A Tribute to Father Ken Vavrina
Sunday, February 12
St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant Street
Mass at 9 a.m. followed by special presentation and a reception downstairs
Fr. Ken will also be signing copies of his book “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”
Details about the book at–
I helped Fr. Ken write the book and you can be sure that I will be on hand as well. Hope to see you at this special celebration of a gentle soul who has lived a full life and served his fellow man well.
Read my New Horizons cover profile of Father Ken at
Father Ken Vavrina Signing ‘Crossing Bridges’ on Saturday, May 21 at The Bookworm
Father Ken Vavrina will sign copies of the book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifing Life Among the Downtrodden, on Saturday, May 21 from 1 to 4 pm at The Bookworm, 2501 South 90th Street. Father Ken will be among several authors signing their work at this Concierge Marketing Open House event.
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”
Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years, and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services. First in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India. Then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying.
Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden is the story of Father Ken Vavrina’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him, and places that astonished him. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”
About the Author
Father Ken Vavrina:
Father Kenneth Vavrina is a Roman Catholic priest, currently living and serving in Omaha, Nebraska. Vavrina was born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Nebraska. He was ordained in 1962. In the United States, he ministered to Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics during the height of the civil rights movement.
Through his work with Catholic Relief Services and Mother Teresa, he has served people in five countries on four continents. He served nineteen years of missionary work overseas. He comforted lepers in the Arab nation of Yemen, oversaw relief efforts for victims of an earthquake in southern Italy, and supervised aid to and regenerated the agricultural sector for the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. He also secured food and medicine for war refugees in the African nation of Liberia.
At 80 years of age, he officiates mass daily for the residents of his retirement center.
Book written with assistance from Leo Adam Biga:
Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha author and journalist. His previous books include Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film and Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. His award-winning cultural journalism appears in many publications. Assignments take him across America and overseas. He has traveled to California to cover Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne. He covered the 2009 Barack Obama presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. He made a baseball tour of the Midwest. He recently went to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa as the Andy Award winner for international journalism from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He has a new nonfiction history book in the works. His Nebraska Film Heritage Project is in development.
AMAZON CUSTOMER RATINGS
at 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Refreshments will be served. All are welcome. We hope to see you there.
A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina
In the Omaha World-Herald issue dated today (Wednesday, December 23, 2015), columnist Mike Kelly finds the heart of Father Ken Vavrina and of the book I did with him, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.” Mike was aware that Father Ken got to know Mother Teresa quite well during his missionary years overseas. At Mike’s urging, he, Father and myself took in a screening together of the new dramatic feature film about Mother Teresa, “The Letters,” since Father alone among us could provide first-hand impressions of what Mother was really like. Mike took notes as Father reacted to various things depicted in the film. After the film, Mike interviewed us. Mike’s resulting fine column takes the full measure of the humble humanitarian and servant that is Father Ken. It is Father’s ardent wish that each of us cross our own bridges to experience other cultures and serve diverse peoples. This is how we grow and this is how we make the world a better place to live.
Sunday, January 3rd
Father Ken will be signing his book starting at 10:30 a.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church (in the social hall in the basement of the church), 2423 Grant Street. Refreshments will be served.
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BUY THE BOOK:
“Crossing Bridges” is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. You can also access it on your Kindle. You can also order the book at- http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/#!book/c24jx
The only two local bookstores carrying “Crossing Bridges” are The Bookworm at 2501 South 90th Street and Hudson Booksellers at Eppley Airfield.
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EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:
At the new movie about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Omaha priest occasionally leaned over and whispered about the saintly Nobel Peace Prize laureate he knew well.
“Sadness took a toll on her,” Father Ken Vavrina said at one point. At another: “Tough lady.”
At the Aksarben Cinema for a showing of “The Letters,” the 80-year-old priest, who himself worked with lepers, admired the actress’s portrayal: “Mother walked stooped, just like that.”
Through letters Mother Teresa wrote over 40 years, the biopic tells of her work amid the slums — and her crisis of faith, never feeling she did enough for God.
Father Ken knew nothing about the letters she wrote to her spiritual adviser, but he knew Mother, who died in 1997. He tells about her in a new autobiography with Omaha writer Leo Adam Biga, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”
As we left the theater and walked into afternoon light, the cleric remembered the nun, who died in 1997, as an inspiration.
