Mustard Seed Faith
Yolanda Duarte White
One of my earliest cultural experiences, growing up Catholic in a Mexican American family, was escorting my mom or dad on a pilgrimage to a new church to fulfill a promise made for a blessing received. This act is called a ‘manda’ in Spanish, it is a promise between a person and God that if one is blessed by a favor, you vow to return the favor or make a sacrifice in God’s name. Growing up with deep-seated roots of faith is a foundation for every faithful Catholic family unit. It is not about bargaining with Jesus. As I look back on those days of my youth, I now see a manda as being more than just a way of demonstrating thanks for a blessing; it is about having the gift of faith, a powerful faith that can move mountains [Matthew 17:19-20] … faith the size of a mustard seed can one day grow even bigger than we had hoped.
The Promise (Manda)
This is where our story begins: one afternoon a few days before Christmas, I interviewed Sisters Maria Elena Martinez and Consuelo Arana to learn about the humble beginnings of Clinica Familiar Lak Ña Clara. (Note: surnames and certain identifying details in the following account have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals) The two Sisters began to share how the clinic, as we know it today, was born.
It all started in 1994, with our first angel, Sr. Maura from Holy Name Province, in Stella Niagara. While on sabbatical, she stayed in our little two-room house called Casa Nantic Magdalena, in Palenque. Sr. Maura was the key to launching our first medical mission, acting first as a ‘scout’ and then becoming our very best advocate. Sr. Maura saw and reported the need for access to skilled medical services, noticing first-hand how more and more village women were dying during the birthing process, or while journeying to Palenque itself. An even more painful fact was that the mortality rate for infants and babies under the age of three was rising. In this region of Mexico, women and children from the heart of the city of Palenque were the only ones who could access professional healthcare. Families in the villages surrounding Palenque had no real hope of bringing pregnant women or their sick family members to town in time for critical medical care, as the distance to town was too far and the journey was too dangerous.
Sr. Maura reached out to Dr. Robert, the attending doctor for our Sisters in Holy Name Province at Stella Niagara, and asked him to come to Palenque; he was a caring physician and a true source of support who rarely said no to our requests. Our Sisters were unaware that Dr. Robert was not well, and while he was dealing with his own medical crisis, he made a promise to God in return for the gift of life. . . Dr. Robert made a manda!
In thanksgiving for his recovery, Dr. Robert, our second angel, volunteered to donate his services for two weeks, and flew out to become our “in-house” physician. Dr. Robert and Sr. Consuelo walked to the church in town with medical equipment and medicines in hand and worked daily until dark. Every day, more and more women and their babies came to see the doctor. One day they set out to the villages, traveling for the entire day. The word of their presence made its way through the jungle a lot faster than they could travel, and arriving at one of the small villages, patients were lined up and waiting to greet them!
Angels Among Us
Meanwhile, a third angel emerged, a Sister in Columbus, Ohio, who was the director of Mission Services at St. Anne’s Hospital. She was able to procure equipment and supplies, and introduced us to our “second” doctor, Dr. Sam! We now had two doctors, and the Sisters set out to double the services! This part of creating a clinic was like forming a snowball; it just kept growing and growing. Before we knew it, we had two doctors from Columbus, Ohio along with Dr. Robert and his team. The medical mission abounded with angel wings as third-year interns began accompanying our medical team of doctors.
Supporting the effort, our fourth angel, Sr. Hillary of the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, got involved. She was our personal pipeline for traveling nurses and for medical equipment. Sr. Hilary sent hospital beds, medication, various medical supplies with equipment, and even a dentist’s chair. These supplies arrived via a caravan, hosted by Pastors for Peace. Sister Hilary’s energy was endless and her creativity was boundless. “We worked all day, on average we tended to 750 patients between Monday and Friday,” remembered Sr. Consuelo. “We ventured out to the villages for two days and spent three days in town. The need was so urgent, we eventually switched up the routine and spent three days in the villages, and two in town. We were now conducting medical missions in the fall and in the spring.”
Sister Linda, an obstetrician and member of our province, joined the effort around 2010. She became the framer for the work that we set out to accomplish, and she remains the pulse of our medical mission together with fellow vowed religious. In living our charism, we are all witnesses to how the hand of God touches our lives; “The human heart plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.” [Proverbs 16:9]
Previously we had purchased a five-acre parcel and a building in Palenque. It was a large plot of land that guaranteed a location where we could provide needed care to patients. We loosely used the word ‘clinic’ to describe it since in reality, it was more of an oversized room which met more than our needs. (In Mexico, a clinic is a very specific term for a licensed facility dedicated to 24/7 patient care, with a small one room pharmacy).
Typically, the climate of Palenque is tropical, hot all year round, with a rainy and muggy season from June to October. That year, Palenque had a series of severe rains accompanied by the heat of the jungle. Unfortunately, the wet roof was cooked by the heat and covered in mold! Repairs were required, but upon advice from architects the only way to save the building was to remove the roof and build a second floor with a brand-new roof above it. Our Franciscan Sisters in the Netherlands asked us to pray and dream big; with that request they sent much needed funds which became seed money for Clinica Familiar Lak Ña Clara. Within a very short period of time, the Sisters from our three U.S. provinces came to visit, and once again it was our good fortune as their prayers and a great deal of their financial aid made expansion a reality. We now had a maternity ward upstairs and the adjoining room became a classroom. The improbable dreams of a full-time clinic were becoming a reality.
