Heroes You Should Know: Felix Finkbeiner

felix-finkbeiner

In 2007 a nine year-old boy in Germany was given an assignment in school to write a paper on the issue of climate change.  Not long into his research, Felix Finkbeiner discovered the story of Wangri Muta Maathai, the Kenyan hero who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement that has been responsible for planting over 30 million trees across Africa to fight deforestation and soil erosion.

 

Trees lower carbon dioxide emissions, and thus diminish the Greenhouse Effect.

 

Inspired by this great woman, young Felix decided that the rest of the world needed to follow suit.  His initial goal was to plant 1 million trees around the world.  On March 28, 2007 Felix planted his first tree at his school, and Plant-for-the-Planet was born.

 

Supported by his parents, who are both environmental activists, as well as his classmates and his school Felix began to visit local schools, and helped them start tree-planting drives.  A website was developed that taught people how to plant trees, provided information about environmental issues, and gave links to like-minded organizations.

 

Soon the local media picked up the story, and in just three years Plant-for-the-Planet had planted its 1 millionth tree in Germany alone.

 

Felix was invited to speak at conferences in South Korea, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Italy and China.  And in 2011 he addressed the United Nations, challenging the adults in the room to “stop talking and start planting.”  By that time, Felix had also established an international youth board made up of 14 representatives from eight different regions around the world to facilitate tree plantings, grow the dialogue about environmental concerns, and empower more youths.  Currently, over 100,000 children are participating in the mission of Plant-for-the-Planet in over 190 nations.

 

His belief—adults alone cannot be trusted to make the changes necessary.

 

The United Nations Environment Program was so impressed with Felix and his organization it turned over management of its own Billion Tree Campaign, an incredibly effective tree-planting program in its own right, to Plant-for-the-Planet soon after his U.N. speech.

 

The number of trees planted since Felix planted his first tree in his elementary school’s courtyard is 14,201,740,128.   His goal is to have 1,000 billion trees planted worldwide by 2020.

 

Is anyone questioning that this advocate for Mother Earth will reach that number?

 

Felix Finkbeiner is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Marianne Cope—Loving the Unlovely

FILE - This 1883 file photo provided by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities shows Mother Marianne Cope, a nun who dedicated her life to caring for exiled leprosy patients on Kalaupapa in Hawaii. Mother Marianne gave her life to caring for Hawaii's leprosy patients, outcasts that others stayed away from at the time out of fear they might contract the disfiguring disease. On Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, almost a century after she died at the remote Kalaupapa leprosy settlement in 1918, the Vatican will formally recognize her as a saint. Bishop Larry Silva of the Honolulu diocese says she's "an inspiration to us to do the hard work, to not always do the glory work, but to roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done for the sake of our brothers and sisters."  Two of the seven saints to be canonized on Sunday are American women from upstate New York: the Vatican will also canonize Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mowhawk Indian who spent most of her life in upstate New York. Marianne was born in Utica, N.Y. and entered the sisterhood in Syracuse. (AP Photo/Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, File)

Born in Germany, Marianne and her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in New York, when she was one year-old.  Her father was in poor health, so Marianne went to work at an early age in a textile factory to support her family.  But at 24, with her siblings able to support themselves, Marianne was finally free to pursue a religious vocation—joining the Franciscans.

 

She began as a teacher, and later a principal for schools in the region with a large German-speaking population. But by 1870, she’d moved into the field of health care, and had helped found the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York—with missions to offer medical care to anyone, regardless of race or creed.

 

Sister Marianne had become Mother Marianne, as the Superior General of her congregation in 1883, when she received a desperate plea from King Kalakaua of Hawaii for help in caring for the large number of patients suffering with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy.  Over 50 congregations had already refused his request, but not Cope.  By December of that year she and six sisters had sailed to Honolulu, and were working at the receiving station for all leprosy patients from the islands.  The most severe cases were then shipped to the island of Molokai.

 

Although she’d only planned on staying a year, it was determined by authorities that Mother Cope’s leadership was necessary for the success of the mission.  Within two years the King had bestowed on Cope the highest award given by the government for service to humanity.

 

But in 1887, a new government changed the policy toward leprosy patients and the hospital in Oahu was closed.  Forced exile to Molokai became the accepted practice, and authorities begged Mother Marianne to open a home for girls and women on Molokai.  Although this full immersion in a leprosy colony almost certainly meant that Cope would never be allowed to return to America, and her home, she accepted the invitation.  There she took over the ministerial duties and administrative responsibilities of Father Damien, the future saint who by then had contracted leprosy and was dying.