“We meshed well together,” he said. “She contributed so much to my life and was a great influence in the way she was so humble. She reached out to help people without expecting anything in return.”
The last time I interviewed Father Vavrina was 1998, not long after he returned from 19 years of missionary work overseas. He’d just been assigned to troubled St. Richard Catholic Church at 43rd and Fort Streets, where the former pastor was Daniel Herek, convicted of child pornography and sexual assault.
Vavrina, who had worked in poor, sad situations for most of his priesthood, proclaimed that the parish and elementary school would turn the “negative publicity” around. Always optimistic, he predicted: “This school will still be here in 25 years.”
He tried. But because of declining attendance and enrollment, the church and school closed 11 years later.
Vavrina later served as pastor of St. Benedict the Moor parish in north Omaha. He eventually stated from the pulpit that, against his wishes, Archbishop George Lucas was forcing him to retire at 75.
The priest, who since has survived cancer, now looks at the situation differently. “The archbishop was right, and I was wrong. It was time.”
In retirement, Father Ken can look back on a lifetime of helping the poor — and, as a missionary, assisting “the poorest of the poor.”
He grew up in Clarkson, Nebraska, and was 9 when his father died after a fall from a ladder. As a teen, Ken dated and looked forward to a possible law degree.
But he felt a calling and was ordained in 1962. He worked on the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations in Nebraska and later took medical supplies to members of the American Indian Movement during a 1973 protest in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
He also served inner-city Omaha parishes, taking part in the civil rights movement.
In 1976, Mother Teresa came to Omaha and received an award at Boys Town. (Its official address today is Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, 14086 Mother Teresa Lane, Boys Town, NE 68010.)
Vavrina had long been inspired by her work, and in 1977, he received a leave of absence from the Omaha archdiocese.
In Rome, he met Mother, asking if he could help.
“She threw her hands up in her typical way when she was excited,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Father, I need a priest in Yemen to help the sisters working with lepers.’ ”
And so he went, staying five and a half years. He lived in a dirt-floor hut, scraped dead skin from lepers and witnessed amputations. He called it taxing but fulfilling work, “the best job I ever had.”
He contracted malaria, but not leprosy. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed for two weeks, suspected of spying for the CIA. (He says he was not.) The U.S. Embassy arranged his release.
Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a rebuilding effort after an earthquake, and then to supervise aid in India. As he says in his book:
I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, “What are in these sacks we keep passing by?”
“Those are people.”
Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom.
Father Ken was reunited with Mother Teresa, noting the admiration she received wherever she went. When he left Calcutta in 1991, he wept. He said Mother teared up, too.
He next went to Liberia during civil war, supervising Catholic Relief Services aid and dealing with ruthless dictator Charles Taylor, whom the priest calls “a paranoid egomaniac.”
Father Ken hadn’t planned to write a book, but so many people urged him to do so that he agreed, hoping his story might inspire readers.
He contacted Biga, a freelance writer whose work includes a book about director-screenwriter Alexander Payne. Biga also has traveled to Uganda and Rwanda to write about relief work by world champion boxer Terence Crawford of Omaha.
For the rest of the story, visit-http://www.omaha.com/columnists/kelly-from-mother-teresa-to-a-liberian-dictator-nebraskan-priest/article
DUE TO ILLNESS FATHER VAVRINA WILL NOT BE SIGNING HIS BOOK AS PLANNED TODAY
Father Ken Vavrina signs his new memoir “Crossing Bridges” at The Bookworm – Sat. Nov. 7 from 1-4 pm
Support Father Ken Vavrina and his new memoir, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” at a book signing he’s doing this Saturday Nov. 7, from 1-4 pm, at The Bookworm. He’ll be there as part of a local author-book expo. I will be there, too, because I helped Father Ken with his memoir. Show love to this veteran social justice champion who has given so much to North Omaha, to the African-American community and to people around the world. His life of service to others is a calling to all of us.
Father Ken and I hope to see you there.
Leo Adam Biga
My Inside Stories
Father Ken has been one of North Omaha’s most dedicated servants, making great contributions at Sacred Heart, Holy Family, St. Richard’s and St. Benedict the Moor and through Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and the Bryant Center. He has been a good and loyal friend to the African-American community. His book is an inspirational account of his vocation serving others and it is a call for us to do the same.
