Building Faith. Bridging Continents. Leaving a Legacy.
January 30, 2024
We just completed one of the best months of my 23-year missionary career. We completed the construction of a beautiful new brick church building in South Africa for a small rural Catholic parish. I want to tell you the story of how this came to be.
Father Ray McHenry, who retired from the St Francis parish in West Des Moines, has faithfully led mission teams to South Africa for the past nine years. I met with him several times ten years ago to encourage him to come to South Africa with Blessman International. He finally agreed to try it and, like me, fell in love with the African children and the effectiveness of serving them through short-term mission trips.
Typically, 10 to 15 of his parishioners will join him on these annual mission trips. His was the only group we had that traveled with us during the COVID-19 years. Fifty to sixty individuals have traveled with Father Ray over the past nine years, many of them have joined him more than once.
Last year, after a particularly moving mass at St. Omar's Church here in South Africa, a family from St Francis mentioned that they would like to make a significant donation to honor Father Ray's legacy and his years of missionary service in South Africa.
In the past, Father Ray and many of his friends from St. Francis have financially supported the construction of Enviro Loo toilets for preschools in addition to two rural churches near Mokopane. We discussed drilling a well in his honor or helping a nearby feeding center financially. Still, none of these ideas seemed significant enough to honor all that Father Ray has contributed over the years.
A month or two later, I received an email from a local priest, Father Noah Phuti, requesting financial assistance to build a new church building for an existing parish. I receive many similar requests here in South Africa because the locals believe that American missionaries have lots of funds to help with various projects, which is rarely the case. I simply respond that we lack the budget to do what they ask.
This time, however, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, and I knew what we should do and that we could accomplish it. I first talked to Father Ray and some of his parishioners in Iowa to be sure they liked the idea, and everyone loved the possibility. I next visited with Bishop Jeremiah here in Africa to confirm that he also supported what Father Noah was requesting. He agreed that a new building would be a big blessing to this rural parish currently meeting in a tin shack.
The congregation is small, numbering around 40 parishioners. Still, they had been meeting for several years, and the village, Rebone, is showing signs of growth. Our next steps were to confirm that the church had a title deed to the property and have an architect draw up plans. Once we had the architect's drawing, we estimated the project at just under $200,000. We met again with the African bishop and local priest and asked them to provide $15,000 of the needed funding, which they were happy to commit to.
I then started calling friends of Father Ray, who had traveled to South Africa with him, to tell them the story and see if they would like to participate. Everyone I spoke with was excited to be part of honoring Father Ray in this way and providing a new church building here in South Africa. Within just two weeks, the necessary funding had been pledged, and we were able to proceed with construction plans. We had a great desire to complete this project in time for the church to be dedicated during Father’s Ray's next mission trip to South Africa, which was just four months away. It seemed an impossible time frame, but we all felt the Lord leading us to proceed and do our best.
Our son Dustin and long-term employee Maxwell led the construction team, and we miraculously completed this grand project on time and on budget. We also gave the church a new well and Enviro Loo toilets.
What began as a heartfelt desire to honor Father Ray McHenry's legacy evolved into a collective effort that spanned continents. As the new church doors open, we extend our deepest gratitude to all who participated in this incredible journey. May the echoes of worship within these walls be a blessing to the Lord. With hearts full of thanksgiving, we look forward to the blessings this church will bring to the people of Rebone, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of both Des Moines and South Africa.