Making a better world, one stone at a time

People like to say we control our own destiny.

But in some of the most important aspects of that destiny, we have zero influence.

None of us has a say in where we were born. We aren’t consulted about who our parents will be. Nor are we looped in to the decision-making that determines our birth family’s economic status.

Those facts of life leave me bewildered why some of us look down on people, or nations, we think are “below” our station in life. Were it not for that luck of the draw at birth, those people could be you and me.

To help reinforce that point, my wife spent several hours last week scrubbing the dirt and gunk off two dozen rocks, each about the size of a small ham. Her cleaning binge wasn’t the result of extreme fastidiousness.

Instead, Sue was preparing the rocks to help illustrate the importance of people sharing their treasure – as plentiful or meager as it may be – with those who were not blessed the way most of us here in Iowa were blessed in life.

This lesson in sharing began in 2012 when a friend of the Evanses, Msgr. Frank Bognanno, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, when he was 72 years old.

The trek to Kilimanjaro’s 19,340-foot summit was made by 17 cancer survivors and 20 caregivers from Iowa who were assembled by Dr. Richard Deming, a Des Moines oncologist. The monsignor was among Deming’s patients.

Not surprisingly, Bognanno used the trip to Tanzania, where Kilimanjaro is located, to connect with his Catholic brothers and sisters in that eastern African nation. That included meeting the bishop of the diocese of Moshi, which is at the foot of the mountain.

It also was no surprise when Bognanno returned home and set out to make a difference in the lives of the people in Moshi, especially Ntirini parish. Bognanno’s we’ll-get-this-done attitude was one of the reasons he was chosen in 1979 to organize the Iowa visit by Pope John Paul II.

Tanzania is a nation of extreme poverty and malnutrition. Hourly wages there are measured in cents, not dollars. Adequate food and clean drinking water are never taken for granted.

Bognanno talked with his parishioners at Christ the King Church, where he has been assigned for the past 17 years. He reminded them of the importance of generosity, of sharing their treasure with others who could use a helping hand.

And parishioners responded.

Each year they have sent tens of thousands of meals to the Moshi diocese. They have donated thousands of dollars for school uniforms and supplies at Ntirini parish.

When parishioners learned that impure drinking water was a leading cause of sickness and death among children there, they found experts who could design a simple purification system. Then they set about raising the money to pay for the equipment.

So far, Christ the King parishioners have paid for and installed purification systems at 19 of the 38 schools in the diocese. About $50,000 has already been raised to pay for systems for the remaining schools.

That brings me to those stones, now spic-and-span thanks to Sue’s elbow grease.

This past weekend, several dozen parishioners, all dressed in colorful Tanzanian garments, processed into Christ the King for four services while carrying those rocks. The rocks are a symbol of the next challenge Msgr. Bognanno and Father P.J. McManus laid out for members of Christ the King – helping the people of Ntirini parish construct a building to serve as a church, community center, clinic and education center for a rural area known as Kiangaa outstation.

Church now is held on a concrete slab seemingly in the middle of nowhere. People walk for miles to get there, bringing their own chairs. A tarp sometimes is strung between poles to shield worshippers from the sun.

Those rocks Sue scrubbed, and the men, women and children who carried them to the altar Saturday and Sunday, symbolize the stones that the people in Ntirini parish are literally carrying to the construction site to be used in the foundation for their new church.

Already people from Christ the King are signing up to travel to Tanzania this summer to help with the construction work. Others are writing checks to help with paying for the building.

Earl Harper, one of the members, has traveled to Ntirini parish a half-dozen times to help install the water purification systems and learn of other needs the people back in Iowa can help with.

“We’re just counting our own blessings by helping our new friends in Tanzania,” he said.

Pope Francis explained it this way: In order to bring about better understanding and unity, people should adopt the humility, kindness and generosity that will help transform them into the “living stones” on which a better world is built.

And living stones don’t go looking down their noses at the least among us.

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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