The much traveled shepherd has pastored flocks far beyond Omaha. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.
Other authors in attendance and their books:
– Marilyn Coffey, Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story and Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers
– John D’Arcy, Magic Letters of the Alphabet
– Claire Flatowicz, Seeing the World Through Rose-Colored Trifocals
– Natalie Guenther and Kim Schenkelberg, It’s Really 10 Months and It’s Really 10 Months Special Delivery
– Marco LeRoc, Cash In With Your Money and Screw College Debt
– Mary Mahoney, The Thissen Tales
– Kirsten Meier, The Reindeer Tree
– Danica Patchen and Diane Murphy, Ribbit, Qualler, Quack
– Rita Rae Roxx, Once Upon a Rock Star
– Frances Ruh, The Schepp Family Chronicles, Risk Everything, and Question Everything
– Katharine Sires, Grandfather Big Elk
– Fred Tichauer, Real Estate Investors: Clients for Life
The book is available at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/ as well as on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle. The Bookworm is exclusively carrying “Crossing Bridges” among local bookstores.
Father Ken with Mother Teresa
Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons
My profile of Father Ken Vavrina contains excerpts and photos from the new book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.
A Life of Service
Retired Catholic priest Father Kenneth Vavrina, 80, has never made an enemy in his epic travels serving people and opposing injustice.
“I have never met a stranger. Everyone I meet is my friend,” declares Vavrina, who’s lived and worked in some of the world’s poorest places and most trying circumstances.
It’s no accident he ended up going abroad as a missionary because from childhood he burned with curiosity about what’s on the other side of things – hills, horizons, fences, bridges. His life’s been all about crossing bridges, both the literal and figurative kind. Thus, the title of his new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, his personal chronicle of repeatedly venturing across borders ministering to people. His willingness to go where people are in need, whether near or far, and no matter how unfamiliar or forbidding the location, has been his life’s recurring theme.
For most of his 50-plus years as a priest he’s helped underserved populations, some in outstate Neb., some in Omaha, and for a long time in developing nations overseas. Whether pastoring in a parish or doing missionary work in the field, he’s never looked back, only forward, led by his insistent conscience, open heart and boy-like sense of wanderlust. That conscience has put him at odds with his religious superiors in the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese on those occasions when he’s publicly disagreed with Church positions on social issues. His tendency to speak his mind and to criticize the Catholic hierarchy he’s sworn to obey has led to official reprimands and suspensions.
But no one questions his dedication to the priesthood. Always putting his faith in action, he shepherds people wherever he lays his head. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.
His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.
He found himself in some tight spots and compromising positions along the way. He ran supplies to embattled activists during the Siege at Wounded Knee. He was arrested and jailed in Yemen before being expelled from the country. He faced-off with trigger-happy rebels leading supply missions via truck, train and ship in Liberia and dealt with warlords who had no respect for human life.
If his book has a message it’s that anyone can make a difference, whether right at home or half way around the globe, if you’re intentional and humble enough to let go and let God.
“There is nothing remarkable about me…yet I have been blessed to lead a most fulfilling life…The nature of my work has taken me to some fascinating places around the world and introduced me to the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad.
“Stripping away the encumbrances of things and titles is truly liberating because then it is just you and the person beside you or in front of you. There is nothing more to hide behind. That is when two human hearts truly connect.”
Even though he’s retired and no longer puts himself in harm’s way, he remains quite active. He comforts and anoints the sick, he administers communion, he celebrates Mass and he volunteers at St. Benedict the Moor. Occasional bouts of the malaria he picked up overseas are reminders of his years abroad. So is the frozen shoulder he inherited after a botched surgery in Mexico. His shaved head is also an emblem from extended stays in hot climates, where to keep cool he took to buzz cuts he maintains to this day. Then there’s his simple, vegan diet that mirrors the way he ate in Third World nations.
This tough old goat recently survived a bout with cancer. A malignant tumor in his bladder was surgically removed and after recouping in the hospital he returned home. The cancer’s not reappeared but he has battled a postoperative bladder infection and gout. Ask him how he’s doing and he might volunteer, “I’m not getting around too well these days” but he usually leaves it at, “I’m OK.” He lives at the John Vianney independent living community for retired clergy and lay seniors. He’s more spry than many residents. It’s safe to say he’s visited places they’ve never ventured to.
