In 1987 my father, David Vacheresse, was a 21 year old kid from West Jefferson, OH. He took a Greyhound bus ride that felt like forever and a day and stepped into a housing project in Birmingham, AL, appropriately called Gate City. He had no car, no money and no paying job. He was a white Midwestern kid from a lily white small town waltzing into an almost exclusively African American neighborhood universally known as one of the toughest in Birmingham. Under any traditional line of thinking those two worlds would collide like a Mack truck and a freight train.
Thankfully, this situation was far from traditional. Dad, like thousands of other Salesian Lay Missioners before and since, had left his home and family to work alongside the poor and abandoned. He arrived in Gate City to find desperate poverty, and public systems ill equipped to deal with its challenges. Though the Salesian missioners had only been in Birmingham a short time, Dad was struck by the progress which had already been made. "The Salesians take care of the poor first" he would later tell me "then they take care of themselves." The Salesian motto is to "find Christ in the face of a child". When you see the world that way you aren't burdened with the preconceived notions that afflict so many of our relationships. Racial and economic barriers fell, and God's children bonded in their humanity. Hang around any of their brothers, priests or nuns and you would quickly find, there is no room for pretentiousness in the life of a Salesian. Case in point: Brother Charles Todel had begun the Salesian ministry in Birmingham after asking to be assigned to foreign missions at age 63. When most people are getting ready to retire, he started a whole new life! He was always ready to roll with the punches.
Shortly after my dad began his service, Brother Charles introduced him to a nun named Mother Angelica at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery (better known as EWTN.) That connection lead to my dad meeting my mom and the beginning of our family. Years down the road, brother Charles would bring a junior high school kid named Robert over to visit, and eventually Robert would come to stay. I still think of Robert as a brother and a mentor. He’ll always be a member of our family. He's now a successful small business owner in Charlotte, NC. 30 years after dad got off that greyhound bus, our family's roots have spread across the country. My brothers, John- Caleb and Issac are finishing up years of service in Minnesota, and Laura and I are preparing as we speak to head to South Africa. As our family prepares to go global, it's no exaggeration to say its' roots run straight from a Salesian source.
If Vacheresse connections to the Salesians stopped there this would be a crazy story, but alas, the crazy train rolls on. In the 1980s my uncle Vincent spent two years with the Salesians in Peru. He was in fact, the first Salesian Lay Missioner to work in the country. To this day he calls it one of the most incredible experiences of his life. He was two days' trip from the nearest phone. During his years of service he contracted typhus fever, hepatitis and dysentery. He nearly lost his life. He also built a school and taught carpentry, physical education and English. He helped build a hydro electric plant at the base of a mountain stream, making each block by hand, one at a time. He worked not behind, nor in front of, but alongside native Peruvians. While preparing to come home he said something I would hear him repeat often "Anything I can beat in my head, with my heart and with faith, I can beat in the real world." Looking back now I can see Salesian influence ever-present in the way he raised and provided for his family, and to this day in the way he treats everyone he comes into contact with. No pretension, nothing artificial. With Uncle Vincent, it's all love. Crazy, imperfect, genuine love.
Before my uncle ever thought of leaving Ohio, my grandmother Kathleen had worked alongside Brother Charles. Their connection was also the factor that brought our family to Birmingham in the first place. These were two souls with a common mission. Grandma prayed, volunteered in too many ways to count, and eventually went on mission to Haiti with the Salesians. Her leadership helped drive a prayer group in Columbus, OH which would help name Brother's project, BAC (Be an Apostle of Christ) and provide support for all his endeavors to help the poor. No matter where she was, the Salesians were never far from her heart. In a note he wrote her from Birmingham, Brother Charles said "It is my action to help all who come around.. and to be there for anyone who needs me." Brother always had a unique way of summing up profound truths with simple statements. There is no room for pretentiousness in the life of a Salesian... they are simply too busy being there for anyone who needs them. All these years later, Grandma has been one our biggest cheerleaders throughout this process. It's no coincidence that the things I value most: service to youth and solidarity with the poor, are core tenets of the Salesian way of life.
The most incredible part of this story is that I didn't know it 8 months ago. When Laura and I began to look at mission organizations we fell in love with the Salesians all on our own. I thought my uncle Vincent was in the peace corp. I thought my dad only worked as an employee for Brother Charles with BAC and I never even knew my grandmother went to Haiti. It was only after telling my dad of our plans that I learned of our family's Salesian past. God, knowing my wife and I, lead us here on his own.
Now comes the hard part. Though we will be much closer to a phone than my uncle was (and may even have internet), we are humbled by the nature of the task before us. We have never done anything like this. We have never seen poverty on the scale we are going to witness. We can't truly know how we will react until we get there. A million and one questions run through our heads... and we don't like the answers to some of them. Will we be homesick? Of course! Will we get physically sick? Probably. Will it be easy? ABSOLUTELY NOT. What if we can't take it?... We think and we think and we realize, we can what-if these things to death, but that's no way to live.
From this point forward, we rely on your prayers and God's infinite grace. We want to do our part. And for our part, we will strive to keep it simple. We will stay plenty busy and, God willing, "be there for anyone who needs us."