Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don Ryder’s comments upon receiving the 2009 National Peace Award

This is what Don Ryder, SFO, had to say when he was presented with the 2009 National Peace Award by the National Fraternity (NAFRA) of the Secular Franciscan Order in the United States. 

Thank you! Let me tell you that I am most humbled by this honor and I accept this recognition and award on behalf of those people I’ve tried to serve, the...
  • Working people in our communities.
  • Men in our prison system.
  • Hispanics in California.
  • Maasai tribe in Kenya, East Africa.
I also accept this on behalf of the many people I’ve worked with in this service and the many who have supported it financially and in other ways.

Not speaking at a national gathering like this before, I asked a few of my Franciscan sisters and brothers for some tips. I’ll do my best to follow the advice I received. I will...
  1. Make some introductions.
  2. Lay a foundation for an explanation of the work I’ve been involved in.
  3. Tell about my work locally, nationally and internationally.
I prefer not talking about myself; in fact I’m rather uncomfortable doing it. I like the words attributed to St. Francis, "Preach the Gospel, only use words if you must."

We were reminded at prayer today that we are "children of God." Our God is a Triune God: God the Father loves the Son; God the Son loves the Father; this love between them is the Holy Spirit. So here we have the Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier who lives in us. God first loves us, which enables us to love our sisters and brothers.

We are Eucharistic people; we are blessed, we are broken, and we are given – one to another. We are all good!

As Franciscans, we are people of the TAU. That means we are people of…


We are the Mystical Body of Christ. We are all One. We are all connected. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. Together we can celebrate the ordinariness of our lives. We are living in our God and our God is living in us. So how do we experience this God in the ordinariness of our lives? Does God not speak to us through nature, through art, through other people, through silence? What does this look like in the busyness of our everyday lives? Let me bring it down to the basics for us with examples from my life, my journey. In this, you’ll see yourselves because we’re all one. It may appear that I’m bouncing all over the place, but pay attention and connect the dots because it will all come full circle.

Yes, God does speak to us, and for me, God seems to speak to me especially through my wife, Yvonne. Just last week, she pointed out to me the little "anger streak" that seems to still run through me. By the way, this was also confirmed to me just two days ago by our daughter who told me that I can still "red line" pretty quickly. You know, they are both right. I have to admit the plank in my own eye. I will continue working on improving. But the point is (and it’s good news) that God still uses us as instruments in spite of our failings.

About some of the work I’ve been involved in...

As I tell you about the international work, you’ll see how the Mystical Body works. The seeds of "service to others" were sown within me as a child by the example of my mom and dad and further cultivated by the Benedictine nuns at St. Patrick’s Grade School and Regis High School. It was back then that the first thoughts of mission work in Africa came to me. But it wasn’t until about 10 years into our marriage that Yvonne and I decided to go to work in Nigeria, West Africa, with our 3 children. This turned out to be just another "brilliant" decision on my part. [That’s a little touch of Don’s dry sense of humor.] Actually it was a harrowing experience. We ended up in the middle of a coup, where the military was attempting a takeover of the government. We were held at gun point, all 5 of us. But with the help of some agents at the airport in Lagos, which was surrounded by the military, we were able to board a plane and get out of Africa.

It was disappointing to not be able to fulfill our work there, but we were grateful to get out with our skin still on. Although back in the states, we still had to deal with the trauma of the experience. In time we settled into making a living and raising our family, never anticipating a return to Africa.

Then almost 30 years later we had an opportunity to do some humanitarian work with Tom and Mary Pat Roovers who coordinate activities of "Helping Hands" through St. Mathew’s Parish in Wausau, Wisconsin. This included construction projects, home visits and a teacher in-service in Jamaica. It was in Jamaica that Romey Wagner and I first met. (Romey and Don are co-leaders of the Kenya Water Projects.)

Maasai tribe in Kenya, East Africa: Through the extraordinary work of Tom and Mary Pat, we did return to Africa, this time to do humanitarian work in Kenya, East Africa. Initially we worked among the Kikuyu tribe but we also had an opportunity to learn about the Maasai tribe and visit one of their villages. The Maasai live in the semi-arid, Great Rift Valley. Here they rely primarily upon their livestock for food and infrequent rain falls for water.

