June 04, 2015

Postulants help refugees learn

What it means to be Americans


Carlo Shivel is teaching the most attentive students he will ever have. Eager and expectant, they are hanging on his every word.

Their futures – and those of their children – depend upon it. With help from Carlo and fellow postulant Tom Murphy, they are learning to become Americans.

women of the Bhutanese communityOnce a week since October, Tom and Carlo have been leading citizenship classes for natives of Bhutan, an Asian kingdom at the eastern end of the Himalayas. Exiled from their homeland in a wave of ethnic cleansing, the Bhutanese lived in refugee camps in Nepal until the United States agreed to resettle 80,000 of them – the largest such effort since Vietnam. Passing the U.S. citizenship test will give them the rights and opportunities that Americans have always taken for granted.

Building Trust

Today they are reviewing the executive branch of government.

“Who is the President of the United States?” Carlo asks the five people clustered around a table in Hartwell. One of them offers, “George Washington?” Unfazed, Carlo prompts, “Remember when we talked about this last week?” Eventually, the correct answer emerges.

The exchange is an exercise in patience and trust. Many of the 9,000 Bhutanese assigned to Cincinnati – they did not ask to be here – struggle with illiteracy, English, culture shock, joblessness and family conflicts. Some are college graduates, but, “We have a number of people who don’t speak English and cannot read or write in their native language, Nepali,” says Sheryl Rajbhandari, coordinator of Heartfelt Tidbits, a program founded in 2010 to educate and socialize area refugees. “The majority of people above the age of 40 managed orchards or farms in Bhutan” and had only a few years of primary school.

When Carlo volunteered, “This was all new to me,” he says, “even though Cincinnati is one of the largest populations of these people in this country.”

Tom has done tutoring, “but never with people from other countries. PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIBhutan (photo from Heartfelt Tidbits Facebook page)Students are eager to learn.A Bhutanese child. Teachers Carlo Shivel and Tom Murphy.One of my interests is I hope one day to possibly work with refugees or migrants or displaced peoples. I heard recently that Cardinal Turkson [of Ghana] at the General Chapter in Assisi asked us as friars to go work more on the fringes of the world and frankly, working with refugees, they are the fringes of the world. These are people who are stateless: They don’t have homes, they don’t have a country to live in.”

A world of worry

Adding to their anxiety is the lack of information about the recent deadly earthquake and aftershocks in Nepal. “Being separated from family members due to relocation is difficult,” says American-born Sheryl, who is married to a Nepalese native. “They also face some racism and mistreatment because many Americans don’t understand that a refugee is a person who enters the U.S. with proper documentation. Many people assume that if you’re foreign you enter the U.S. illegally.”

 Besides that, “Life in the U.S. is so different than what they’re accustomed to.” Some spent half their lives in bamboo huts before coming to America. “These folks have never had running water or electricity prior to living here, so everything is new for them. Figuring out how to do simple things such as using a stove, shopping at a grocery store and doing laundry is difficult.” Depression is so common among Bhutanese refugees that since 2008, when resettlement began, their rate of suicide has been twice the national average.

It’s a fraction of that in Cincinnati, where Heartfelt Tidbits makes them feel welcome – and helps them succeed.

Tom and Carlo’s citizenship classes are part of a Thursday project that serves between 25 and 45 Bhutanese at the Centennial Barn, a space provided by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. The program includes lunch, the study of English, the sharing of good news and communal poetry or meditation.  Former refugee Giri Sapkota, who recently passed his citizenship test, helps Sheryl with translation. Newcomers are welcomed with a slight bow and the palms-pressed-together greeting that is common among yoga teachers: “Namaste”, meaning, “I bow to the God within you.”

As a group, “These are very vulnerable people, trusting and open,” says Sheryl. “They have a tremendous inner strength, a joy for life and a compassion for the human race. When you think of their struggle to get to safety from Bhutan to Nepal, live in a camp for 20-plus years, move to a strange country and continue to smile and think positively, you realize they’re special. I learn from them every day to take life as it comes versus always fretting about the future.”

Little victories

Tom is likewise inspired. “These people really want to make a life for themselves. They really want to learn and understand the country. They want to contribute. They really want to become citizens.”

