American Martyrs and St. Patrick's Catholic Church
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jason Obergfell’s Reflection

shared at the Masses on July 8th and 9th

        As many of you know, my name is Jason Obergfell and I serve as a lay missioner in South America in the country of Bolivia.  I have been serving there for over 11 years now, and the American Martyrs parish community has helped support my mission work there throughout that time.  I am here today, because I wanted to express my deep appreciation for your support and also provide an update on my current projects in Bolivia.


As a way of expressing my appreciation, I am pleased to present the American Martyrs community with a gift that I brought with me from Bolivia.  This sandstone sculpture spoke to me about key elements of mission and our lives as Catholics.  The title of this sculpture is “Journey to the Promised Land.”  The figure is an indigenous, or native, woman from Bolivia carrying her young child on her back in a handwoven cloth called an “aguayo.” 


In Bolivia, the aguayo is a symbol of life.  It is used to carry babies and young children.  It is used to carry the food that sustains life.  Even the weavings in the cloth speak to life.  The middle of the aguayo typically has handwoven figures and scenes that are important parts of daily life, like a scene of people harvesting their crops.  


We are all called as Catholics to be bearers of life, and it is one of the key elements of my mission work in Bolivia.  For example, we are currently working on two projects that will provide roughly 150 people with access to clean water.  With the implementation of wells that are properly constructed, like the one shown in this picture (depicting a concrete top and a durable hand pump), the people in small rural communities are able to literally receive more life.  The death rate for children under 5 years of age is often related to poor water quality and the disease that it can contain.  The wells we construct are very different than the open pools of water that these people typically use as sources of water, which can be easily contaminated.  In the small rural communities with less than 500 residents, less than 60 percent of the people have adequate access to clean water.  That is precisely where I work with a tiny Bolivian not-for-profit to construct these wells with hand pumps.  Braulio, Jaime, and Jorge are 3 Bolivian brothers that started the not-for-profit Suma Jayma (which means Good Work) to help serve people in their own country, but my collaboration (in conjunction with the generosity of people like you) is vital to their ability to do so.


I am also working with a Bolivian engineer named Julio to develop and implement an innovative approach to basic sanitation.  Even fewer Bolivians have access to adequate bathroom facilities, and clean water can be contaminated by human waste that does not have a proper sanitation system for its processing.  Particularly in areas where the groundwater level is high and no sewer system exists, we are using the sun’s rays to generate high temperatures in solar ovens that can kill the disease-bearing organisms in people’s waste.  Julio and I implemented a pilot project in a community at the end of 2016 and were able to affirm life by providing a sanitation option to people like Don Felipe, a Bolivian man in his 60s that lives in a one-room house that didn’t include a bathroom.


As we all know, however, just being physically alive is not the same as having life within us.  How we relate to one another and the spirit that we live with is also key.  That is one of the reasons that I have also been involved in a project with a missionary priest named Juan Zuniga to teach a 40-hour course on Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  The course can be a transformative experience in people’s lives, and we have taught it in parishes, such as my Bolivian parish of La Salette, as well as prisons, such as the San Pablo men’s prison.  Maybe you have experienced difficulty in forgiving others yourself. 


There is a saying that “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” To move from anger and resentment to forgiveness can be truly lifegiving.  Our hope is to bring greater life to people through this course, and in turn they might be more lifegiving people for others. 

Ultimately, the title alone of this sculpture speaks to our shared commitment as Catholics,

Journey to the Promised Land.”  Our life is truly a journey, but maybe we aren’t always sure what the Promised Land is.  Maybe there are times when we get caught up in the places and things that seem like our personal Promised Land.  Yet in our hearts we know that they aren’t.


So what is the Promised Land?  I can’t necessarily give you the answer, but I can share a few of my own reflections.  As Father Joe said today, spending time in reflection with God is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.  The final line in one of my favorite poems has helped guide my own reflections on where the Promised Land might be.  It simply says,

“The enduring victories are won in the heart, not in this land, nor in another.”

A Bolivian woman often carries her baby on her back wherever she goes, as depicted in this sculpture. 


That requires love and the commitment to continue acting on that love daily.  Not every person is our own child, but we are all still brothers and sisters in God’s great family.  We surely we know in our hearts that every single person, whether in Bolivia or right here in Scott County, has a deep-seated need for compassion.  And the funny thing is, we also all have a deep-seated need to act compassionately.  We were created in God’s image, and being compassionate is an integral part of our being.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in The Book of Joy, “We have to be growing in godlikeness, in caring for the other.  I know that each time I have acted compassionately, I have experienced a joy in me that I find in nothing else.”  The enduring victories are won in the heart. 


Compassion is not the same as pity, and is far from apathy.  Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” While that isn’t always comfortable, as we heard today in the Second Reading we are called to “live by the Spirit.”  We are called to live in relationship with those that suffer, respond with love, and truly journey to the Promised Land of a transformed world.   That is what I try to do each day in my mission work in Bolivia, and I thank you for doing the same by living from your heart, responding with love and support, and choosing to continue the journey with me.  May our shared faith journey continue to lead us to an ever greater understanding of the Promised Land that God is calling us to journey towards daily, whether far away in South America or right here in Scott County, Indiana. 

Thank you!   

          Jason Oberfell


If you would like to help support Jason's mission work in Bolivia, please send a check made out to

Jason Obergfell” with “Mission Trust” noted in the memo portion of the check to: 

Mrs. Fay Obergfell  / 1457 South Smith Road / Lexington, IN  47138