This article was originally published in the Catholic Digest in July 1991.
“Do you want to give shots, or wrap open wounds?” That was the first thing that the nun at the street clinic in Port au Prince asked Ray and Lauretta Seabeck. It was July 1980, and the Seabecks had just arrived in Haiti from their home in New Hampshire to spend two weeks helping Mother Teresa’s sisters.
They didn’t know what to say. Ray always fainted when he received a shot. Neither he nor Lauretta could imagine giving one. So they chose the open wounds, only to find that their first patient was a man with a deep gash that ran down his entire leg, exposing the bone. Many of the wounds were infected, because the people slept in the gutter. The clinic was crowded with people who were blind, missing arms or legs, or suffering from tuberculosis. When they went to Mother Teresa’s children’s home, the Seabecks saw ninety children with distended stomachs dying of starvation and disease.
Ray and Lauretta thought they had done a good job preparing themselves for this work by praying and reading Mother Teresa’s books. But nothing had prepared them for this. Lauretta begged Ray, “Let’s get out here. I can’t take it any more.”
Ray felt the same way. “The temperature was a hundred degrees,” he recalls. “We were shaking and sweating. We thought we would faint, we thought we would die. We were mad and upset at what we were seeing. We blamed our own government and we blamed the Haitian government. But the phone lines were down, we couldn’t get out of the country.” They prayed desperately for the strength to make it through the next few days.
“And then,” Lauretta recalls, “at the same time Ray and I looked at each other and said, “What did Mother Teresa say? She said, ‘Look at that person in front of you, and treat that person as Christ.’ After that, these people were Christ to us, and work became so beautiful. When our two weeks there were over, we said, ‘We want to stay and do this for the rest of our lives.’”
The Seabecks had never expected to find themselves in Haiti or to become missionaries. But not only did they end up dedicating their lives to the poor, they have also founded the Missionary Servants of John Paul I, which has donated over $2 million in goods and services to the poor in the Third World.
Ray, an English teacher, and Lauretta, a medical secretary, think of themselves as ordinary people with an extraordinary vocation that is the result of their faith. “Everything that’s happened to us is the fruit of an active Catholic life,” they say. “If we hadn’t been close to the Church, we wouldn’t have responded as we did.”
Lauretta, who is from New Hampshire, and Ray, a native of Wyoming, met in 1964 while Lauretta was working in Wyoming as a lay extension lay volunteer for her diocese. They both shared an active Catholic faith, and a particular devotion to St. Joseph. Ray even proposed to Lauretta in St. Joseph’s church in her home town. They married in 1966 and settled in Gilford, New Hampshire. In addition to their jobs and the care of their daughters Beth and Monique, they still found time to work in their parish building program, C.C.D. program and youth groups. But they had never dreamed of doing mission work. Then two people who loved the poor, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul I, entered their lives.
It began in the early 1970′s when they read about Mother Teresa’s work with the starving people in India, and became haunted by the suffering of the poor. Lauretta even began having nightmares about it. They wrote to Mother Teresa, asking if they could come and help her with her work. She replied “If we pray, we will believe. If we believe, we will love. If we love, we will serve. Only then we will put our love for God into living action through service to Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.” The Seabecks continued to pray for guidance. They were particularly concerned about their children, and wondered if they should wait until the girls had finished school before taking such a step.
Then on August 26, 1978, Cardinal Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, was elected Pope John Paul I. Like the rest of the world, the Seabecks fell in love with “his beautiful, loving smile.” They were struck by the concern that this Pope from a poor family had shown for the poor in the Third World, and particularly by his words: “The real treasures of the Church are the poor, who should be helped not by mere occasional alms, but in such a way as to ensure their promotion.” They were also impressed by the proposal he had made as a bishop at the 1971 Synod of Bishops: that dioceses in the industrialized countries should send 1% of their income to the poor in the Third World.
Along with the rest of the world, the Seabecks were stunned and deeply saddened when the “Smiling Pope” died after only a month in office. While they were watching his funeral Mass on television, Ray began to write down plans to form the family into a society called the Missionary Servants of Pope John Paul I, dedicated to helping missionaries and the poor in the U.S. and around the world in his memory. “John Paul I went to bed hungry as a child,” Ray says. “And the message that he gave to us in just one short month was ‘Take care of the poor.’ We have tried to do some of the things he wanted to do.”
