Lisle man works to improve life in Navajo Nation
When Lisle resident Richard Weigel retired, he found meaningful opportunities doing mission work among the poorest of the poor in the Navajo Nation.
Within the largest reservation in the United States -- in the Northeast corner of Arizona and extending into New Mexico, Utah and Colorado -- Weigel met a Navajo family where eight people in four generations lived together in a 30-foot-by-30-foot house.
"We volunteered to put on an addition that doubled the size of their house," Weigel said. "We do a lot of projects that take two weeks to complete."
Weigel volunteers as part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet mission work. He selected to stay in the United States and do construction type work. Other volunteers might choose to be part of diocese medical and outreach missions in Sucre, Bolivia, and Borongan, Philippines.
Also, volunteers are available to respond to natural disaster relief within the United States.
The construction work might include repairing and painting structures, adding porches, rebuilding fences, replacing roofs, hanging drywall, installing insulation, fixing swamp coolers, repairing electrical and septic systems, or helping at the food pantry.
A volunteer does not need to know construction or rehab work, but must be willing to learn and follow directions.
The volunteer time line begins early in the year with two orientation meetings and a church service for an official group send off. This year, the two-week mission will take place in June. The group's size varies from 14 to 25 people ages 18 to 82 who travel together by air to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The group's tool bags and materials go by truck.
"They order the materials or we seek donations for the projects," Weigel said.
Each volunteer pays his or her own travel and food expenses. Those unable to finance their trip are encouraged to seek donations or ask their parish for help, if possible.
"After we arrive, we rent cars and drive two hours to Gallup, (New Mexico), and the only Wal-Mart store in the area," Weigel said. "There, we load up enough food for two weeks. We do our own cooking and cleanup. There is a shortage of water, so we fill big, five-gallon containers at a local grocery store."
Weigel estimates that about 40 percent of the group is new each time. Each participant brings different skills. In the six years he has participated, Weigel has learned a lot about building, framing a house, putting on a roof, and adding windows.
Weigel also has learned a lot about the human spirit, the Navajo people and the dessert. He calls mission work a spiritual experience.
"People ask me, 'Why you don't just give money?'" Weigel said. "Well, there are two reasons. One, you let people know they are not forgotten, and, two is, the more you give, the more you receive."
Each day begins with Mass at the local parish, Our Lady of Fatima, and concludes with group dinner and time to come together for reflection.
"The reservation is 27,000 square miles with about 300,000 people living there in Third-World conditions," Weigel said. "Farms were agricultural, but they get only three inches of rain a year, so crops are sparse. Farming is basically just for your own use, and they do sheep herding."
Weigel says he felt honored to meet one of the Navajo code talkers who played a critical function in World War II. The Navajo language is not based on an alphabet and was used during the war to create a secret code the enemy couldn't break.
Hundreds of young, courageous Navajo men were selected to create and translate coded messages and to be on the front line to overcome the enemy. They were brave Americans who served our country.
Weigel sees a great need for jobs in the area so young people will not be forced to leave to find work. He hopes future businesses and industries will see the benefit of locating in the southwest.
Bruce Carlson, diocese mission coordinator, said the goal of all diocese partnership mission work is to serve the poorest of the poor in each location.
Volunteers interested in working on a mission or donating to the cause should call (815) 221-6251, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Partnership in Mission at the Archdiocese of Joliet Blanchette Catholic Center, 16555 Weber Road, Crest Hill, 60403. The opportunities are open to anyone who wants to be part of a mission.
"People who come on a mission get to experience poverty in a real way," Carlson said. "In many cases, long-term friendships occur and continue far beyond the mission."
• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. Her column appears monthly in Neighbor.