It has not been easy for them or their teachers. “They [organizers] gave us a binder with nice materials and basically said, ‘Here’s your group; teach them,’” according to Carlo. “I personally was very upset after the first few weeks and told Sheryl, ‘They’re not learning anything. I don’t know what to do.’ She said, ‘You just have to keep going.’ Through trial and error I’ve developed what works for my particular group of people. I told Sheryl yesterday, ‘It’s kind of funny that we’re leaving [for summer studies] and I just started to learn how to do this.’”

In Carlo’s class of three women and two men, “They’re very eager to learn, and they do listen very intently, but they do get very frustrated with the fact that it’s so hard for them. Anytime they grasp or understand anything I’m happy about it. You have to look at it like little victories.”

 Tom had to find his own way using games, puzzles and flash cards. Right, Giri Sapkota and Sheryl Rajbhandari; below, “It’s so hard    for them,” Carlo says.“I had just learned they needed help with writing and was trying to come up with a good way to teach them.” When the breakthrough came, he was rewarded with the compliment, “Asal shicksha” – “Good teacher”.


“Every time a new volunteer is brought into the program they bring something new,” says Sheryl. “Carlo and Tom have been able to share so many things about themselves with the refugees, like the story of Christmas, prayer, what’s involved with being a friar, Southern food (cornbread, red beans and rice), and an enthusiasm for learning. They’re constantly providing feedback and were able to give us some insight into how to change the citizenship material to make it easier to teach and easier for the refugees to understand. They will be missed by the refugees and the volunteers.”

The experience has been humbling. “I’ve learned about a group of good people and the hardships they’ve had to go through,” says Carlo, “and how difficult it is to learn English and pass this exam. I’ve learned the value of doing something that is difficult and will stretch you and how rewarding that ultimately is.”

As for Tom, “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I like to teach.”

 Fortunately, his students like to listen.

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So many proposals, so little time


Jeff with John Hardin, SB Province.We are in the last week of the General Chapter, in some ways the most important week, and the most frustrating, since we will try to bring together the work of this Chapter into proposals and a final document. General Chapters are not like our Provincial Chapters. While there is a process for new proposals to arise at Chapter, we go into the Chapter with a clear written proposal, giving rationale, consequences, and a timeline for implementation.

Not so here. Conferences can and do send in some proposals, but most arise during the Chapter itself. In addition to the elections, at the General Chapter we hear reports and presentations, e.g., the Minister General’s Report on the State of the Order. We discussed the preparatory “instrumentum laboris,” and had a report on Finances. Each conference presented a report on Franciscan life in that area of the Order. We also heard a report on the significant numbers of those who leave the Order after solemn profession. We heard from Cardinal Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Marie Dennis of Pax Christi. We had a message from Pope Francis. We had visits to the major shrines in Assisi with spiritual input.

All of this was processed in the very diverse language groups, with summary reports  June 3, Gil Wohler was remembered in prayer.June 2, Friar Alessandro sang at the Portiuncula Friary. PHOTOS CAPITULUM GENERALEgiven to the whole assembly. The issues that seemed to be most important determined the themes for nine Commissions, where we tried to bring all this together into proposals and recommendations for the future. The last Chapter produced 61 mandates, and everyone agreed that this was way too many, so there was an effort to keep the number of proposals few. But human nature being what it is, each commission wanted to offer something; sometimes the proposals seemed to restate things already said in our Constitutions, Statutes and other documents. Sometimes they seemed to be pious encouragements rather than action steps for the future. That is where we are right now as I write this. It truly is like making sausage! I have confidence that the Spirit is working and that all will be well, but right now it a bit messy and all over the place.
P.S.: This year each province was invited to make a 5-minute video; the idea was to bring the provinces into the Chapter discussion. I hope we are able to get a copy of all of them because they do portray the wonderful work friars are doing all over the world. They have been playing continuously in the lobby during recreation and breaks, but we have now begun to watch a few at the beginning of each section. Ours was shown on Wednesday afternoon. It was quite well received, and generated some compliments and conversation. I hope you get a chance to see it!

