August 2015, Geaux Life

Building the Kingdom of God

St. Aloysius parishioners find spiritual fulfillment in Nicaragua

by Lisa Tramantona

nic4Jonathan Duhon recalls the moment the pieces of the puzzle came together in his mind and in his heart. It was during a mission trip to Managua, Nicaragua, and he was listening to the testimonies of a group of young people who talked about their struggles with drugs, gangs, violence and abuse. Before he left Baton Rouge, people had asked Jonathan what he would be doing on the trip. “Will you be building houses for the poor?” many of them asked.

And as he listened to the stories of his Nicaraguan hosts, the purpose of the trip became clear. “We’re not building houses,” he thought. “We’re building the kingdom of God.”

Duhon, 23, is one of 11 St. Aloysius Catholic Church parishioners who made the trip in May. The trip, which is made twice a year, is a partnership between St. Aloysius and an organization called Cantera, which was founded in 1988 by Annabel Torres, a Sister of St. Agnes in Nicaragua. The organization promotes personal and community reflection that leads people to discover solutions to their own problems, taking concrete steps to transform their realities whether their challenges are economical, social or personal.

As for mission work, Cantera urges visitors to focus their efforts on “being” rather than “doing.” As organizer Alvin Raetzsch says, “We were there to listen to their stories, offer support and encouragement, and build relationships.”

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is haunted by war, gang violence, gender inequality and sexual abuse. Cantera has built youth centers that offer young people a safe place to reflect on their own experiences, realize their value, join the fight for human rights, complete their education, and build new futures. Through discussion and artistic expression, participants learn to identify what is broken in their lives, set goals, forgive others and move forward.

Two years ago, Amy Pizzolato was reflecting on her own life and realized that she was not spiritually fulfilled. “I was doing a lot of praying,” she said. “I was looking for deeper meaning … as a mother, as a Catholic, as a Christian, as a role model … and one day I saw a flyer for the Nicaragua trip. I didn’t have much time to think about it. By the time I inquired about it, there were only two days left to sign up. But I went ahead and took a leap of faith … and it changed my life.”

nic2During that first trip, Raetzsch saw how the experience was affecting Amy, and he asked her to be his co-chair on future trips. “It was a huge commitment,” she said. “It meant making the trip twice a year. My family was surprised but they were also supportive. And now that this is part of my life, I am always excited to share what I’ve learned with others. It has changed me as a person and taught me how to grow in my faith. It has affected my children deeply so that they want to visit Nicaragua someday when they are older.”

During their stay in May, the St. Aloysius group visited three youth centers and met with young people whose lives had once centered on broken homes, abandonment, poverty and abuse. But through their participation in Cantera’s programs, their stories ended with big dreams, small steps forward and hope for their futures. The St. Aloysius group cooked and shared meals with their young Nicaraguan friends, and with the help of a translator, shared stories about their own families in the U.S., their own personal struggles and their desire to be stronger Christians.

“It was all about making connections with our brothers and sisters,” Raetzsch said. “It puts things in perspective.”

nic3Cantera also responds to the rural communities surrounding Managua, helping families that need food, water and other basic necessities. On one of their last nights in Managua, the St. Aloysius group spent the night in a rural village where local families had been invited to meet them. Raetzsch recalls feeling especially close to God that night.

“There was no electricity, no running water … just some lanterns for light and a large group of people sharing a meal and then talking, laughing and singing in the dark,” he said. “It made me feel a part of something bigger. And I realized that while we often feel sympathy for those who live in poverty, we miss the bigger picture … that they also live in the richness of faith. It’s something I was able to bring back to my family and friends … the need to look beyond our own little bubbles and appreciate the dignity of all our brothers and sisters … and the lessons they can teach us.”

Margarita Long, Cantera Development Coordinator, authored an article that was shared with St. Aloysius last month. In it, she wrote, “Our dream for the mission trips is that they provide a space where parishioners are able to experience a deep and transformative love that does not end when they leave Nicaragua … but one that continues to weave through their relationships at home and their interactions with the world.”

nic7Service is ultimately about relationships and Cantera’s philosophy redefines what “God’s work” can be. Obviously, we gain a sense of achievement when we do something concrete to help the poor and disadvantaged — whether it’s hammering nails or delivering medical care. But being present for others is just as fulfilling — sharing in their suffering, nurturing their dreams, connecting on a spiritual level — creates a global sense of community.

As Christians, we want to not only be touched by God’s grace, but be transformed by it. When we make the effort to build relationships with each other, to share laughter and tears, promises and prayers, we can change the world. More importantly, we can change ourselves — what is in our hearts and in our souls.

The Nicaragua mission trip takes place in November and May of each year. Organizers try to keep the groups small (between 8 and 10 travelers). If you are searching for a life-changing experience, contact Alvin Raetzsch at, or Amy Pizzolato at