Father Ken today
Born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Neb., both Czech communities in Neb.’s Bohemian Alps, Vavrina and his older brother Ron were raised by their public school teacher mother after their father died in an accident when they were small. The boys and their mother moved in with their paternal grandparents and an uncle, Joe, who owned a local farm implement business and car dealership. The uncle took the family on road trip vacations. Once, on the way back from Calif. by way of the American southwest, Vavrina engaged in an exchange with his mother that profoundly influenced him.
“I remember my mom telling me, “On the other side of that bridge is Mexico,” and right then and there I vowed, ‘One day I’m going to cross that bridge'”
“I never crossed that particular bridge but I did cross a lot of bridges to a lot of different lifestyles and countries and cultures and it was a great, great, great blessing. You learn so much in working with people who are different.”
One key lesson he learned is that despite our many differences, we’re all the same.
Even though he grew up around very little diversity, he was taught to accept all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. He feels that lesson helped him acclimate to foreign cultures and to living and working with people of color whose ways differed from his.
As a fatherless child of the Great Depression and with rationing on due to the Second World War, Vavrina knew something about hardship but it was mostly a good life. Growing up, he went hunting and fishing with his uncle, whose shop he worked in. He played organized basketball and baseball for an early mentor, coach Milo Blecha.
“All in all, I had a wonderful childhood in Clarkson,” he writes. “It was a simple life. The Church was dominant. There was a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church. Father Kubesh was the pastor at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. When he was not saying Mass, Father Kubesh always had a cigar in his mouth. I served Mass as an altar boy. Little did I imagine that he would counsel me when I embarked on studying for the priesthood.”
All through high school Vavrina dated the same girl. His family wasn’t particularly religious and he never even entertained the possibility of the priesthood until he felt the calling at 18. Out of nowhere, he says, the thought, really more like an admonition, formed in his head.
“I was driving a pickup truck on a Saturday morning, about four miles east of Clarkson, when something happened that is still crystal clear to me. I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘Why don’t you go to the seminary?’ Just like that, out of the blue. I thought, This is crazy.
“Was it God’s voice?
“Being a priest is a calling, and I guess maybe it was the call that I felt then and there. If you want to give it a name or try to explain it, then God called me to serve at that moment. He planted the seed of that idea in my head, and He placed the spark of that desire in my heart.”
The very idea threw Vavrina for a loop. After all, he had prospects. He expected to marry his sweetheart and to either go into the family business or study law at Creighton University. The priesthood didn’t jibe with any of that.
He says when he told Father Kubesh about what happened the priest’s first reaction was, “Huh?” For a long time Vavrina didn’t tell anyone else but when it became evident it wasn’t some passing fancy he let his friends and family know. No one, not even himself, could be sure yet how serious his conviction was, which is why he only pledged to give it one year at Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri.
He told his uncle, I’ll give it a shot.” And so he did. One year turned into two, two years turned into three, and so on, and though his studies were demanding he found he enjoyed academics.
He finished up at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and was ordained in 1962.
Calling all cultures
His introduction to new cultures began with his very first assignment, as associate pastor for the Winnebago and Macy reservations in far northern Nebraska. Vavrina was struck by the people’s warmth and sincerity and by the disproportionate numbers living in poverty and afflicted with alcoholism. He disapproved of efforts by the Church to try and strip children of their Native American ways, even sending kids off to live with white families in the summer.
His next assignment brought him to Sacred Heart parish in predominantly black northeast Omaha. He arrived at the height of racial tension during the late 1960s civil rights struggle. He served on an inner city ministerial team that tried getting a handle on black issues. When riots erupted he was there on the street trying to calm a volatile situation. The more he learned about the inequalities facing that community, the more sympathetic he became to both the civil rights and Black Power movements, so much so, he says, people took to calling him “the blackest cat in the alley.”
He was an ally of Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, activist Charlie Washington and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. He befriended Black Panthers David Rice and Ed Poindexter (Mondo we Langa), both convicted in the homemade bomb death of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The two men have always maintained their innocence..
