Monday, October 22, 2007

Iggy's Back on the Rez: Please! No photos!

On his deathbed, St. Francis enjoined the friars to “begin again. For until now we have done nothing.” Our brother, Father Ignatius DeGroot, ofm, has done just that. After an absence of twenty-five years-- and a lifetime of pastoral experience—he’s begun again by returning to the Arizona desert to work among the Tohono O’odham people. His experience and insights are of value for anyone who is just beginning in religious life. Or who, like himself, is beginning again. Who is Fr. Iggy and how did he get to where he is today? Well, here, I’ll let him tell you himself. He writes:

I am 69 years old , born in 1938, in Noordwijkerhout, the Netherlands. When I was 13 years old I entered the minor seminary in Holland. I was fascinated by a neighbor who was ordained and sent as a missionary to Brazil. The following year, my parents immigrated to the United States, and so in 1952, I entered the minor seminary in Santa Barbara. I subsequently did all of my studies in this country.

My major assignments as a friar have included being a teacher of religion at St. Elizabeth's High School in Oakland, pastor at the parish of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Delano, and also at a parish by the same name in Guadalupe, Arizona. In addition, I worked on the Tohono O’odham reservation (1978-83), and then at St. Mary's Stockton, St. Elizabeth's Oakland, and St. Anthony's San Francisco. After spending a year and a half as director of our retreat house in Three Rivers, California, I traveled to Guatemala, where I worked for five years. Now I am back with the Tohono O’odham.

Iggy wrote more in an article for our in-house publication, WestFriars:

As most of you (friars) know, I lived on the Tohono O’odham reservation for five years from 1978 to 1983. Coming back to the reservation last February (2006) has been an interesting experience for me.

First of all, it was a good experience to return again to the Sonoran Desert with its open vistas, its rocky mountains, which we call “islands” in the desert, to recognize the ironwood, the palo verde, and the mezquite, trees that fill all the washes. It was a joy this spring to have them bloom and turn green. It has been good to see again the coyote, the roadrunner, the hawks, and to hear the morning doves as I wake up. To live in a place where the sunrise and sunset are free spectacles presented so often. Recently the desert storms also have made their appearance, with their towering clouds, sometimes dark and then brillant white when the sun plays on them. To feel their fury in the winds and slashing rain, to hide from the dust storms that often precede them, is a powerful experience. The desert is beautiful.

But recently also the less desirable aspects of the desert have made their appearance. First of all, the heat. We have had weeks with temperatures over 110 degrees. (I live in Chuichu, where it is hotter than the villages of Covered Wells or Topawa where other friars live.) And with the heat also come the insects. Each night my house is invaded by crickets and other bugs.

It has also been good to meet old friends, both among the people and the staff. It has been good to hear the same old songs that we’d sung before, and to my surprise to have the little of the language that I learned then, come back to me without effort. I did not have to learn the names and places of the villages. I almost naturally remembered the customs and ways of doing things among the people. I did not feel like a stranger, but rather someone who has come back home.

The third natural thing that I did was to compare the present situation on the reservation with the situation 25 years ago. On many levels, things have gotten worse rather than better. The reservation is made up of the small town of Sells, and some forty villages, varying in size. Because of better transportation and other reasons, the cohesion of the communities has deteriorated. Among the people, there is much less participation, less working together. Then there always was the problem of alcohol, but now there has been added the strong presence of drugs, and with both of them violence and suicide are also more present. The drugs have brought gangs to the reservation-- not to the extent that they are in the cities, but they are here.

When I mention to outsiders that the missions here can only survive with outside support, I have been asked about the Indian casinos and the money they produce. Yes the O’odham, as all the other tribes, have casinos. And the money coming from them has been used for many worthwhile projects. Two new high schools, a junior college, a museum and cultural center, preschools, elderly centers, recreation centers, district offices, new tribal buildings, a new police complex: all have been mostly financed through the casinos. But with all the services, the welfare syndrome is still very present. People expect to be taken care of, rather than doing things for themselves. Recently I saw a house that was stripped inside and being rebuilt. The owner complained that the tribal agency was working on it and had not done anything for many months. My reaction (not expressed) was: “Why don't you do it yourself?”

Another very notable change here is the overwhelming presence of the Border Patrol. They are everywhere. Having lived in Nazi-occupied Holland when a child, I feel as if I am living in a zone occupied by a military force that has invaded. The border patrol is probably necessary, but it feels very uncomfortable. Recently I was stopped. When I asked the agent why he stopped me, he informed me that he did not have to give a reason. He said that they have the power to stop and search anyone. I guess the Constitution no longer applies.

Then, in the area of church, things have certainly not gotten better. First of all, the participation and attendance is much less then 25 years ago. Chapels which were mostly full then are now half-full. Also, the leadership is not as strong. One of the great problems is that persons with both interest and leadership ability are involved in so many other things that they do not have time to dedicate to the church. Added to this is that the diocese has mandated that all persons involved in any position in the parish go through the abuse training and certification. There has been a real resistance to this, and as a consequence many villages no longer have regular First Communion and Confirmation preparation. Also the uneasy marriage of native culture and European Catholicism causes the people not to fully claim our Catholicism as their own. Added to this is that a number of evangelical churches have come on to the reservation. Before it was just the Catholics and Presbyterians.

My final observation is regarding living alone. I really miss having a community. Living alone here means cooking for yourself, cleaning for yourself, shopping for yourself. They are not my favorite things to do. Also it is a challenge to pray regularly by oneself and to maintain the amenities of civilized life. I often turn on the T.V. simply to have a human voice speaking to me. (He adds: In terms of hobbies, I have always been a handy man, fixing what needs to be fixed, especially carpentry. Growing flowers, hiking are a source of enjoyment. Lately, I have developed a special interest in the immigration situation, so I celebrate Mass at the Eloy Detention Center….. I try to stay balanced, to maintain the discipline of life with a regular schedule of eating sleeping, prayer, work and recreation. I find a great peace in nature, so I make it a point to be in nature as often as I can. I also have made a point to be faithful to community life and especially here on the reservation,I do need to be faithful to prayer. My ministry is not just work.
I also have found it good to let the spiritual dimension of my work be real for me.

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