With this fresh inspiration, Ray and Lauretta wrote to Msgr. Feiten, the director of Mother Teresa’s co workers in the U. S. He told them that the nuns working with the poor in Haiti desperately needed help.
Haiti, a former French colony, just 700 miles from Miami, is one of the poorest countries in the world. 90% of the people are poor and illiterate. A few wealthy families own everything. At the time, the country was controlled by the cruel and corrupt dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
When Ray and Lauretta wrote to the Mother Superior in Haiti, she replied, “Come!” It was March 19, 1980, the feast of the patron, St. Joseph.
The Seabecks began to prepare for their trip. In order to get the money for the plane fare, they sold some of their antique furniture. Ray’s sister begged them to leave Beth, then 11, and Monique, 8, with her. She was afraid they would catch a terrible disease. But Ray and Lauretta wanted their girls to experience conditions in the Third World firsthand, so they would realize what poverty in the world really meant. During that first trip, Beth and Monique helped Mother Teresa’s nuns give out food. On later trips, they took care of the babies at Mother Teresa’s Children’s Home.
The family went to Haiti again during Christmas vacation, and they have gone back every Christmas but one since then. They are well aware of the danger. They have heard bazookas, and sometimes they were stopped at military roadblocks. “Baby Doc” fled Haiti in 1986, but his departure has been followed by years of turmoil. A new president has been elected, radical former priest Father Jean Bertrand Aristide, but the military, the chaos and the poverty remain. It is a place where 5,000 homeless people live at the Dessalines dump in Port au Prince, eating discarded orange peels and other garbage, washing their clothes in an open sewer, and even drinking from it.
During their first Christmas in Port au Prince, Lauretta remembers asking one young Haitian, “What do you do for Christmas?” He replied, “Nothing. Christmas is for the rich.”
And yet the Seabecks did what they could to help bring the joy of Christ’s birth to the poor. During that same trip, they were taken to the depot area, where they saw 40 dying people lying on the ground. They had been brought there from the local hospital, where there was no room for them. The dying asked them to sing Christmas carols. They knelt in the dirt, with rats
running around their feet, and Lauretta sang French carols. The people sang with them.
The Seabecks help the nuns take the dying from the depot to the home. There they lay them on the doorstep, cut off their clothing, often covered with their own waste or their own blood, wash them, and put clean hospital gowns on them. Then they will put them in bed, and hold them, so they can die with dignity, and surrounded by love.
“We try to bring Papa Luciani’s smile to the poor,” Ray explains. “I associate that very closely with the smile of God. We must bring Christ’s love to the poor, just as they bring it to us. They know Christ exists because you are there hugging them.”
Like their parents, the girls have been deeply affected by their experiences in Haiti. Beth, now 23, says she has learned from the poor. “Even though they’re dying in such a miserable place, they had perseverance to their lives. That really affected me. These people became real to me. They have names. They’re not just the poor people out in Africa or India or somewhere.”
Even before the Seabecks’ first trip to Haiti, people began offering them food and goods for the poor. But their missionary movement really took off after that first trip, when they were invited to speak to students in Catholic and public schools, colleges, and parish groups. They have now given more than 300 slide presentations throughout New England. “There’s always a tearful reaction to poverty and starvation,” Ray says. “They’re overwhelmed. But then some people never want to see us again. It’s a reminder that justice calls for action and that we have a personal responsibility to do something about it. On the other hand, most of the response has been very positive, and we have a continual flow of cash, goods and support. We have a great many beautiful people coming to us, willing to help in any way they can.”
Soon the donations were piled up to the ceiling in the Seabecks’ garage and in their cellar. And they have been coming steadily for the past twelve years. Some people send monthly donations. Others with less money sew clothes for the poor. A number of local parishes have formed their own mission guilds, collecting and packaging goods, sewing clothes, and making food bags. Some clothing and toy stores in the area donate goods from their stock. As many as thirty volunteers at a time help the Seabecks load the goods into cartons, which are then placed into 40 foot sea containers, ready to be shipped not only to Haiti, but to the poor in the United States, British Columbia, Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala, India, Tanzania, and the Sudan as well.