Vavrina welcomed changes ushered in by Vatican II to make the Church more accessible. He criticized what he saw as ultra-conservative and misguided stands on social issues. For example, he opposed official Catholic positions excluding divorced and gay Catholics and forbidding priests from marrying and barring women being ordained. He began a long tradition of writing letters to the editor to express his views. He’s never stopped advocating for these things.
He next served at north downtown Holy Family parish, where his good friend, kindred spirit and fellow “troublemaker” Jack McCaslin pastored. McCaslin spouted progressive views from the pulpit and became a peace activist protesting the military-industrial complex, which resulted in him being arrested many times. The two liberals were a good fit for Holy Family’s open-minded congregation.
Then, in 1973, Vavrina’s life intersected with history. Lorelei Decora, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe, Thunder Bird Clan, called to ask him to deliver medical supplies to her and fellow American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A group of Indians agitating for change occupied the town. Authorities surrounded them. The siege carried huge symbolic implications given its location was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Vavrina knew Decora when she was precocious child. Now she was a militant teen prevailing on him to ride into an armed standoff. He never hesitated. He and a friend Joe Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Sioux, rounded up supplies from doctors at St. Joseph Hospital. They drove to the siege and Father Ken talked his way inside past encamped U.S, marshals.
He met with AIM leader and cofounder Dennis Banks, whom he knew from before.
“Then I saw Lorelei and I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said with great conviction, ‘I came to die.’ They really thought they would all be killed. They were fully committed…On his walkie-talkie Banks reached the authorities and told them, ‘Let this guy stay here. He’s objective. He’ll let you know what’s going on.’ The authorities went along…that’s how I came to spend two nights at the compound. We bivouacked in a ravine where the Indians had carved out trenches. We used straw and blankets over our coats, plus body heat, to keep warm at night. It was not much below freezing, and there was little snow on the ground, which made the camp bearable.
“At night the shooting would commence…the tracers going overhead, the Indians huddled for cover, and several of the occupiers sick with cold and flu symptoms.
“Once back home, Joe and I attempted to make a second medicine supply run up there. We drove all the way to the rim but were turned back by the marshals because the violence had started up again and had actually escalated. When the siege finally ended that spring, there were many arrests and a whole slew of charges filed against the protesters.”
By the late-’70s Vavrina was serving a northeast Neb. parish and feeling restless. He’d given his all to combatting racism and advocating for equal rights but was disappointed more transformational change didn’t occur. He saw many priests abandon their vows and the Church regress into conservatism after the promise of Vatican II reforms. More than anything though, he felt too removed from the world of want. It bothered him he’d never really put himself on the line by giving up things for a greater good or surrendering his ego to a life of servitude.
“I felt I was out of the mainstream, away from the action. Plus, I knew the civil rights movement was…not going to reach what I thought it could achieve…So I decided I was going overseas. I wanted to be where I could do the greatest good. I always felt drawn to the missions…I just felt a need to experience voluntary poverty and to become nothing in a foreign land.
“…an experience in Thailand changed the whole trajectory of my missions plan. I was walking the streets of Bangkok…on the edge of downtown…Then I made a wrong turn and suddenly found myself in the slums of Bangkok…everywhere I looked was human want and suffering at a scale I was unprepared for.
“I was shocked and appalled by the conditions people lived in. I realized there were slums all over the world and these people needed help. What was I doing about it? The experience really hit me in the face and marked an abrupt change in my thinking. I looked at my relative affluence and comfortable existence, and I suddenly saw the hypocrisy in my life. I resolved then and there, I was going to change, and I was going to move away from the privilege I enjoy, and I would work with the poor.”
A reinforcing influence was Mother Teresa, whom he admired for leaving behind her own privilege and possessions to tend to the poor and sick and dying. He resolved to offer himself in service to her work.
The nun, he writes, “was a great inspiration..” Nothing could shake his conviction to go follow a radically different path and calling.
His going away had nothing to do with escaping the past but everything to do with following a new course and passion. By that time he’s already worked 15 years in the archdiocese and “loved every minute of it.” He was finishing up a master’s degree in counseling at Creighton University. “Everything was good. No nagging doubts. But I just felt compelled to do more,” he writes.
He asked and received permission from the diocese to work overseas for one year and that single year, he describes, turned into 19 “incredible years helping the poorest of the poor.”
