Local News Archive
Print Issue: July 20, 2000
College Student Discovers Mission Of Charity Abroad
By Priscilla Greear, Staff Writer
ATLANTAReflecting on his mission trip to Calcutta, India, Craig Hickein recalled the very peaceful experience of sitting at a bedside and praying for a man dying at a hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity.
He later wrote in his journal about the stranger, Thomas, brought in from the streets during the summer of 1999.
I was praying continuously. I was also trying to comfort him in any way I could, which was little. I would wipe his brow, give him some water, or just hold his hand and caress his arm ... If I hadnt been brought to Calcutta, this man may have died alone. So maybe Thomas is the reason that I was sent here. Also, I was able to recognize the suffering Christ in Thomas.
Hickein said the experience taught him a lot about life and death and the brevity of life. I think were all really afraid of dying but sitting with someone, it dispelled those conceptions about death. I realized it doesnt have to be as scary as it seemed. It was just kind of reassuring to sit with someone.
Stretching the muscles of his soul and relying upon the waters of the Holy Spirit to replenish him, the college student has spent every summer since 1994 on marathon mission trips. His prize isnt a gleaming trophy or medal, but a quiet sense of victory in Jesus.
Hes taking a breather from missionary work this summer to work at Global Staffing Service in Atlanta, before returning to school this fall. Hickein said it was a difficult decision to stay home, but he needs to save money during his last college summer, as the cost of travel and loss of wages while away piles up.
Spiritual benefits from his summers abroad are evident in his life at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia, where he majors in theology and minors in peace and justice. A parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle Church and a graduate of the parish school and St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, Hickein is involved in campus ministry at the Catholic university where he helps plan and facilitate about 12 Augustinian retreats yearly. He attends Mass several times a week and makes time for daily prayer.
Mission work brought me to the faith that I have today. Its one of the reasons that I am a theology major and study peace and justice. Its pretty much dictated who I am as a person, he said in a phone interview.
I think I get the most strength when I spend time with the poor because their life is so simple. I think we spend too much time getting caught up in distractions.
After raising $2,500, the solo traveler headed off last summer to India where he spent six weeks working with the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. Living alone, he spent his days at a hospice with about 200 male patients suffering both terminal and short-term illnesses, some with malaria and tuberculosis, others with schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He said Calcuttas streets are overridden with the dying who have no one to care for them until the sisters, lacking money and resources, take them in and simply care for them, enabling them to die with dignity.
Their mission isnt to convert people, (but) to heal people. Its just to love them, he said.
Hickein fed patients, hand washed clothes and sheets, cleaned up after the sick, bathed and massaged them and cleaned bodies for burial.
He said he met Mother Teresa in spirit through the sisters who were amazing spiritually and prayerfully ... the most loving people Ive ever met in my life.
One of Mother Teresas teachings he adapted was to pray while working, no matter how boring or mundane the task.
If its not one of the most rewarding things you are doing, you can always pray it and know youre doing it for Gods glory, he said. Theyd say, Im going to be cleaning this mattress. How differently would I clean it if I knew that Jesus was going to be sleeping here tonight? Theyd say Jesus is going to be sleeping here; why should I be slack about it because there is Jesus in every person.
A fraternity member who considers himself outgoing, Hickein savored the summer solitude.
I ate alone pretty much every day. It turned out to be a really, really positive experience. Im incredibly comfortable with being alone, spending time by myself. I think its very therapeutic now, he said.
When I pray now, I pray that I can approach every situation with love and seek out the divinity in every person, try to love the divinity in people even if people are rude ... I remember Gods love in them and I try to find that.
Hickeins missionary spirit took flight after ninth grade on a parish mission trip to the Mustard Seed Communities in Jamaica where he envisioned himself hanging out on the beach with buddies. Instead, after seeing the poverty, he was brought to tears, realizing all of his material blessings and how he hadnt fully used his abilities. It became the greatest week of my life up to this point.
I think people discover their faith out of gratitude and I became so conscious of what I was blessed with ... I had always gone to Catholic school. I had always been Catholic, but I had never really found my own faith and reason to be faithful.
With a newfound sense of devotion toward the plight of developing and Third World countries, the 6-foot-1-inch, lanky blond returned alone to Kingston, Jamaica, the next summer.
With more time on his hands, he said, it turned out in the long run to be a blessing in disguise. I had nothing to fall back on but my faith. The kids couldnt understand what I was trying to explain about my emotions and stuff. I spent a lot of time journaling and praying.
While there, the city boy recalled one daunting task he was asked to perform by Father Gregory Ramkissoon, the director: Kill a truckload of chickens.
Father Gregory pointed at this truck with 200 live chickens and said, Your job today is to kill them and pluck them. They handed me a two-foot long machete and told me (to) figure out how to do it. It was character building.
Reunited with St. Jude groups, Hickein headed the next three summers on mission trips to La Paz, Honduras, through the Franciscan APUFRAM ministry. During one building project, he almost lost a finger helping to lay a foundation.
The doctor didnt have any clue what he was doing. My finger was split in two ... My fingers (now) crooked because of it, but its neat. I have a cool story.
The following summer he decided it was time to tackle a new challenge by going to Calcutta. He said that part of the mission experience is to learn how to think and react in unfamiliar situations and he was becoming very comfortable in Honduras.
Im always open to a new challenge and Id love to try somewhere else. Being in a different culture for an extended period of time is a challenge. Its difficult to assimilate to a different culture and the food, the language ... but I kind of enjoy it too.
St. Judes former youth leader Jennifer Goodwyn, who has led trips in which he has participated, witnessed that joy.
Youre never really sure where he will end up, but you just know that it will be right. And you know that the Lord will be a part of it. Its just really exciting, she said. Ive been a youth minister for many years. He is the most faith-filled, Christ-centered young man that has answered the call to serve ... and (he) will do something with it whether in this country or another. He will live a life of incredible patience and love and service to others ... Hes made service a part of his life, not a piece of it. Its part of who he is.
She spoke of his poise and confidence that flow from his faith. Even on his first mission trip, she recalled, he was eager to step up to the plate and set an example for everyone, adding that he possesses a level of silliness and fun in intimidating situations and anybody who can blend those two comes from a life of prayer.
The first step that he takes is he always serves Christ and hes so friendly and warm and interesting and real that people are attracted to that and then people want to learn about it and find their own call, she said.
St. Judes youth of the year his senior year, Hickein credits the parish for showing him he could still be a cool high school kid and believe in God and pray there. It was acceptable.
Intent on seeking social justice whether through mission work or a career, he tossed around a few post-graduation options like pursuing a law doctorate in human rights, teaching high school religion or spending time abroad volunteering. At Villanova he has particularly enjoyed studying liberation theology which combines theology and social justice. Hes interested in human rights violations, oppressive systems and problems of poverty, as if you really want to solve the problem of poverty its not (giving) hand-outs. Its changing the system so everyone is on a level playing field.
But hes not ready to sell all his possessions. I think Ive been blessed with what I have for a reason. For some reason I have shelter and education and I dont think I should give it up. It is a blessing that was given for a reason.
AT HOME IN CALCUTTA -- Villanova student Craig Hickein, right, and a friend from the streets of Calcutta sit outside the Missionaries of Charity motherhouse where he volunteered during the summer of 1999.