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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tom O'Hern's Final Trip to Kenya

Back on the feast of Christ the King, I wrote about the death of my friend Tom O'Hern, who died in Chicago after a brief illness during a visit to the United States to visit supporters and publicize his work among the poor of Kenya. I mentioned his work in my book Change Our Hearts.

This week, we got the joyful news that the Kenyan government had finally OK'd the return of Tom O'Hern's remains to Kenya for burial this week. Sometime in the second week of January, Family Hope Charity board member David Kunzweiler reported, the "Kenya Embassy in Washington DC, USA along with the Kenya Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nairobi administered all the paperwork needed and have now granted written permission for Tom's remains to be safely returned to Kenya." The party accompanying Tom's remains arrived in Kenya yesterday. A mass of the resurrection has been scheduled for Thursday, January 22, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Kariobangi.

We celebrated a Mass of the Resurrection for him at St. Celestine Church in Elmwood Park, Tom's home parish, back in November. A Vincentian priest contemporary of Tom's (and mine) presided at that mass, Fr. Ed Murphy, which was well attended and joyfully celebrated by his friends and colleagues both from this nation and from Kenya. Kenyan seminarians and at least one priest sang and danced in their native language during the presentation of the gifts. It was a great celebration, comforting to all of us who still felt a raw hole in our heart with Tom's sudden passing. 

Now Tom will rest forever in his real home, the place where his heart was. His spiritual presence will continue to bless the work of Family Hope Charity in and around Korogocho, the Nairobi slum where he spent the last years of his life bringing a message of hope and self-esteem in a place plagued by AIDS, alcoholism, abandonment, and political corruption. His work lives on in his absence, and part of the mission of the team that accompanied his body to Kenya will be to see that the local infrastructure of FHC is prepared to keep doing the good work Tom began.

In talking about Tom yesterday with our mutual friend Fr. Ed Murphy, Ed told me a story about another Vincentian colleague, Fr. Frank Gaydos, C.M., who had also fallen in love with Kenya and who also died (from cancer) while in the United States, a few days before he was scheduled to return to work in the seminary in Nairobi. Ed said that the new saddened the provincial community profoundly, and it fell on one of Frank's friends to call his confreres in Kenya to let them know about his death. The call was made, and one of the other seminary professors there said he would let the students know.

When that professor came into class the next day, he told the students, "I have to give you some news." The students replied, "We already know." The professor responded, "Know what?" The students said, "That Father Gaydos died." Confused, the professor asked, "How did you know that?" They answered, "We saw him walking this morning by the bamboo trees." The professor ask them what that meant, that he was walking in the garden. "This is his home," they said, "this is where he had to return to rest."

Some of us Westerners, enlightened by science and convinced by proposition and proof, will find that story to be a charming anecdote or parable, but Ed said that it actually happened, and that in Africa this sort of thing happens all the time among people who are more in touch with the integrity of the material and spiritual worlds than we who have had our vision narrowed as we confused facts with truth. Whatever the case may be, Tom is back home now amid the people he loved, literally, to death, and his mortal remains will mix with the earth of Kenya. Life will beget life.

Jody Kunzweiler wrote a tribute to Tom after his death. I'll end this little posting with a quote from that, and urge those who can to help continue Tom's work among the poorest of the poor, those who live without even the solace of hope by supporting Family Hope Charity. Jody wrote:
People of faith must, every day, confront a world in which the greatest killer of innocent children and others is neither war nor disease, but rather, simple indifference.  Too many of us, faced with the unfathomable misery on this planet, choose to turn away, rather than make what difference we can.
There are some, though, who see worship not as recitation of prayers but rather, as work with those whom God created and man has forgotten.  These are people for whom the ultimate glory to God is found in the smallest kindnesses to His children, wherever scattered.   These are people who believe with all their heart, yet live that belief with every selfless gesture imaginable.
Tom believed that Jesus Christ gave up His body to be crucified for the remission of the sins of all humans.  But Tom was evidently not content to be redeemed himself by mere sacraments alone.  For him, the Cross was not an icon, but a challenge put before him.  And he took up that challenge, and carried his own heavy cross, responding to the words of his Lord who said "Follow me."
Every day, Tom woke up in poverty, and for his daily work, walked into Hell.  Today, as his life ended, his Lord lifted the Cross off Tom’s shoulder, and welcomed Tom to walk into Heaven.
As we hear the gospel Sunday and the words of Jesus, "Follow me," echo in our churches again, let's remember Tom's legacy, and be grateful for someone who showed us that it's possible to radically follow Christ and change lives by something as simple as organizing a soccer team.