 

And for the final thirty years of her life, Mother Marianne Cope ministered to the lepers on Molokai, running a hospital, a boys and girls home, and a school with her sisters.  She died of natural causes at the age of 80, having never contracted leprosy herself despite decades of direct contact with the disease.  This servant to the untouchables was canonized as a saint on October 21, 2012.

 

Marianne Cope is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Walter Ciszek—Saint of the Gulag

Walter-Ciszek-SJ

Born to Polish emigrants, Walter Ciszek hardly looked the part of a future hero.  He spent much of his early youth fighting anyone who would oblige him; his parents, other youths, the law.  It got so bad that his father actually dragged him down to the local police station and begged them to place Walter in reform school.  His future looked as bleak as the coal mining region of Pennsylvania he was growing up in.

 

So when this juvenile delinquent decided in the eighth grade that he wanted to be a Catholic priest, not many people believed him.  But God apparently did.  And in June of 1928 Walter Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate, with the intent of being a missionary to Russia.

 

This coincided with Pope Pius XI’s appeal for the Jesuits to go into what had become the Soviet Union. There, government persecution of religion was threatening the very existence of the Russian Orthodox Church, where the number of priests had plummeted from 157,000 to just 4,000.

 

Since he couldn’t enter the Soviet Union directly, Ciszek set up shop in Poland, where he taught at the Jesuit seminary and served as a parish priest.  However, when the Nazis invaded in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home.  And as the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, the young priest seized the opportunity to enter Russia with a flood of refugees.  With false identity papers, Ciszek stepped into a train bound for  Chusovy in the Ural Mountains.  There, as “Vladimir Lypinski”, he worked by day as a laborer hauling and stacking logs for a lumber factory, and after hours, snuck into the woods to say Mass and memorize the prayer book in case his Mass kit was discovered.

 

And sure enough a year later he was arrested and accused of being a spy for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he spent the next five years mostly in solitary confinement.  Under torture he confessed his true identity and story, and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a Gulag in Siberia.  There, he worked in coal mines, shoveled coal onto freighters, and eventually as a construction worker at an ore mine.  Throughout his imprisonment, Ciszek prayed with other prisoners, celebrated Mass, heard confessions, gave retreats, and offered spiritual direction.

 

In 1955 he completed his sentence and was released with restrictions in Norilsk, a town 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.  He wrote home to his shocked sisters and his Jesuit community, who had sent out a notice of his death in 1947.  For the next three years, Father Ciszek worked in a chemical factory as a front, but carried on his duties as a priest in secret, even establishing mission parishes.  However, in 1958 the KGB arrested him again for his religious work, canceled his passport, and gave him 48 hours to leave the region.  He was sent to the southern part of the country where he was put to work as an auto mechanic, essentially under house arrest.

 

Finally in 1963, President John F. Kennedy secured Ciszek’s release in exchange for two Soviet spies.  He returned to Pennsylvania where he wrote his memoir, With God in Russia, and joyfully served as a priest until his death in 1984.  In 1990, his cause for canonization was opened in Rome.

 

A beacon of light, placed in the darkest part of the Soviet Union for 23 years, this Servant of God reminds us that no place is God forsaken.

 

Walter Ciszek is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Mother Antonia Brenner, ‘The Angel of Tijuana’

TIJUANA, MX - APRIL 18:  Mother Antonia moved out of her Beverly Hills, CA home in 1973 and into one of Latin America's most notorious prisons where she continues to minister to the inmates at La Mesa penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. Mother Antonia visits inmates in their cells and in the prison hospital, counsels new inmates and provides spiritual guidance to the incarcerated men and women on April 18, 2005. (Photo by Todd Bigelow/Aurora)

 

 

Mary Clarke was born into privilege.  Her parents, Irish immigrants, had built a comfortable life in Beverly Hills, and counted movie stars Cary Grant, William Powell, and Hedy Lamarr as their neighbors.  But Mary was also taught that to whom much is given much is expected.  The Clarke family was regularly involved in service to the poor, both at home and abroad, and this formation planted seeds that would bloom in very unexpected ways for their daughter.

