Catching Up: Modestans talk of Liberia; Father Illo enjoying Rome sabbatical

Dave and Babs Veneman of Modesto packed up their entire lives and moved to Liberia in May 2008 to work with the Rafiki Foundation's orphanage there.

The nonprofit organization's goal is to care for and educate children who are orphaned, often by the AIDS pandemic in Africa. They do this by putting the youngsters into family-type settings, living in small groups with "moms" in cottages on protected sites.

Dave is the director and operations manager; he does everything from getting the lights to work to finding crops that can grow in a bad soil and in weather from hot humidity to torrential rains. Babs is in charge of the kitchen, laundry and cleaning staff, as well as serving as the health manager, "which means I pass out malaria meds and ibuprofen to the national staff and try to keep the kids healthy."

They returned to Modesto earlier this year for a quick visit. Their commitment to Rafiki runs through May; they have not yet decided whether to extend their stay.

The Rev. Joseph Illo is in Rome on a nine-month sabbatical. The popular pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto drew national media interest after last year's presidential election when he suggested that if parishioners voted for Barack Obama fully knowing his pro-abortion rights stance, they might need to go to confession.

His parishioners overwhelmingly stood by their priest and have said they wish him well in his studies, missing his concise and insightful homilies but continuing to help run the parish smoothly in his absence.

The Bee caught up with the Venemans and Illo by e-mail and asked them to update readers on their adventures. Here's what they had to say:

Traveling the Roman Road

Father Illo arrived in Rome in early October and has found the city to be interlaced with the ancient and the modern, with horrendous traffic and idyllic byways, a steady diet of saints and good food, and an unexpected delight in studies and service.

"I bought a scooter, actually the same model I have in Modesto, although with many more miles on it," he said. "Driving in Rome, as another priest observed, is an extreme sport."

He said the chaos and crowds are the biggest challenge of his sabbatical.

"It took me a good six weeks to learn how to drive and park in the city, how to buy basic goods without getting robbed, how to speak with Romans without getting yelled at."

But his studies -- theology by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Hans Urs von Balthasa and Henri de Lubac -- are going very well.

"My classes are good and our professors are the best I've ever had. In addition, God has given me lots of time to pray, in many kinds of churches and with many different kinds of people.

"(My work) is taking me deeper than I've ever gone. I am beginning to see why I came on sabbatical, I think. God is showing me the priesthood as a means of intimacy with God, and not an end in itself."

He has met up with several old friends in the city, including "my old Dominican spiritual director, whom I had to give up after eight years in California when he was transferred to teach full time in Rome. We spend every fourth Saturday afternoon together: solemn vespers at St. Peter's, spiritual direction and confession, and then dinner at some little pizza place."

Illo said he has been enjoying "the things only Rome can offer -- "talks by theologians or cardinals, concerts, museums and archaeological sites. I hiked around the lost Rome city of Tusculum and walked a good way on the old Roman road through the autumn woods. The road is 2,000 years old and still in good shape, since hardly anyone uses it anymore."

Thursdays are his day off, and he often takes his mountain bike to explore. On one recent Thursday, Illo said he "went to the Milvian Bridge, first built 510 B.C., and rebuilt a dozen or so times since then. It is the bridge over which Constantine fought his way into Rome in 312 B.C., following a sign in the sky to paint crosses on the shields of his pagan soldiers. The next year, he legalized Christianity in the Empire, and that began the Christianization of Europe."

With the antiquity comes new thoughts.

"I discovered Ramses II's obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, brought to Rome from Egypt by Augustus at the time of Christ and re-erected by Pope Sixtus V in the 16th century," Illo said. "Ramses had made the obelisk to commemorate his conquests in the 13th century B.C.

"The following night, I was giving a talk on Exodus, about how the children of Israel had to leave Egypt and offer sacrifices to Yahweh in the desert. The thought struck me: The obelisk was (from) the pharaoh of Moses' day. It is not improbable that the Hebrew slaves I was speaking about carved the hieroglyphs onto that obelisk."

Besides the old, there also is the new to inspire him.

