Today, Brooke Engelbrekssten and 10 other students are leaving for a five-day mission trip to Haiti. Brooke’s group is part of a new college ministry program at the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia.
Having an 18-year relationship with Food For The Poor, Nativity has special ties to giving to the poor, especially to the poor in Haiti. The late Father Richard Martin, beloved priest of Nativity who died in 2014 at the age of 74, traveled to Haiti many times with Food For The Poor, helping thousands of Haitian citizens to have a better life. Father Robert C. Cilinski, the pastor who succeeded Fr. Martin, generously offered to pay the airfare for each student.
“I know this trip will be life-changing for them,” Fr. Cilinski said. “Fr. Martin planted in our parishioners’ hearts his love for the poor, and I want to continue to shepherd that.”
In the days leading up to her Haiti trip, Brooke reflected on what has inspired her to travel to Haiti.
Food For The Poor: Describe your experience with Nativity Church and your memories of Father Martin.
Brooke: I have been a parishioner of Nativity for as long as I can remember. It has always been a home to me.
Father Martin was unforgettable. I remember sitting in the pews as a child, being captivated by his homilies, which were always so personal and moving. He had this remarkable way of capturing the attention of any room he walked into, no matter who was in it. Four, 54, or 84, people of all ages would flock to him like sheep to a shepherd. I served with him on the altar countless times as an altar server. I always loved those masses, because if I forgot what tasks I needed to do, he would give me a warm smile and gently point me in the right direction. He had the best sense of humor and the biggest heart of anyone I know.
Food For The Poor: We heard that you have been looking forward to going to Haiti for several years now, as your mom has traveled to Haiti with us. What about her experience has inspired you to make this trip to Haiti with Nativity?
Brooke: Everyone that goes to Haiti comes back changed. This change is visible in many ways. People can go out and start an organization, they can choose to waste less water every day, or they can choose to simply lead a life more dedicated to God. My mother was one of these changed people. When she returned from her trip, she recounted the shock she experienced when she would look around the Haitian villages and see the majority of men and women not in underwear. She felt called to do everything in her power to help clothe the Haitians who lived every day without something we take for granted. I saw her send endless emails, make countless phone calls, until finally, one man said yes. So, as a fourth grader, I whipped out my video camera and documented our journey down to North Carolina where Hanes was generously sending a sea container full of donated underwear down to Haiti, all thanks to my mother’s dedication to clothing the Haitians in what should be considered a human right.
My mother was truly an inspiration for me. One trip, one person, and one decision to make a change has benefited hundreds of thousands of people. From the moment I saw the pallets filled with underwear, I wanted to go on every Haiti trip I heard about, because I wanted to make a change too.
Food For The Poor: How have you prepared for this mission trip to Haiti?
Brooke: I have spent a lot of time praying and reflecting on what I might encounter while I am in Haiti. I ask God to let me go to Haiti with an open heart and open mind, because I know that parts of our trip will be very difficult. But God presents challenges to each one of us, and this is his challenge for me.
Food For The Poor: What are you most excited about for this mission trip?
Brooke: I’m most excited to meet the people. You may think that because Haiti has some of the worst poverty in the world, the people are unhappy or depressed. But our group leader keeps reminding us that despite their situation, they are joyous. They are joyous about having a family, about having a roof over their heads, and about waking up to another day. I will have a new outlook on my own life, and really learn to cherish the people and things that I have.
Food For The Poor: What do you hope to gain from this mission trip? What do you think Fr. Martin would like you to take from this?
Brooke: Growing up in Nativity Church, I’ve always been familiar with Haiti. For a decade I walked past pictures on the wall of children who were given new clothes or a new school and families who were given a new home, a chance at a better life. But as a child, they were just pictures. As I grew older, I understood that the people around me were the ones helping those children and those families. And now as a college student, I want to make my contribution to the people that I’ve seen on the walls my whole life. I know I will gain a deeper appreciation for the parishioners that donated so much time and money to Operation Starfish and for all the people that made Father Martin’s dream come true!
I think Father Martin would be proud of all the people going on this trip, especially because we are so young. He would want as many people to see the joy and compassion of the Haitian people and bring it back home with us.
Food For The Poor: How do you think taking this mission trip will help you before entering the University of Pennsylvania this fall as a new college student?
Brooke: I will be going to Penn’s School of Nursing next year, with an intent to minor in Global Health. I have never traveled to a developing country, so going to Haiti will give me a unique perspective on healthcare in a less developed country. I also think it will strengthen my faith and encourage me to lead a better life as I start college.