To view the photo album of Father Tom's trip to South Africa, click on the picture below.
Out of (South) Africa
SHU Chaplain Father Tom Helfrich Returns with a Greater Global Understanding
For two weeks last year, Siena Heights University Chaplain Father Tom Helfrich journeyed to South Africa as part of a ecumenical pastor study program. Meeting about five times a year, the ecumenical group of pastors from the metro Detroit area go through a summer pastoral immersion program.
In 2006, the group journeyed to Seattle, Wash., but in 2007 the group decided to make an international journey.
"The immersion idea was to go to a place and spend enough time there to get a good feel for what's going on," Father Tom said. "The fact that one of our participants is a South African Zulu and very, very adept at planning and organizing events like this made this (trip) almost a no-brainer."
Traveling in early August, the two-week trip had Father Tom experiencing life on both ends of the spectrum. He traveled to the eastern Cape area near Port Elizabeth, where he witnessed both the natural beauty of the region and the meager existence of some of its natives.
Although the apartheid movement has been abolished, the remnants of the segregated system remain, Father Tom said.
"I was really profoundly discouraged to recognize that here you have the law that's changed, skin color no longer determines what you can do or where you can be," Father Tom said, "but it didn't change the economic realities. The poor are still poor, and most of the blacks are still poor. The (apartheid) law has ended, thank God, but the effective reality of that despair is still there."
However, he still sensed a feeling of hope among the people, he said.
Along the way, Father Tom was able to celebrate the feast day of St. Dominic at a Dominican school in the small town of Utenog. A white school for years, he said the 300-student school is almost entirely black. He was also able to visit with Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Jane Lipinski, who is working with AIDS victims in the region.
After his trip, Father Tom he said he garnered a new appreciation for other cultures, and is excited that Siena Heights is putting a new emphasis on internationalism.
"What I brought back was a new sense that our differences are our richness," he said. "There's a constant pressure to homogenize and not mix in and be different. But richness is in being different and recognizing that in others either here or far away. It's something to savor."