After a Brush with Death, A Chicago Deacon Does God’s Work in Uganda

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“I’m feeling fit and ready to do God’s work.”

So says Deacon Don Grossnickle, who received a diagnosis of acute congestive heart failure a few years ago that had him facing the potential of imminent death. But the deacon, from the Archdiocese of Chicago, has responded well to rehab (he credits “the grace of God”) and is still going strong, so he is committed to using his remaining years to serve God in any way possible. And right now, that way involves cows and pigs.

During a recent interview with me on “Christopher Closeup,” Deacon Don recalled becoming good friends with a Ugandan seminarian who was studying at his Chicago parish, St. Mary of the Lake. When that seminarian was ready to be ordained back in Uganda, he invited Deacon Don to concelebrate his first Mass with him.

The trip was eye-opening for the deacon, who visited orphanages and water projects and, one day, St. Luke Clinic, run by a nurse named Teophista. There, he saw six mothers and babies slowly dying from malaria fever, hooked up to IV. Malaria is preventable and treatable, but the people of Uganda had no money to afford those resources in many cases.

“I broke down in some serious crying,” said Deacon Don, “and came home and said, ‘God, help me do something to help those people who are too poor to afford medicine.”

The solution that Deacon Don came upon involved microfinancing. He explained, “That means people in the United States are sponsors or donors or investors give me monies, and my job is to go to Africa and develop projects that the people can use in order to produce funds for medicine. So essentially what I do is I loan them cows.”

The idea was adapted from the Heifer International model, which had been adopted years earlier by the bishop of the Masaka diocese. Deacon Don began his project with cows for 18 individuals and families who own at least two acres of land: “We loan them each one cow, then they care for the cow, milk the cow, and sell the milk. Ten percent of the milk that they get, they are supposed to give to the clinic to buy medicine…And when a baby cow is born, if it’s a female, they pass it on to another person….From 18 cows, we then move to 36, and then on and on. And the whole area grows from this microfinance investing…The monies are generated in order to fund a clinic. Then the clinic can serve the farmers themselves and the entire village. That’s the basic concept.”

The program has now expanded to include a pig farm as well, where pigs are sold and the money is used to buy medicine.

Deacon Don will be returning to Uganda for the third time this April. He said, “Last year was the first year that I visited some of the farms. The gratitude expressed by the individual farmers was wonderful. And of course, visiting Teophista and her storefront [clinic]. She got a $5,000 investment from a local parish here. Mount Prospect of Illinois gave her a piggery. That’s 10 cows and a boar. So she has a source of malaria medicine, and we’re taking care of that project. We’re also bringing on 10 new cows to a new village called Konge. So this will be our third major project. Through the Lord’s gifts here, we’re expanding.”

The good that we do in God’s name often comes back to us in unexpected ways, and that is certainly the case with Deacon Don, who has found his own faith greatly increased. He said, “We’re saving lives, we’re helping people gain their own integrity, their own worth. And it’s contagious! There are hundreds now that have been participating in our organization. Our real strength is to form alliances, bridges with others so that this can grow. And the original 18 cow herd, we’re now building into a dairy so yogurt and ice cream and pasteurized milk can go to schools. It’s interesting that in the United States, the dairy industry is really suffering. But in Uganda, it is the future for a very populated country who worry about how they’re going to eat. So my faith has grown, God has provided greatly for me, and I go to the hospital every day and work on my heart disease, but I’m feeling very strong and very energized.”

Deacon Don continues to hope that more people will join him in his mission. He concluded, “I listened to God call out to me, and in a sense I found an epiphany. There was a star over Uganda for me. I went there. I’m laying down my gifts at the feet of other people, where the presence of God is so alive. And I encourage everyone to have this experience. I want to thank anyone who would contribute any amount of money, or just the time and interest to follow what we’re doing in Uganda, East Africa. The people are very hopeful, hope filled, but they also are suffering greatly. And our presence amazes them. You can only imagine, to have white people come into communities where they’ve hardly ever seen them, and particularly their children. And to work together side by side with them and walk in their shoes, it’s a beautiful experience.”

(To listen to my full interview with Deacon Don Grossnickle, click on the podcast link):

1) Deacon Don Grossnickle, and 2) Sister Ave Clark – Christopher Closeup