Bishop, cardinal, St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners form bonds with visiting children from Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos
By Ashley Siferd
Leave it to an endearing group of young people from El Salvador and their East Tennessee hosts to bring to life a key teaching of Jesus Christ.
In early March, a choir and dance group of 12 Salvadoran students and their teachers made a long and detour-filled journey from Chicago to the hills of East Tennessee. All of the children are members of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, an international network of homes for orphaned and abandoned children in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The reason for their journey was to bring awareness to the mission of NPH, which is Spanish for “our little brothers and sisters.” Having spent the prior week at several Chicago-area parishes, they arrived in Lenoir City to a cacophony of cheers and into the welcoming arms of their host families from St. Thomas the Apostle.
What happened over the course of the March weekend influenced the lives of everyone involved, be they Salvadoran children or native Tennesseans. As providence would provide, the Gospel reading for the weekend was about the man born blind who received his sight after meeting Jesus. With the exchange of cultures and worshiping together in faith, parishioners and children alike were given the gift of spiritual and physical sight, both lenses to a greater understanding and experience of the world in which they live.
Though the children visiting the Diocese of Knoxville were from the NPH home in El Salvador, the story of NPH began in 1954 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when a young homeless boy stole from the poor box of a small parish. The pastor, American priest Father William Wasson, went to the judge and asked that the boy not be put in jail. The judge asked Father Wasson to take care of the boy instead. One week later eight more boys arrived for Father Wasson to care for, and NPH was born.
Guided by the principal values of love and security, faith and service, sharing, work, and responsibility, the mission of NPH is to provide a safe and loving environment to children who otherwise would be living on the streets or worse. While not an institution, NPH is one big family knit together by unconditional love and includes children’s homes in Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Bolivia. Since its inception, NPH has provided a home, quality education, health care, and spiritual formation to more than 18,000 children. More than 3,300 children are being cared for currently.
While visiting St. Thomas, the children of NPH El Salvador had the opportunity to share their lives and the story of NPH. One special part of their trip to East Tennessee was that many of the children were able to meet their godparents for the first time. St. Thomas parishioners John and Crystal Deinhart, longtime supporters of NPH, noted that there are currently more than 60 families across the Diocese of Knoxville who sponsor a child. In fact, more than 85 children call themselves godchildren of these 60 families.
Through sponsorship, meaningful relationships are formed between the NPH children and their godparents. Love is fostered and the children know that there is one more person in the world who cares about them. While their godchild was not a part of the group, the Deinharts explained the impact the children have on their godparents.
“Speaking as one of those families blessed by the love of these children, we receive far more from them than we will ever give,” Crystal Deinhart said.
This love was evident as the NPH choir performed music for all the weekend Masses at St. Thomas. During two performances in the parish family life center, the choir played several songs while the other children danced traditional Salvadoran folk dances. The mood was light and airy, with parishioners clapping along and cheering. Dance teacher Hugo Espino, who has been working with NPH for 15 years, gave a brief history of El Salvador and its violent 12-year civil war and of the lasting struggles that the tiny country faces today.
“We are united in our suffering but are not defined by it. Thank you for coming out and learning more about our children and our culture,” Mr. Espino said.
To the delight of everyone, the final musical number included audience participation and prompted the audience to dance.
The children also visited the residence of Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali. Delighted to meet the friends of and receive letters from the two boys that he sponsors in El Salvador, Bishop Stika told the children that “you have a home and family here in Knoxville, Tennessee. Don’t forget!”
Relationships were forged during the weekend as strangers bonded and the children and their new East Tennessee friends became close. St. Thomas parishioners John and Nancy Howard hosted their goddaughter Lidia, whom John Howard previously had met in 2009 when he visited the NPH El Salvador home. Their daughter, Haley Howard, a sophomore at Knoxville Catholic High School, was humbled and overcome with emotion when she met Lidia.
“The pure joy that is present in all of the kids is absolutely beautiful. They take each moment as a gift from God,” Haley said.
When the disciples asked Jesus about the man born blind, He replied, “it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
Through the children of NPH El Salvador, hearts were opened and many people received the spiritual gift of sight. As Haley noted, “God’s love is visible through all of the kids, and I have never seen such kindness and joy.” What greater sight is there than the love of God shared among His children? ■