The Seed Takes Root
The seeds of imagination were nourished in 2013 in a defining, miraculous moment. Dr. Robert had a daunting experience. He was treating a farmer from a nearby village with early stages of cancer. Dr. Robert said, “if I could have scraped those cells. If only we had a clean space, a laboratory, a surgical room, and sterile treatment rooms so that we could have given this man HOPE, we could have saved this man’s life.” “Dr. Robert said aloud what we secretly held in our hearts,” muttered Sr. Maria Elena.
Sr. Maria Elena explained how they “prayed and continued to dream, as “God’s plan began to reveal itself. It was during Province Days in 2015 where our Associate, Pablo, a Dignity Health employee, asked to meet Sr. Maria Elena. Upon meeting, Pablo told her that Dignity Health Foundation could be a great partner in expanding our clinic. In addition, he bolstered our dream by introducing us to an important connection, the Universidad Nacíonal Autónoma de México (UNAM).
A professor, along with her students who were engaged in our clinic, prepared a feasibility study; they conducted hundreds of surveys from the people in surrounding villages, collaborated with us to develop our mission/vision statement, and helped us to identify a comprehensive list of values to build a sustainable clinic on our site. We developed a detailed business plan, created a Board of Directors, and began to hire key staff. The lesson of the “mustard seed” was being revealed in so many ways.
The challenges were tough, but God’s Graces were more than enough! God favored us with angels along the way who were gifted and most generous, and who in turn, introduced us to new connections who opened strategic doors for us. These new connections, who advised us most importantly on best practices, became our strategic partners. “The process of building a real clinic … at last,” Sr. Maria Elena sighed.
Eventually we switched from building a brick-and-mortar facility to creating a clinic from customized hospital-grade shipping containers. These containers are solar paneled, equipped with air-conditioning, follow U.S. HIPPA regulations, and can be transported anywhere in the world. The answer to our dream didn’t come without its own trials, however – they arrived in Houston during Covid19! The port was in lockdown because of the pandemic, and we faced barriers in the form of red tape, travel restrictions and not one, not two, but three horrific hurricanes!
It took us six months to get permission for them to enter Mexico, but their arrival was nothing short of spectacular! A caravan of thirteen large trucks hauled these massive containers across the country and through the jungle. They were escorted and safeguarded by police, and accompanied by construction engineers (crane operators & tradesmen) who literally lifted the wires with cranes so that our caravan could pass under without shutting down the power or cutting the phone lines from surrounding towns.
Once they reached Palenque, the construction crew laid foundations, and the crane operators secured the customized containers. All the equipment was installed, and the entire project was billed as a turn-key operation. Sr. Maria Elena took a deep breath, and reminded me of the three hurricanes the containers had survived, albeit with some damage. All were water-logged and needed to be drained and there were a variety of dents as well as damaged equipment that needed to be replaced. It was one step at a time, addressing each repair as needed.
Reflecting on our journey, we know that we still face trials future challenges: we are reminded again of the story of the mustard seed and God’s promise, or a manda, that if we put our trust in Him, He will answer our prayers in His time, provide us with angels, and grant rewards far greater than we dare to dream ourselves.
In Loving Memory and with Deepest Gratitude:
John (Robert) G. O’Handley, MD, age 82, of Columbus (Hilliard) died peacefully Monday July 10, 2023, surrounded by his loving family. He inspired all he met by his gentle kindness, love for life, and optimism. He was a successful physician, teacher, treasured friend of the Sisters of St. Francis Province, and most importantly to him, a loving husband, father, and grandfather. In his memoir, “From Trappist Monk to Street Doctor,” he looks back at his life as a Trappist monk as well as what eventually led him to pursue a career in medicine—as well as how he fell in love with a nursing student named Hannah. The two eventually married and started a family. This publication is available on Amazon and it is a remarkable read!
Dr. Robert completed his pre-med studies at St. Louis University and his medical schooling at the University Of Missouri College Of Medicine. His residency in Family Medicine followed at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis and was completed in 1975.
Dr. Robert was an amazing man who led an inspirational life! Throughout his incredible career he led many endeavors to serve the most vulnerable people; for more than twenty-five years Dr. Robert, known as the street doctor, who tended to the homeless of Columbus, Ohio. In addition, he spearheaded annual trips to Clinica Familiar Lak Ña Clara, and the wilds of Chiapas, bringing with him numerous interns so they could fully understand what it really means to care for communities in which they live. He pioneered the Street Medicine Program and served as the director of Asian Health Initiative; the latter programs were both launched in Ohio.
The Sisters of St. Francis Province are truly grateful for his skill, dedication, and passion to serve people without access to medical care, we were blessed to have him in our lives -he has left an indelible imprint on our lives and more importantly so many more people who were most in need. Dr. Jack is in our memories and he and his wife and family will forever be in our prayers.
Calling All Angels
As you read in the story above… Clinica Familiar Lak Ña Clara would not be a reality today without our angels. With the assistance of our angels, medical missions into the jungles of Chiapas protect those most at-risk for acute and chronic illnesses. Your sponsorship can bring greatly needed medications to treat diseases, relieve symptoms, prevent complications and improve health conditions contributing to better health outcomes for entire communities!
Be an Angel, send your monthly donation of $25.00 or a one-time gift of your choice, and make a difference in lives today.