Unlike many mission groups, the Missionary Servants of John Paul I never ask for money. The Seabecks believe instead in education and prayer. They ask people to reflect on the needs of the poor and to pray for their work, and have found that their needs are always met without having to ask. With the help of people from 16 states and from Canada, they have provided funds for the founding of a medical clinic in Haiti, 8 mission convents in various countries, and 4 churches in Honduras. It has been an ecumenical effort: much of their help has come from Baptists, Methodists, and other Protestant groups. In 1985, the Missionary Servants were awarded the New England Methodist award for Excellence in Social Justice Actions.
The Seabecks see education about poverty and its causes as one of the most important parts of their apostolate. They feel angry and frustrated when people blame poverty on overpopulation, and say, “if these people just used birth control, this would solve the problem.” They want Americans to realize that much of the problem lies with the wealthy nations like the United States. Ray tells his audiences: “We have hundreds and hundreds of tons of wheat being thrown away every year around Chicago because we can’t even put the overflow grain in our elevators. The United States can produce enough food to feed the entire world. When Pope Paul VI was at the United Nations, he said, ‘We can feed the world, but we don’t have the will. We don’t always distribute the food where it needs to go’ . . . Meanwhile, every two seconds, someone in the world dies of starvation.”
Students are often deeply affected by the slide talks. Ray recalls being invited to speak to a student group. “We were told that the topic the month before us was ‘Sex and the College Student,’ and that the speaker following us was John Glenn. We felt a little intimidated being in such a sandwich position, but we were assured that the students were obnoxious and paid little attention to anyone. The students not only paid complete attention to our slide presentation, they asked intelligent questions and they showed a real concern for the poor.” Ray always tells the young people, “The best way for you to help is to be a good student. Then you’ll go out and move into a leadership position in the world and you’ll do something about poverty.”
One of the most difficult things the Seabecks have had to face in Haiti is the children without hope. In 1985, they learned about a youth prison in Port au Prince where over 500 street children from 4 to 18 had been put for begging or stealing food. They were being fed nothing but a bowl of cornmeal mush every other day. They began sending them food, clothing and vocational equipment, like typewriters and sewing machines, so they could support themselves when they left prison. They also recruited a local doctor to give the children medical care.
Many of the children in the prison had been abused by adults since early childhood. They never smiled and would scratch anyone who came near them. The Missionary Servants have provided funds to move the girls in the prison to a home and provide them with bakery equipment, so they can make bread to sell, feed and support themselves. The girls are now smiling all the time.
The Seabecks particularly treasure one incident with the prison children. They wanted to treat them to some cola. But no cola stand in Port au Prince would part with 500 bottles without a deposit and they didn’t have that much money. They were ready to give up. But Ray said, “We’ll pray to our Smiling Pope. And when we find his smile, we’ll find the cola.” At last, they caught sight of one more stand across the street from the prison. A smiling young girl behind the counter sold them the cola! No wonder the Seabecks believe that John Paul I is always watching over their work.
To spread word about John Paul I’s life, teachings, and spirituality, and about their missionary work, the Seabecks began publishing the magazine Humilitas in May 1990. Just recently the magazine published the petition the Brazilian bishops sent to John Paul II, asking him to open the cause for his predecessor’s canonization. This is a hope the Seabecks fervently share. They also hope to raise the money to build a “Papa Luciani Center” on a beautiful hillside in Gilford, to serve as a center for their missionary work, study of the life of John Paul I, and education on world poverty.
“We are not an extraordinary family” Ray says. “We didn’t like planes. The girls didn’t like strange foods. We’re weak people.” But he believes that their weakness itself has an important message. “I agree with Papa Luciani, who said, ‘God often chooses to write in dust, instead of in marble. We are the dust. If the writing remains, then you can be sure it was his work, not your own will.’ Some priests we know say we’ve been used by God in a special way. But we’re doing what any Catholic has an obligation to do in our own way — we just live the Gospel.”
Much has happened since the time this article was written. The Seabecks built their center, and sent goods from it for a number of years. Their daughters have married and given them grandchildren. They have retired and moved out west for Ray’s health, and no longer participate directly in shipping goods, but they continue publishing Humilitas, as they have done for more than 20 years.
You can contact Ray and Lauretta and ask to receive Humilitas at
The Missionary Servants of Pope John Paul I
7845 SW 186th Ave.
Beaverton, OR 97007