It's not every day that children in Piura, Peru, learn to play American football from the coach of a National Football League team.
Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told CNA that impromptu lessons with the kids during a recent eight-day trip to the town brought him joy.
Harbaugh was one of several U.S. volunteers who traveled in June to Piura – a small town nearly 600 miles north of Lima – to help the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish with its daily ministries to the poor.
The parish's outreach includes a women’s shelter, an orphanage, a drug rehabilitation center, a hospice facility and, most recently, tuition-free Catholic school for kindergarten through eleventh graders.
“It’s incredible the amount of work they do and they joy that they do it with,” Harbaugh said, noting that more than 60 percent of Piura’s population live in poverty and over 20 percent in extreme poverty.
The coach said he first learned about the mission trip through friends at St. Raymond's, his parish in Menlo Park, Calif.
Now, four years and three trips later, Harbaugh said he has seen Most Blessed Sacrament become a “very vibrant and growing parish.”
“I’ve always been struck by the attendance and the joy they have for Mass,” Harbaugh said, adding that the pews are filled with faithful at daily evening Masses. “You can only describe that as the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
Harbaugh also credits the growth of the parish and community to the support of volunteers and the leadership of Father Joe Uhen, a native of Milwaulkee who has been pastor of the parish since 1993.
He estimates that the school, which Father Uhen opened in 2011, now has an attendance of more than 600 students.
“Every desk was full,” he said. “Three years ago when we came down here, the school was just an idea.”
He said volunteers this summer helped build twenty homes and packaged and delivered locally produced rice and beans to supplement meals for 1,400 families this month.
Piuran farmers started producing rice and beans after Father Uhen invested in their crops and farming techniques, Harbaugh said.
Father Uhen also spearheaded a family sponsorship program between the United States and Peru. Through the program, titled Santisimo Sacramento, an American family “adopts” a Peruvian family, supplying scholarships, food and basic housing items including beds and stoves.
Harbaugh, who sponsors a family through Santisimo Sacramento, said he plans to continue the service trips because they give him “the feeling of going down the right path.”
“The doors that God will open for you by the people you meet or by the circumstances you’re in (allow) your character to be shaped and your spirit to grow,” he said. “Those kinds of doors are opened for (me) here.”
For more information about Most Blessed Sacrament Parish or the Santisimo Sacramento program, visit: santisimo.org.