Catholic Herald staff
“God is amazing,” said Loree Nauertz, just back from a mission trip to Uganda. “The Holy Spirit is alive and well and moving in this world … as long as people are willing to be open to that Spirit, he will use us.”
A parishioner at St. Francis de Sales, Spooner, Nauertz and her two oldest sons, Mark and John, were among 12 members of Loree’s extended family to travel to the East African country in July.
Their mission: to build a science lab and a playground, develop relationships with Africans and do God’s work as needed.
A family affair
Loree’s family members have been going to Uganda for years with a number of different church groups. She traces the origins to a parish in her hometown of Neillsville in the Diocese of La Crosse. The pastor, Fr. Woody Pace, had been a missionary there, and Loree’s mom was among the first group of parishioners to join him on a return trip.
Later, Loree’s siblings and their children went as well, but when her brother tried to talk Loree into going on the 2016 mission, she wasn’t interested.
“I had all these excuses,” she remembers.
Her brother persisted; this would be their mom’s final trip to Africa, and he thought Loree should go.
“Maybe God is trying to tell me something through Jeff,” she thought.
She decided to pray about it, but there was someone she needed to approach first – her husband, Alan.
“I went to Al before God,” she explained. “I know if Al’s not going to be supportive of this, there’s no way it’s going to happen.”
Alan “was honest about his feelings,” she said. He had concerns, he told her, “but I don’t think those should be reasons for you not to go.”
Next, Loree took her query to God. During her weekly eucharistic adoration hour, she prayed about it.
“I’ve been around long enough to know when God opens a door, I have to go through it,” she added. “It was very clear that it was his plan.”
She also sensed one of the kids should join her – John, their second-oldest son. He wanted to come, and Mark, the oldest, initially didn’t. But, with some encouragement from their relatives, Mark had a change of heart.
Money was always a concern, Loree said. The minimum cost for each traveler was $3,300, not counting passports, immunizations and incidentals. With three people going, the Nauertzes needed about $10,000.
She knew they couldn’t afford it, but she didn’t want to ask for help.
“I fundraise for other people; I do not fundraise for myself,” she said. “It was kind of a pride thing.”
Still, she approached Fr. Ed Anderson, pastor of St. Francis, and he gave Loree permission to talk to parishioners.
Without even asking for money – just by talking to people – she suddenly had $5,500.
“They were so excited,” she added. “People were just so encouraging and happy for us, and they wanted to help.”
Every time she started to worry about money, Loree felt a sense of peace come over her. In the end, they had raised enough to cover the trip.
“God took care of every need,” she said. “So we went, and we had an amazing time.”
Sr. Salome, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Reparatrix nun, is the headmistress of a boarding school for girls, St. Kizito’s, where the missionaries stayed during their 12-day trip.
“They do hospitality extremely well,” Loree said. “By American standards, where we stayed was not really nice, but for African standards, I thought we had excellent accommodations.”
Sr. Salome, widely referred to as “a living saint,” is very much into relationships and developing them among the people, she added. “I think she’s a very wise woman … it means a lot more when you get to know the people.”
Although the boarding school welcomes girls of all faiths, it is insurmountably expensive by average Ugandan standards, and Sr. Salome was approached by a group of angry villagers in 2011.
‘What are you doing for us?’ they asked her.
Her response was to ask St. Mary, Neillsville, to build a secondary school for the village, a project on which missionaries have been working ever since.
On this trip, they planned to construct a playground – an unknown luxury in Uganda – and a science lab at Our Lady of Guadalupe School.
Money for the lab had been raised; they just needed to build it, Loree said. In Africa, that’s not as simple as it sounds.
“Time is just a series of events there,” she added. “They do everything by hand. It’s very tedious, it’s very time-consuming.”
Witnessing the level of poverty was also difficult for Loree. Ugandans live in mud huts, and few can afford paint or windows.
“Any time I saw a house that had a window in it, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really nice house,’” she said.
One day, the missionaries visited students’ homes to distribute solar lights and eaves troughs. Loree ended up driving around the countryside for more than eight hours and, in one of the most heartbreaking memories from the trip, she met a man who was very near death.
Although he was curled up in fetal position and looked about 8 years old, Loree learned he was actually 20 and had been ill since birth.
“You see the pictures,” she said. “You see the pictures of the child that seems to be the most near death.”
Trying to comfort him, Loree was touching his face and his back; in that moment, she felt she was touching God through the poor. She knew he was going to die within a week.
She was also reflecting on the spiritual, rather than material, poverty in the U.S. One of the students, Vincent, rode more than eight hours to see his family for 15 minutes.
He was so grateful for the opportunity; she was struck throughout the trip by Africans’ joy and gratitude.
“My kids complain if they can’t play with the iPad,” she said.
Overall, the experience left her feeling a sense of responsibility, not guilt. As she was leaving Vincent’s home, she wondered what God wanted her to do.
One of the best students in his class, Vincent relies on sponsorship – $100 per year – to stay in school. Without education, Ugandan children have no hope for breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
She decided education would be her focus; she would appeal to others to sponsor students.
“I can’t take on a country’s poverty,” she said. “It’s a symptom much deeper than something I can take on.”
But, she added, she can let people know about the need for education.
“I’ve always been passionate about education, good education,” she said.
While in Uganda, Loree was called upon to do various other things – counsel a 16-year-old runaway, distribute feminine care kits to teenage girls, and talk to them about abstinence and marriage.
“I talked with them about the beauty and dignity of a woman and how God designed us to carry life; ovulation is not something that needs to be stopped, but rather understood,” she added. “I also talked with them about the way men and women should treat each other, and God’s plan for sex within marriage.
“I have talked with over 1,000 American girls about this topic,” Loree observed. “It was a new experience for me to talk with girls from Uganda who are hearing the abstinence message loud and clear.”
In the case of Esther, the runaway girl, Loree was able to find out why she fled, and communicate her feelings to her parents and Sr. Salome. A struggling student, Esther was slated to be sent to teacher’s college after finishing secondary school.
After speaking with her, Loree learned Esther didn’t want to be a teacher. She wanted to be a hairdresser or a fashion designer.
Esther was promptly moved from Our Lady of Guadalupe School to St. Kizito’s, where she will be able to get help with her studies, and she was promised an opportunity to study at a fashion institute if she finished her schooling.
Loree is “not so Pollyanna-ish” that she doesn’t understand the challenges Esther will face – but at least now she has the chance to avoid a runaway’s fate.
‘Get me out of the way’
Although the missionaries did not complete the science lab, they did finish the playground. One of the sweetest moments for Loree and her family was seeing the playground dedicated to her brother, who died in the 1990s.
When she reflects on the trip, Loree is reminded of the amazing power of God.
She repeats one of her favorite prayers: “Lord, just get me out of the way.”
“When you open yourself up, you have to be willing to go wherever he sends you,” she said. “His plan is so much more exciting than our plan … let God be in control of your life, and there will be peace.”