He no sooner found Mother Teresa in Italy than she asked him to go to Yemen, an Arab country in southwest Asia, to work with residents of the leper village City of Light.
“I simply replied, ‘Sure,’” Vavrina notes in his book.
In Yemen he witnessed the fear and superstition that’s caused lepers to be treated as outcasts everywhere. In that community he worked alongside Missionaries of Charity as well as lepers.
“My primary job was to scrape dead skin off patients using a knife or blade. It was done very crudely. Lepers, whether they are active or negative cases, have a problem of rotting skin. That putrid skin has to be removed for the affected area to heal and to prevent infection…I would then clean the skin.
“I would also keep track of the lepers and where they were with their treatment and the medicines they needed.”
He embraced the spartan lifestyle and shopping at the local souk. He found time to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. He also saw harsh things. An alleged rapist was stoned to death and the body displayed at the gate of the market. Girls were compelled to enter arranged marriages, forbidden from getting an education or job, and generally treated as property. Yemen is also where he contracted malaria and endured the first sweats and fevers that accompany it.
Yet, he says, Yemen was the place he found the most contentment. Then, without warning, his world turned upside down when he found himself the target of Yemeni authorities. They took him in for seemingly routine questioning that turned into several nights of pointed interrogation. He was released, but under house arrest, only to be detained again, this time in an overcrowded communal jail cell.
He was incarcerated nearly two weeks before the U.S. embassy arranged his release. No formal charges were brought against him. The police insinuated proselytizing, which he flatly denied, though he sensed they actually suspected him of spying. They couldn’t believe a healthy, middle-aged American male would choose to work with lepers.
His release was conditional on him immediately leaving the country. The expulsion hurt his soul.
“Being kicked out of the country, and for nothing mind you, other than blind suspicion, was not the way I imagined myself departing. I was disappointed. I truly believe that if I had been left to do my work in peace, I would still be there because I enjoyed every minute of working with the lepers. There is so much need in a place like Yemen, and while I could help only a few people, I did help them. It was taxing but fulfilling work.”
He traveled to Italy, where Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a program rebuilding an earthquake ravaged area. Then CRS sent him to supervise aid programs in India. After nine months in Cochin he was transferred to Calcutta. Everywhere he set foot, hunger prevailed, with millions barely getting by on a bare subsistence level and life a daily survival test.
Besides supplying food, the programs taught farmers better agricultural practices and enlisted women in the micro loan program Grameen Bank. In all, he directed $38 million in aid annually.
The generous spirit of people to share what little they have with others impressed him. Seeing so many precariously straddle life and death, with many mothers and children not making it, opened his eyes. So did the sheer scale of want there.
“I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, ‘What are in these sacks we keep passing by?’ ‘Those are people.’ Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom. That was my introduction to Calcutta.
“I was scared of Calcutta. Of the push and pull and crunch of the staggering numbers of people. Of the absurd overcrowding in the neighborhoods and streets. Of the overwhelming, mind-numbing, heartbreaking, soul-hurting poverty. That mass of needy humanity makes for a powerful, sobering, jarring reality that assaults all the senses…
“…only God knows the true size of the population…I often say to religious and lay people alike, ‘Go to Calcutta and walk the streets for six days and it will change your life forever” Walk the streets there for one day and even one hour, and it will change you. I know it did me.”
Vavrina was reunited there with Mother Teresa.
“I spent a lot of time working with Mother, Whenever she had a problem she would come into the office. If there was a natural disaster where her Sisters worked we would always help with food or whatever they needed.”
He witnessed people’s adoration of Mother Teresa wherever she went. There was enough mutual respect between this American priest and Macedonian nun that they could speak candidly and laugh freely in each other’s company. He criticized her refusal to let her Sisters do the type of development work his programs did. He disapproved of how tough she was with her Sisters, whom she demanded live in poverty and restrict themselves to providing comfort care to the sick and dying.
He writes, “I disagreed with Mother and I told her so. I knew the value of development work. Our CRS programs in India were proof of its effectiveness…she listened to me, not necessarily agreeing with me at all…and then went right ahead and did her own thing anyway…I cried the day I left Calcutta in 1991. I loved Calcutta. Mother Teresa had tears in her eyes as well. We had become very good friends. She was the real deal…hands on…not afraid to get her hands dirty.”