Six months after returning from this trip to Kenya, we learned about the serious drought that was impacting the Maasai people. The women and young girls would, in some cases, travel up to 15 miles one-way to carry back water from stagnate water holes that were used by wild animals as well as their own livestock. The men and young boys would leave for extended time periods, consequently disrupting family life, in search of water for their livestock. Lack of good, clean water was resulting in transmission of waterborne diseases and death to infants, the elderly and the sick. Learning about this situation required a response. Romey Wagner stepped forward and he and I became co-leaders of the effort that has become known as the Kenya Water Projects.

Through the efforts and support of many, many people, our Maasai sisters and brothers, to date are now drawing good, clean, safe, life-giving water from two wells. And this is making all the difference in the world --- for them it means life! Because of you and others, the infant mortality rate in this area is improving; basic hygiene is improving; general health among the Maasai is improving; their education is improving because children can stay in school rather than searching for water with their parents; their diets will become more balanced as they apply drip-irrigation techniques for growing fruits and vegetables; and we are encouraging them to plant trees, which they can now water, in an effort to re-claim some of the semi-arid land of the Rift Valley and live in balance with the environment.

As my co-leader, Romey Wagner, puts it, "We will always be drilling a well." So any others interested in helping to bring life-giving water to the Maasai can make a contribution online through the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin, at

Hispanics in California: Work among our Hispanic sisters and brothers in California was with the Good News Center, operated by Sr. Kenneth. This involved a soup kitchen serving a noon meal 5 days a week and on special holidays, and a thrift shop providing second-hand clothes to those in most need. Medical and dental services were provided by volunteer doctors. A very exciting aspect of this center was the new family housing on site, where an entire family could come and live for a specified time. This not only provided a safe haven but also training in basic skills, including the English language, enabling them to then transition into main stream society.

Men in our prison system: This consisted of conducting workshops for selected prisoners, using the book "The Inside Story." After reading the book, prisoners discussed specific questions in small groups, sharing their perspectives with each other. Then the group as a whole came together to learn from the group intelligence and harvest their collective wisdom --- realizing there is goodness in all people no matter what has happened in the past. I encouraged them to make a plan for how they wanted to spend the rest of their life --- even if they were locked up, they could still be free --- it is their choice.

And now for the transition, the transformation...

We all know the story of St. Francis being instructed to "Rebuild my church, as you can see it is falling apart." At first, Francis took this literally and began collecting stones and materials and physically began to rebuild the little church of San Damiano in 1205. As Francis was transformed, he came to "see" with the eyes of a mystic and realized it was the Kingdom he was helping to build. And is this not the same with us? Do we not often start out with projects from a literal perspective and are we not eventually transformed through them and begin to see with the eyes of a mystic? Does this not lead to Unity?

So let’s begin to connect the dots...

What starts out with silent prayer --- being and listening --- opens us to our "yes" response, which leads us to action. Through our action, our everyday activities, we are transformed, and through this transformation we realize our unity. It all happens not only to us but through us. We are all One. We are already there --- here --- now! And it’s always been this way.

Working people in our communities
As circumstances unfolded and I found myself facing a different but similar situation, I realized that, not unlike the Maasai, others are thirsting too --- thirsting for peace. In an effort to help improve the work environment I began discussions with various work groups. This led to me helping them in their efforts to identify those core values that they all wanted to live by within the work environment. This included all employees; front line workers, management, and the board/council. These people not only identified core values but they asked themselves what these values look like in the work place. Consequently, they listed the corresponding behaviors for their values. (To see a list of these core values and related behaviors, visit Under "Visit" click on "Mission & Core Values".) What this highlights is the goodness that lies within all people. As all parties are given an opportunity to express themselves, and as they all listen to each other, they discover the things we all have in common. By focusing on the things we have in common rather than on what divides us, we begin to experience more peace. And in a spirit of peace we are able to better discover together solutions to our joint challenges. One work group has chosen as their focus the caption, "FOR THE GOOD OF ALL."

Connect the dots...

So whoever we are and wherever we are, we can make a difference. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Let us celebrate......Peace

Don with woman at the well.

Elders enjoying a drink of water with their cattle

Romey and Don planting tree with the Maasai (the Chief is in blue)