Today, we are sharing the story of our partners in mission, the Grendys, as told by Gary Grendys. Our missionary work could not take place without the love, prayers, and support of so many like the Grendys. Keep reading to learn how Gary and Barbara encountered the work of Divine Word Missionaries and what they decided to do next.
In the fall of 2008, I had the opportunity to meet Brother Damien Lunders SVD at the Mission Center of Divine Word Missionaries in Techny, Illinois. One can call it luck, fate, or a predestined meeting. He was in Chicago for an annual fundraiser and then was returning to Thailand to continue his work.
We discussed his proposed project, namely, a home for youth with HIV that would consist of five buildings: three dorms housing eight children each; a staff building; and a multiple use center with a kitchen, television, computers, and game tables. The facility would give the residents a home-like setting in which to develop as normal teenagers. They would have opportunities to learn a trade so they could become self-reliant young adults. The Thai government would supply the medication that must be administered twice daily.
We decided we wanted to be involved in bringing this home for youth with HIV into a reality.
Inspired by His Mother and Her Humble Origins
My mother passed away six months before my first meeting with Bro. Damien. She had a long and rewarding life until her death at the age of ninety-four. Mom was blessed with both longevity and prosperity and, in her waning years, we discussed giving an appropriate gift to a mission charity.
Mother often recalled her days as a youth growing up on the near west side of Chicago in the 1920s. This was the Chicago of prohibition and the gangsters that gave Chicago its reputation.
My mother told me about the ice man and his delivery truck, coal trucks, local bakers and butchers, cobblers, and a period of day-to-day survival that now seems so foreign to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Yet, no matter how tough things were, the family dressed up for Sunday Mass. Everyone wore shined shoes and clean, pressed clothes. She reminisced about sewing and making her own clothing on an old sewing machine.
I have also been blessed in my life with financial prosperity, yet thanks to my mother’s influence, I have always tried to maintain an awareness of the plight of others. Having been born with the proverbial silver spoon, my mother knew the importance of attempting to teach me to see the world through the eyes of those less fortunate. Being able to share my financial blessings with people of modest means, and especially being able to provide for the well-being of children, is a tremendously gratifying experience.
The Grendys Made the Trip to Thailand
When I saw the same type of manual sewing machines on the streets of Nong Bua Lamphu in Thailand, I thought of my mother’s story.
Our trip to Udon Thani and Nong Bua Lamphu proved to be a major highlight of our travels, if not our lives. We found our inability to speak the Thai language was not a barrier, since the gratitude of children is universal anywhere in the world. We had the opportunity to meet and share dinner with Bishop George Phimphisan in Udon Thani. It is a memory we treasure. The bishop was a delightful, soft-spoken person and he spoke English fluently. When Pope John Paul II visited Thailand, Bishop Phimphisan assisted him as an interpreter and prepared translations of the Holy Father’s speeches.
The Diocese of Udon Thani is the poorest in Thailand; it is located in northeast Thailand, not far from the border with Laos. Thailand is about ninety-five percent Buddhist, while one-half of one percent of the population is Catholic. It is difficult to comprehend how people can live on three dollars a day. Like their ancestors, many Thai people work in the rice fields throughout the day in the hot sun with humidity at 100 percent and temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even during the rainy season. Nong Bua Lamphu has no industry or manufacturing; it is strictly an agrarian community based on rice farming.
Our Life Paths Cross through an Unseen Wisdom
Barbara and I plan to return to watch the children’s progress. Many of the children are Buddhist, yet they still go to St. Michael’s Church weekly and attend religious education classes regularly. A few have decided to be baptized. We will keep in contact with Bro. Damien via e-mail to follow the development of the vegetable garden. We are also interested in the fish and duck ponds that aid the children working towards independence. We are glad to help kids affected by HIV have a happier life.
As I reflected on meeting and working with Bro. Damien, I thought of Father Damien De Veuster’s pioneering work in Molokai, Hawaii, in the 1800s. Bro. Damien Lunders SVD has been a true missionary pioneer in the Nong Bua Lamphu area and he has dedicated his life to the children of the mission for more than fifteen years. Learning the Thai language, evaluating the people’s needs, and then implementing a master program with limited funds is a difficult task. A lot of prayer, faith, and dedication were needed, along with guidance from above.
Although Damien is not a common name, it was the name of my maternal grandfather. Surely our meeting Bro. Damien was no coincidence. I have wondered at the invisible hand and unseen wisdom that brought us together.
The same rice fields still exist that were there before construction, but now a portion of the land is covered with stone, mortar, and stucco. The home for youth is a reality and it is an oasis of learning, medical care, spiritual growth, love, and hope. Barbara and I are very grateful to be able to assist Bro. Damien in his endeavors!