Years later he read with dismay and sadness how she experienced the Dark Night of the Soul – suffering an inconsolable crisis of faith.
“I knew her well and yet I never detected any indication, any sign that she was burdened with this internal struggle. Not once in all the time I spent with her did she betray a hint of this. She seemed in all outward appearances to be quite happy and jovial,” he writes. “However, I did know that she was very intense about her faith and her work. In her mind and heart she was never able to do enough. She never felt she did enough to please God, and so there was this constant, gnawing void she felt that she could never fully fill or reconcile.”
Even all these years later Vavrina says his experience in India is never far from his thoughts.
CRS next sent him to Liberia, Africa, where a simmering civil war boiled over. His job was getting supplies to people who’d fled their villages. That meant dealing with the most powerful rebel warlord, Charles Taylor, whose forces controlled key roads and regions.
The program Vavrina operated there dispersed $42 million in aid each year, most of it in food and medicine. As in India, goods arrived by ship in port for storage in warehouses before being trucked to destinations in-country. Vavrina often rode in the front truck of convoys that passed through rebel-occupied territories where boys brandishing automatic weapons manned checkpoints. There were many tense confrontations.
On three occasions Vavrina got Taylor to release a freight train to carry supplies to a large refugee contingent in dire need of food and medicine in the jungle. Taylor provided a general and soldiers for safe passage but Vavrina went along on the first run to ensure the supplies reached their intended recipients.
Everywhere Vavrina ran aid overseas he contended with corruption to one extent or another. Loss through pilfering and paying out bribes to get goods through were part of the price or tax for conducting commerce. Though he hated it, he dealt with the devil in the person of Taylor in order to get done what needed doing. Grim reminders of the carnage that Taylor inflamed and instigated were never lost on Vavrina and on at least once occasion it hit close to home.
“Not for a moment did I ever forget who I was really talking to…I never forgot that he was a ruthless dictator. He was a pathological liar too. He could look you dead in the eye and tell you an out-and-out untruth, and I swear he was convinced he was telling the truth. A real paranoid egomaniac. But in war you cannot always choose your friends.
“Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died in Liberia during those civil wars. There were many atrocities. One in particular touched me personally. On October 20, 1992, five American nuns, all of whom I knew and considered friends, were killed. I had visited them at their convent two days before this tragedy. May they rest in peace.”
The killings were condemned worldwide.
His most treacherous undertaking involved a cargo ship, The Sea Friend, he commissioned to offload supplies in the port at Greenville. Only rebels arrived there first. To make matters worse the ship sprung a leak coming into dock. Thus, it became a test of nerves and a race against time to see if the supplies could be salvaged from falling prey to the sea and/or the clutches of rebels. When all seemed lost and the life of Vavrina and his companions became endangered, a helicopter answered their distress call and rescued them from the ugly situation.
Hs work in Liberia was left unfinished by the country’s growing instability and by his more frequent malaria attacks, which forced him back home to the States. At the request of CRS he settled in New York City doing speaking and fundraising up and down the East Coast. Then he went to work for the Catholic Medical Mission Board, who sent him to Cuba to safeguard millions of dollars in medical supplies for clinics in an era when America’s Cuba embargo was still officially in effect.
During his visit Vavrina met then-Archbishop of Havana, Jamie Ortega, now a cardinal. Vavrina supported then and applauds now America normalizing relations with Cuba.
He also appreciates the progressive stances Pope Francis has taken in extending a more welcoming hand by the Church to divorced and gay Catholics and in encouraging the Church to be more intentional about serving the poor and disenfranchised. The pope’s call for clergy to be good pastors and shepherds who work directly work with people in need is what Vavrina did and continues doing.
“This is exactly what the Holy Father is saying. They need to get out of the office and stop doing just administration and reach out to people who are being neglected. A shepherd reaches out to the lost sheep. Jesus talks about that all the time,” Vavrina says.
As soon as Vavrina ended his missions work overseas he intended coming back to work in Omaha’s inner city but he kept getting sidetracked. Then he got assigned to serve two rural Neb. parishes. Finally, he got the call to pastor St. Richard’s in North Omaha, where he was sent to heal a congregation traumatized by the pedophile conviction of their former pastor, Father Dan Herek.