"My second week here, I was feeling mighty homesick, and also depressed by the noise, pollution and paganism of modern Rome," he said. "Then the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's nuns) asked me to do Mass every Saturday morning at their AIDS hospice for women, far outside the city. ... I was surprised by the joy, the warmth, the charity of this little community, six of Mother Teresa's sisters, two other nuns and four women with AIDS. Offering the prayers of Jesus with them, who sang to God straight from their hearts, and seeing their faces shining with love warmed me from the inside out."

Illo also serves at a men's shelter near the Rome train station.

"And so go my days and evenings in Rome," he said. "It is truly a grace and an adventure to be here. God has granted me a good balance of prayer, reading, fraternity, adventure, exercise and service to the nuns."

He said, "I feel like a schoolboy again, and it's a good thing. My Italian is back up in good working order and we do most of our reading and seminars in that language, as well as Masses and homilies for the nuns.

"For all that, I dearly miss Modesto and my beloved parish. I read The Modesto Bee online a few times a week and look forward to returning in July. I think of the people of my parish every day and pray for them."

Hot, isolated Christmas

Christmas can be summed up in one word by the Venemans: different.

"When we lived in Modesto, Christmas was full of family and friends," Babs Veneman said. "Here, we will probably stay home on Christmas. Downtown Monrovia will be very busy, as many people will be attending church service on Christmas morning."

The orphans and their "mamas" will ride in taxis to those church services. When they return, a special dinner and gifts will be waiting.

"There are several children here this Christmas who have never seen a Christmas tree or had a Christmas present," Babs said. "This will be a special year for them."

But to Dave and Babs, "it hardly feels like Christmas. No family or friends, no parties, no special church activities, no going to the mall for a last-minute present. The weather is wrong (it's hot, not chilly), and even the food is wrong -- no ham or turkey, no special cookies or Dutch pastries. Last year, we did not even exchange gifts, as it is so much work to get regular shopping done that anything unnecessary, we ignore.

"It's a good thing Christmas is so much more than tradition or activities!"

The orphanage has 19 children, up by eight youngsters in the past year.

"It is a long process to get children here, as we work closely with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to make sure that the children we receive are true orphans," Veneman said. Those eight were the only ones approved out of 100 that were brought to the village.

The Venemans work "from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., six to seven days a week," Babs said. "Quite frankly, sometimes it is overwhelming. But then we receive another child, and we remember what this is about -- saving vulnerable children from a hopeless situation and giving them more than just the chance to survive, but also the tools needed to become productive members of Liberian society (good health, emotional stability, quality education, knowledge of their God)."

Within days, she said, children change dramatically. "Most are malnourished or sick when they arrive. They often have never seen a shower or a flush toilet. One little boy could not believe his first breakfast here. He had never had food so early in the day, and then just four hours later, he got more food -- lunch! He thought this place was great!"

The children flourish, she added, with the books, games, puzzles, adults who care when they scrape a knee, clean sheets, cozy beds, shoes that fit, stimulus for the mind and heart -- "these are the things that make up a healthy childhood. And these children respond immediately to structure, stability, good nutrition and love," Babs said. "Watching these children change is the most rewarding thing we experience here."

What are the toughest things?

Babs said the loneliness for her -- they are so busy and so distant from other missionary couples that it's hard not to miss the family and friends she left behind. For Dave, it's the bureaucracy. Part of his job is dealing with the various ministries -- labor, finance, social welfare, education, immigration, economic affairs and planning, etc.

"Every form he has to fill out leads to another form and another three-week delay," Babs said. "We still do not have our work permits, and we have been working on those since June 2008. It is typical."

She misses reading the newspaper, coffee shops and shopping for fun. Dave misses Home Depot, quality sink and light fixtures and piloting a plane.

Dave has planted a tropical plantation with pineapple, banana, plantain and papaya trees. "He also started some avocado trees," Babs said. "This is a long way from almonds and walnuts. But you know, you can take the farmer out of the farm, but not the farm out of the farmer."

They are not certain about the future. "God has not made that clear to us yet, so our plans past May 2010 are uncertain," Babs said. "There is much work to do here, we do know that. Whether it is for us to do or others, well, I guess we will see."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or