(The video is posted on our province YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFV-0BvA6FE)


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Also, at the end of April a group of frequent Negril visitors, about 50, held their Third Annual Belly Flop Competition at Sea Star.  It was quite a splash as various contestants, in varied costumes, vied for the Belly Flop championship.  At the end of the competition I was given $2,000 for the GKTS program.

  • It’s that time of year, as Fr. Kenan Freson discovered last week at St. Anthony Shrine in Cincinnati. “When I went outside Thursday to do some yard work, a fawn in the brush by the ‘Fatima’ shine came out and followed me to the building.”
  • Pope Francis is borrowing a line from Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures” for his upcoming encyclical on the environment, CNS reported this week. Expected to be released June 16, the encyclical will be titled “Laudato Sii” (Praised Be), named for the introductory phrase to eight verses of the prayer. The Vatican would neither confirm nor deny the report.
  • When Jubilarian Fr. Dennis Bosse was asked to reflect on his 25 years in the priesthood for the May 23 Jubilee issue of the (New Orleans) Clarion Herald, he wrote:  “The one thing I can say about being a priest, which I put in the context of being a Franciscan friar first, is going where I am sent and trusting in the Lord that this is where he wants me to be – for the people and not for myself.”

The face of the futureIt’s a milestone week for Roger Bacon seniors. This morning, members of the class of 2015 donned caps and gowns for their Baccalaureate Mass at St. Clement Church in St. Bernard. Tomorrow evening, they’ll be RB alumni. Commencement exercises are at 8 p.m. Friday at the Fogarty Center. Congratulations to all!

Volunteers bring donations, lend a hand


Greetings from “The Capital of Casual,” Negril, Jamaica, where we continue to be busy with the day-to-day outreach programs.

At lunchtime St. Anthony’s Kitchen serves 130 hot meals Monday through Friday to guests.  In the morning, breakfast is provided to 50 children on their way to school.  “Josey”, our 3-year-old bus, now makes two runs to and from Mt. Airy All Age School each day.  Wonder if we need a larger bus?  The Get Kids to School Programme now sponsors 72 children, assisting parents to get the kids to school every day.  GKTS has been a great success.  We are already gearing up for next school year – preparing to help outfit about 150 students.


Left, Jim gives Linden a bike for perfect attendance; below, Roger Bacon volunteers at St. Anthony’s Kitchen; right, Tim Carter provides dental help; far right, the Carter and Blum kids offered arts and crafts; below right, 72 students are sponsored by

Get Kids to School.


Surprising support

On April 15 the Kitchen celebrated its 5th birthday – cake and ice cream for everyone.  And on 27 April Ms. Pearl, the Mistress of the Kitchen, celebrated her ??th birthday – she has me by 2 months and 8 days.  And then there are the regular and many requests for assistance with – you  name it – medical care, rent, food, house repair, clothing, etc.

The support coming our way from a variety of places continues to grow.  In February the Provincial Council arrived for a fraternal visit.  They met with us, toured the missions and met with our bishop, Burchell McPherson. Increasing numbers of tourists hear about us and volunteer at the Kitchen.  Others carry clothing, school supplies and money when they come.

One evening I had J.B. (our dog) at the beach and met a couple who thought the dog was really cute (didn’t say that about me).  After a little conversation they found out that I was the pastor of the Catholic church.  Happens they were Catholic; Tim is a dentist who does a dental “mission” trip each year and asked if I’d be interested.  “Yea, mon!”  The couple, Tim and Roben Carter, and their children came in March and brought along Robert and Melody Blum and kids.  Robert is a physician’s assistant in the Army.  On the bus to church they met a dental hygienist and her husband who pitched in, too.  We had a three-day dental/medical clinic at the Kitchen.  Clients were plentiful and the services were free, much to people’s delight.  Their children even set up an arts and crafts area for our little kids.  They are coming back next year.

RB on the scene

In April we welcomed 11 high school girls and two chaperones from Roger Bacon High School.  Their major work was with 50 youths from Kings Valley who attend St. Mark Church in Grange Hill, cared for by our brothers in Savanna-la-mar.  Seventeen of the children were being baptized the following Sunday and the RB volunteers assisted in their preparation.  They also volunteered at the Kitchen and Anthony’s Annex, our thrift shop.