Hell and Back
Father Don and the Garbage Dump People
by James Leonard
Don Vettese remembers the first time he saw hell.
“It was an accident, literally and metaphorically,” says the Jesuit priest. “It started in 1994 when I gave a talk about service to the seniors at St. John’s,” the high school for boys in Toledo where he was then president. “In it, I said service to the poor is the most important and the most pressing” need for Christians to address. “Afterwards they said, ‘Lead us by example. Show us how!’ And I said, ‘Oh, no! Now the onus is on me.’”
Vettese (his name rhymes with “release”) is sixty-one, and his round face and silver hair give him a deceptively tranquil appearance. Only his keen eyes hint at the energy that prompts his longtime boss to call him a “spiritual entrepreneur.”
“I invited them [St. John’s students] to come with me and see third-world poverty firsthand,” Vettese recalls in an interview in his office on Ashley Street. “I arranged for a summer service in Guatemala City for four kids to visit an orphanage called Boys Hope,” one of a series of orphanages Vettese had helped found and administer in the 1980s.
“The plan was that we’d be living with friends and travel to the orphanage every day to do work—to paint, repair, and so on. And one day on our way to the orphanage there was an accident, and the traffic had to be rerouted through the city’s garbage dump.
“It was hell. In Guatemala City, like most big Central American cities, there are thousands of people living in the garbage dump. They scavenge for things they can sell, things they can eat, things they can live in. When we looked out the windows of the van, we saw rats and pigs eating and vultures circling in huge flocks. We saw people digging in the garbage and kids crying and fires everywhere, because city trash burns. It was hot and humid, and the smell was overwhelming, even in our
air-conditioned van, and one kid got sick and vomited. And there was silence. It was a moment of despair.
“We talked about it that night,” continues Vettese after a pause. “They asked questions—‘How can this happen?’ and ‘What can we do?’—and I didn’t know the answers. But I knew that if you can do something, you should do something. I talked to the mayor of Guatemala City, later the president of Guatemala, and asked what we can do to save lives. Can we build homes for the people and schools for the children? He sent us rough designs of housing. He said if we’d provide the labor and the money, the city would provide the infrastructure: the water, sewer, electricity, and security.”
And that’s what they did. “When we got home, the students went out and raised money. And they didn’t do it by holding bake sales, either. They went to a family that had made their money in pet supplies and persuaded them to donate forty thousand dollars—which at the time was worth about nine times that in Guatemala. With that money, we built the first row of [eighty] houses. We started Central American Ministries the next year.” Since then the nonprofit has constructed more than 400 additional houses, a nursery that cares for 375 infants and children, and an elementary school with 310 students—all serving families who previously had lived in garbage dumps.
Vettese ran CAM out of his back pocket until last year, when he retired from St. John’s and moved what he jokingly calls the ministries’ “international headquarters” to Ann Arbor. He and seven staffers now work from a modest house just a few doors down from Washtenaw Dairy.
“Ann Arbor seemed like a wonderful spot for us,” the priest says. “It has the University of Michigan with its highly engaged students and faculty. Plus, I have friends in the area and in metro Detroit.”
For Vettese the move also represented something of a homecoming. “My
grandparents on both sides had farms in Washtenaw County, and my earliest memories are of those farms,” he explains. “My grandparents on my mother’s side had the farm on Ann Arbor Road and Ford Road. They had corn, tomatoes and other vegetables, and a chicken coop and a few cows. The other farm, the farm on my father’s side, was on Gotfredson Road, right on the corner. They worked in Detroit but they farmed, too, and kept horses. I myself grew up in Dearborn.”
Vettese got a master’s degree in psychology from the U-M in 1974 and then studied theology in Chicago and Berkeley before being ordained a priest in 1982. He helped run Boys Hope orphanages out of St. Louis until 1992, when he became president of St. John’s; he considers his greatest achievement there arranging scholarships for economically disadvantaged youths.
But Vettese says he rarely thinks about the past, or even much about the present: “I’ve got the future on my mind. There’s too much to do. We’re not going to wait for the studies to come back. We’re going to do it now. If there’s a mistake to be made, I’ll err on the side of doing more and doing it now.”