Vavrina writes, “Those wounds did not heal overnight. I knew going in I would be inheriting a parish still feeling raw and upset by the scandal. Initially my role was to help people deal with the anger and frustration and confusion they felt. Those strong emotions were shared by adults and youths alike.”
During his time at St. Richard’s he immersed himself in the social action group, Omaha Together One Community.
Facing declining church membership and school enrollment, the archdiocese decided to close St. Richard’s, whereupon Vavrina was assigned the parish he’d long wanted to serve – St. Benedict the Moor. As the metro’s historic African-American Catholic parish, St. Benedict’s has been a refuge to black Catholics for generations. Vavrina led an effort to restore the parish’s adjacent outdoor recreation complex, the Bryant Center, which has become a community anchor for youth sports and educational activities in a high needs neighborhood. He also initiated an adopt a family program to assist single mothers and their children. Several parishes ended up participating.
Poverty and unemployment have long plagued sections of northeast Omaha. Those problems have been compounded by disproportionately high teenage pregnancy, school dropout, incarceration and gun violence rates. Vavrina saw too many young people being lost to the streets through drugs, gangs or prostitution. Many of these ills played out within a block or two of the rectory he lived in and the church he said Mass in. He’s encouraged by new initiatives to support young people and to revitalize the area.
Wherever he pastored he forged close relationships. “One of the benefits of being a pastor is that the parish adopts you as one of their own, and the people there become like a family to you,” he writes.
At St. Ben’s that sense of family was especially strong, so much so that when he announced one Sunday at Mass that the archbishop was compelling him to retired there was a hue and cry from parishioners. He implored his flock not to make too big a fuss and they mostly complied. No, he wasn’t ready to retire, but he obeyed and stepped aside. Retirement gave him time to reflect on his life for the book he ended up publishing through his own Uplifting Publishing and Concierge Marketing Publishing Services in Omaha.
Father Ken enjoying our book
“I’ve had a wonderful life, oh my,” he says.
Now that that wonderful life has been distilled into a book, he hopes his journey is instructive and perhaps inspiring to others.
“I wrote the book hoping it was going to encourage people to cross bridges and to reach out to people who otherwise they would not reach out to. That’s exactly what Pope Francis is talking about.”
Besides, he says, crossing bridges can be the source of much joy. The life story his book lays out is evidence of it.
“That story just says how great a life I have had,” he says.
“It is my prayer that the travels and experiences I describe in these pages serve as guideposts to help you navigate your own wanderings and crossings.
“A bridge of some sort is always before you…never be afraid to open your heart and speak your mind. We are all called to be witnesses. We are all called to testify. To make the crossing, all that is required is a willing and trusting spirit. Go ahead, make your way over to the other side. God is with you every step of the way. Take His hand and follow. Many riches await.”
Order the book at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com.
“Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”
5.0 out of 5 stars “A Humble Man with a Powerful Story” Sept. 1 2015
By Sandra Wendel – Published on Amazon.com
“As a book editor, I find that these incredible heroes among us cross our paths rarely. I am indeed lucky to have worked with Father Ken in shaping his story, which he finally agreed to tell the world. You will enjoy his modesty and humility while serving the poorest of the poor. His story of his first days in the leper colony in Yemen is indeed compelling, as is his survival in prison in Yemen. Later, his work in Calcutta, Liberia, and Cuba made a difference.”
5.0 out of 5 stars Father Ken Vavrina Sept. 28 2015
By Sandra L Vavrina – Published on Amazon.com
“Crossing Bridges. Father Ken’s life is amazing! He is my husband’s cousin and performed our wedding ceremony 51 years ago right after he was ordained.”
5.0 out of 5 stars “Great Book” Sept. 1 2015
By ken tuttle – Published on Amazon.com
“Such an amazing life story.”
After Father Ken recoups the cost of the book’s priting, all proceeds will go to Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha.
COVER STORY NOTE:
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The work-in-progress page is devoted to my acclaimed book about the Oscar-winning filmmaker and his work.
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” –Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (The Genius of the System)
The book sells for $25.95.
Available through Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, for Kindle and at other bookstores and gift shops nationwide.
Purchase it at–https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MRORX1U?ref_=k4w_oembed_c1Anr6bJdAagnj&tag=kpembed-20&linkCode=kpd
You can also order signed copies by emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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