contrast between not having enough and being willing to share, and those in our culture who have in abundance and aren’t willing to share.”
Lasselle said she thinks of the Ethiopians she met when she washes dishes or showers in clean water.
“I say a prayer for them. I can feel the trip has only begun to change me,” she reflected. “I recognize the transformations that are happening in me and want to see where that will take me. I’m struggling.”
Meanwhile, Lasselle is happy to be available to any groups around the archdiocese to share her journey and the photos she brought back. She can be reached at LA2SE2LE@gmail.com.