His sense of urgency is focused on the hundreds of thousands of people who live in garbage dumps in Central America. “People think they’ve seen poverty if they’ve seen poverty in the United States,” Vettese says. “They haven’t. The poor in the United States have food, clean water, shelter, education, and health care. The poor in Guatemala don’t have anything. These people fight with vultures for food—and sometimes they lose.”
Central American Ministries currently serves 7,000 people a day in Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras. CAM’s people expect to break ground yet this year on a school in Guatamala City for 150 kids in grades 7, 8, and 9. And they’re talking about expanding into Africa by opening “missions” in Cairo and Sierra Leone.
Despite the terminology, CAM is not a religious organization. “We’re not Catholic,” explains Vettese. “We’re a 501(c)(3). We’re approved and encouraged by the Jesuits, but we get no money from the Jesuits. Nor do we take state or federal money. Our current budget is one point five million dollars, and all our donations are private.”
Bob Scullin, until recently the head of the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus, agrees. He says that as Vettese’s boss he’s had “no direct influence on this very good work. But we [Jesuits] have great respect and admiration for it. In fact, I’ve gone down [as a volunteer] myself.”
Scullin calls Vettese a “spiritual entrepreneur and one of the most effective development fund-raiser people I know. When I became [head of the Detroit Province], he’d done wonderful things at St. John’s, and I was aware of his desire to expand Central American Ministries. So I told him, ‘From now on, your job, full time, is to be the leader of CAM. As long as you can do this successfully, I want you to be the leader.’” Scullin doesn’t expect his successor will alter that mandate.
Vettese’s life reflects his values. “Basically, I’m a vagabond and live out of a suitcase,” he says. “I’ve got a place on First Street, but I’m out of Ann Arbor more than I’m here. In May, July, and August [this year] I was more out of the country than in the country.
“I do have a vow of poverty. My paycheck goes directly to the Detroit Province. They send back what I need to live on. My living expenses are minimal. I live simply. I don’t own anything. I don’t have a savings account, and my checking account has about eight hundred dollars in it.”
By no means does Vettese do it all by himself. He’s got a devoted board of eleven and a dedicated staff of seven in Ann Arbor and eight in Guatemala City. And most important, he’s got a huge number of volunteers.
“Since 1995 we’ve sent one hundred and twenty people a year to Central America,” says Vettese. “We get our volunteers from giving talks to Rotary or parishes or schools or universities. Though it’s good that we provide food, shelter, and schooling for those desperately poor people, I sometimes think that the greatest service we do is to transform the people who go on the missions. People who go come back and say things like ‘I got more than I gave. I was changed more than I changed. I helped but I was helped more.’”
In the summer of 2007, the volunteers included Ann Arborite Bart Thompson. Thompson followed family tradition by getting a Jesuit education—even though it meant commuting to Toledo for high school. Six feet two, blond haired, and blue eyed, he graduated from St. John’s this past June and is now a freshman at Stanford.
“The first time I heard of Central American Ministries was my first day at St. John’s,” Thompson recalls. “I saw this framed newspaper article on the wall about CAM, and the last thing it said, and the thing that made a lasting impression on me, was that when the boys returned home, all they had were the clothes on their backs, because they’d given everything they had with them to the people they met. The selflessness of that act inspired me, and from that point on, I really wanted to go.”
Volunteering wasn’t easy. “You have to apply for it, and they only take you after your junior year,” Thompson explains. “If they accept you, there are meetings once a week where you learn about the history and the culture of Guatemala. It’s such a different culture—like you can’t wear shorts or camouflage clothes, plus there’s political unrest from the civil war.
“I went in June 2007 for ten days with fifteen other kids. We left on Sunday and came back on Wednesday. A lot of guys were scared and nervous, but I felt drawn to it, and when we landed, I felt connected to it—like it was where I was supposed to be.
“We stayed right by the city dump. On Monday morning they took us to school and put me and another guy in the second-grade classroom. The kids look forward to us coming all year, and when they could, they rushed to play with us. They just loved us and hugged us. It was great. That afternoon we worked in the nursery, which shares a wall with the dump. The smell is literally eye watering. We painted the upstairs hallway. A friend fixed the washing machine and the ceiling fan. Another fixed a screen door. And one guy, a musician and a great pianist, fixed their piano’s keys and tuned it by ear.
“When we left, I felt happy and sad—happy to be coming home to my family, my friends, and my girlfriend, but sad because I really loved being there. There are few things more satisfying than giving up time for others.”