 

For the first half of her life, Mary was busy raising eight children.  She also suffered through two divorces.  But in 1969, she had a dream.  In it, she was a prisoner at Calvary, awaiting execution when she was visited by Jesus.  He offered to take her place, but she refused.  The dream awakened a religious calling in her, but at that time there were no religious orders for middle-aged, twice divorced women.  This of course did not stop her charitable service in southern California, and also increasingly south of the border.

 

In the early 1970’s Clarke moved to San Diego so that she could be closer to the work she’d been introduced to by a priest friend—delivering donations to inmates at the maximum security prison in Tijuana named La Mesa.  And when her children were finally self-sufficient, she took the leap of faith, sold her home and her father’s business that she’d been running, and headed for Tijuana, Mexico—to La Mesa—to eventually become Mother Antonia.

 

And as surprising as this calling seemed—a middle-aged, wealthy white woman from Southern California moving to Tijuana, Mexico to serve in a prison filled with male gang leaders, drug dealers, rapists and murderers—equally strange was the fact that Clarke received permission to do it!  She took private vows and moved into the overcrowded 8,000 inmate prison, and a 10×10 cell, so that she could be close to her flock.  There, she ate the same food as the prisoners, and even lined up for roll call with them every morning.  Within a year she had the official blessing of both the Bishop of Tijuana and the Bishop of San Diego.

 

Each day she would meet with the inmates, the guards, and their families—to pray with them, listen to them, and offer counsel.  She joyfully chased down material supplies the inmates needed, brought in doctors and dentists from California, advocated for better conditions, and once even negotiated peace during a prison riot.  She hated the crimes, but loved the criminals.  The guards called her the “prison angel”, and the inmates called her “Mama.”  And her ministry grew to the point that in 1997 she received permission from the bishop to found a religious order, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour—an order for mature women, ages 46-65, who had a love for Jesus and the poor, and could be self-supporting.

 

Mother Antonia never left her home in La Mesa prison, and died there at 86 years-old, surrounded by her sisters, and the prisoners who loved her.  She was fond of saying, “Everything you do either adds to the beauty of the world or takes away from it.”  She saw the potential for beauty, she nurtured beauty, and along the way she became beauty.

 

Mother Antonia Brenner is a hero you should know. 

Heroes You Should Know: Shukria Barakzai

Shukria Barakzai:  The Conscience of Afghanistan

Shukria-Barakzai

When you think of Afghanistan, what comes to mind?  War, Osama bin Laden?  Taliban?  Warlords?  Violence?  Sadly, yes.  How about “female journalist, entrepreneur, and politician who advocates for women’s rights?”  Not as likely.

 

Meet Ms. Unlikely, Shukria Barakzai.

 

Barakzai was born and educated in Kabul.  But unlike many of the educated class who fled Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban seized power, she elected to stay and fight the good fight.  And she’s been fighting ever since.

 

In 1999, pregnant and feeling ill, she left her home to try and get to her doctor’s office.  The religious police, seeing her without her husband (a crime in their eyes) beat her on the street.  This caused her to miscarry her baby.  But it also lit a fire in her.  She was angry, and decided that day to dedicate her life to championing justice in her country.

She started an underground school in her home.  And when the Taliban was thrown out in 2001, she finished her studies at Kabul University, with a major in archaeology and geology.

 

In 2002 she founded Aina-E-Zan (Women’s Mirror), dedicated to informing Afghan women on political and cultural issues like child marriage, forced, marriage, maternal and fetal mortality rates, and freedom of the press.

 

In 2004 she chose to run against her husband for a position in the Afghanistan Parliament.   He was a multi-millionaire, and she had a shoe-string budget.  He spent the equivalent of $500,000 US dollars and championed the status quo.  She had a microphone and a loudspeaker and did a lot of street campaigning, with the dream of democracy and an end to misogynistic practices like polygamy.  Ironically, it was revealed during this time that her husband had in fact taken a second wife, which is legal under sharia law.  She defeated him by a 3 to 1 margin.

 

Since that day she has received international recognition as International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review, and Woman of the Year by the BBC radio program Woman’s Hour.

 

Ten years after her election, she continues to be a voice for change in a system that is not exactly known for its progressive politics.  As Barakzai put it, “Our parliament is a collection of lords. Warlords, drug lords, crime lords…”  Not surprisingly she has received numerous death threats, and survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in November of 2014 as she made her way to Parliament. And she is not afraid to challenge the international community either, even taking on President Obama’s military build-up plan in her country, asking him to “send 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of that many soldiers.”

 

A voice for Afghanistan, a voice for humanity…

 

Shukria Barakzai is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.