Thompson says the experience changed him—and all the kids who went with him: “It’s something everyone from our trip wants to do it again, something we want to do for the rest of our lives.” Thompson himself says that after Guatemala, he wants to be “a doctor and give back in an international way.”
Ann Arborite Catherine Labrenz, a U-M undergrad, went to Guatemala for a week in February 2007 as part of St. Mary Student Parish’s Alternative Spring Break program, which that year was a joint effort with CAM. She’s now spending her junior year abroad attending the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.
“I was shocked at the conditions,” she emails from Santiago. “Nothing can prepare you for the first time you experience that degree of poverty. The classroom I was in had thirty-three kids who lived in shacks without running water or electricity, and the only meal a lot of the kids ate each day was at the day care.
“The hardest part was leaving. When I was in the infant room the toddlers would tot over to me, call me ‘Mama,’ and put their arms up to be picked up. I really felt like I had a connection with the children. During the week we were there, one of the four-year-olds at the nursery died from a parasite infection from drinking contaminated water. Although the parasite was very treatable, the family could not afford to take her to a doctor. As I left I kept wondering if the same thing would happen to any of the babies I worked with.”
Labrenz met Vettese after her return from Guatemala and describes him as “inspirational. He had the vision to improve the lives of the workers and their families and the drive to actually accomplish his goal. I saw firsthand some of the ways these programs have benefited people. One of the teachers had been educated thanks to Central American Ministries and had a job that allowed her to move out of the garbage dump into a house in a better area of the city. For each one person that is able to leave the garbage dump, that person’s children and grandchildren are also saved from a life of poverty.
“I would absolutely do it again,” concludes Labrenz. “I think that everyone should do a trip like this at some point in their lives.”
Andrew Pawuk, CAM’s director of international programs, calls Vettese “a great guy—and a great man.” “He’s not anything you’d expect,” says Christine Alexander, who worked at St. John’s for eight years while Vettese was president. “He’s funny, focused, and doesn’t suffer fools at all. He can be irreverent, especially if you have money and he thinks you’re not willing to part with it. But he’s also a visionary, but the kind of visionary who knows how to get things done. He demands more from you than you thought you had in you, and he makes you want to do it.”
Told everyone we spoke with had only good things to say about him, Vettese laughs and replies, “That’s nice, but they’re talking to the press, and nobody wants to say anything negative about me to the press. But I have my enemies, believe me. I’m in a big hurry to accomplish things, and when you’re out there on the edge trying to do things, you start conflicts with some people. Usually when they see the results, they relent. But sometimes they don’t.”
Conspicuous by its absence in all these conversations is any mention of God. Thompson says the reason is simple: “It’s not a Catholic or even a Christian mission. As a friend of mine who went said, ‘I’m not here for God or because Jesus told me to be here. I’m here because these people need me.’ When I went, a Hindu, a Muslim, and an atheist were on the mission. Anyone with compassion can grab on to this mission. Every faith has a common belief of love your fellow man, and everyone believes in taking care of someone else. We may all believe in different things and go to different churches or to no church at all, but we’re not that different in how we treat other human beings.”
To the oft-asked question of why God allows this suffering, Vettese has a disquieting answer: “What has God got to do with it? Maybe we allow this suffering. After all, this isn’t a natural disaster like a tidal wave or a hurricane. It’s because of us. It’s because we overeat, because we overdrive, because we consume more than the rest of the world—and at the expense of the rest of the world.
“I’m all about human dignity and freedom,” explains Vettese, “and I like to think that what I believe is evident in the way I live.”
Thompson believes it is: “Father Vettese brings it to the streets—and lots of so-called holy people don’t. Faith is great, but action is as or more important, and his actions show his compassion. I remember learning about liberation theology at St. John’s, about going to minister to the poorest people in the world, and I think Father Vettese lives up to that ideal.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vettese isn’t especially interested in converting people who live in garbage dumps to Catholicism. “Most of the people don’t have any formal religion, and they don’t have to join ours,” says the Jesuit. “Our idea is to meet their basic needs and worry about their spiritual needs later.
“I don’t know about you, but I always find it’s hard to talk to someone about God when they’re fighting a vulture for a piece of chicken.”
[Originally published in October, 2008.]