The Glorious Opening of the Dorothy York / Hannah Thomas Center

May 27, 2017

To say this day will forever bring up overwhelming feelings of awe, gratitude and joy is the ultimate understatement. This is the day Francis built up to – the inauguration of the Dorothy York / Hannah Thomas Center. I woke up in a Franciscan church hostel since our original hotel was full. Francis pulled this place out of his hat as a place for Zack and I to stay. The spirituality of the grounds was an appropriate tribute to Mom, the gentle, soulful woman who shaped so much of my upbringing. I woke up knowing that her spirit would be honored today in Cameroon, more than 7000 miles from her small hometown of Wymore, Nebraska. Simply unfathomable.

Sylvester grabbed Zack early in the morning to drive up to the Center for the inauguration day so he could film the preparations as the day unfolded without me around. Lilbert waited with me at the church and we strolled through the grounds and the church cemetery. A local citizen casually threw us a guava freshly picked off a tree. I was in a strange place trying to fathom the significance of the day and humbly acknowledging I had really done nothing to deserve all of this. It was all because of Francis. This was his ship and I was just a highly visible passenger.

Around 11:oo am, Sylvester returned to pick up Lilbert and I. We were officially on our way to the inauguration. The center was located about an hour from the center of Mambesa in a village that we had not visited in the week. The weather was precarious with clouds threatening overhead. Zack and I witnessed vicious downpours this week, downpours that would seriously impact the ceremony if they struck. But God just teased us with bad weather – the day wound up glorious.

As we got closer to the village and the center, a caravan of motorcycles was there to greet us, about twenty in all. The roads were in good shape, but the last five miles were treacherous dirt roads. I sat in the back seat by myself with Sylvester and Lilbert in the front seat and twenty motorcycles leading the way. I was a kaleidoscope of feelings and emotions. I thought of being twelve years old in the back seat of my Mom’s car, driving to school. I could hear and feel the songs she sang to me. Along the side of the road dozens of local villagers waved as we drove by, their faces expressing wonder at what they were witnessing. Sylvester was constantly on the phone, communicating to Francis how close we were to the grounds. The full choreography was in action.

The motorcycles gradually slowed down and the road widened to the outskirts of the village. Draped about 30 feet overhead was a banner acknowledging the opening of the Dorothy York Senior Center and the ridiculously hokey picture of me in African garb taken last year in Las Vegas. We passed under this sign and abruptly Sylvester stopped the car, threw the door open and I walked with Lilbert leading the way. Groups of elders waved to me, then dozens, then hundreds. I was swallowed up into a sea of Cameroonian humanity with so many men and women in their 60’s and 70’s. Many struggled to walk, many struggled to see, but they represented a spirit and serenity people long for. I should have been more reflective as I meandered through this sea of people, but it was a raucous, giddy, smiling moment by moment experience. I gave one person after another hugs, a hug from their soul to mine. Lilbert tried to guide me, but the size of the gathering made it difficult. Before I knew it, Francis popped out of nowhere and grabbed my hand. He became the leader of the pack. We were soul brothers surrounded by love. I occasionally glanced at Zack circling around me, videotaping as he walked and sometimes from the back of the truck.

Out of nowhere, a horse appeared. It took me a few seconds to process that they wanted me to hop onto the horse and ride into the village. I’ve ridden horses maybe about seven times in my life, but who was I to mess with the celebration? I cautiously climbed into the stirrups, jumped on board and wondered how this moment ever came to pass. The horse, surrounded by all of the people, was also a bit overwhelmed and it jumped a couple of times. I hung on for dear life as he came back to the ground. I can only imagine how it appeared.

As I rode the horse deeper and deeper into the village, I got a chance to capture the scene. I saw the senior center for the first time, blurring into the background of the village. I saw the villagers all over the hillsides, hundreds deep. I also saw Zack almost get thrown from the truck after a simultaneous left turn and pothole dip. Musicians of all shapes and sizes engulfed me playing homemade local flutes, drums, bongos and man made noises came from all directions.

Francis led me off the horse and I shouted words of insanity to him for setting the wheels of this in motion. I was led through the fields, through the hundreds of people while doing my favorite African chant of “Woooooooo” as I put my finger over my lips. I had that down pat and the local women screamed back their greeting in response. I was led to a red carpet laid out on the erratic fields of grass and walked to my guest of honor seating arrangement. I was under a tent that stretched for a hundred feet behind the stage. It was an honor to be one of the dignitaries under the tent, as people sat down it was important as to who sat where. Lilbert guided me every step of the way as Francis attended the other preparations. What added to the honor (and the logistical nightmare for Francis) was the divisional deputy director, the powerful government official I met three days ago, attended with his motorcade. His presence required additional pomp and circumstance in terms of security as well as honor.

In my seat I was able to catch my breath as the government entourage arrived. On the left of me, out on a hill overlooking the ceremony, was the Senior Center. I took a deep breath and just looked at it. Immaculate was the architect and builder. She was dressed in a stunning coral colored dress. We made eye contact and waved at each other from a hundred yards away as she stood under the Center. I saw and felt her pride from a distance and it was well deserved! The ceremony was at the base of a valley, the hills on the side of the valley filled up with people and chairs. People of all shapes and sizes, all ages, families gathered to celebrate. Being in the middle of the commotion shook me to my core. I found out later most of them walked miles and miles for this day. These were the villages we visited during the week. The weather magically cooperated, the ominous clouds of the morning drifted in and out but ultimately retreated into the background. It was a glorious day!

The ceremony did not officially start until the divisional director showed up. Once he did, it was another show. I came in on a horse, but he arrived in a fully-decked, elite vehicle, a type of car not seen during our  week here. After that spectacular vehicle showed up, a caravan of ten other cars followed in unison and a team of soldiers hopped out from each vehicle to surround the director as he sauntered up the red carpet. He knew how to make an entrance while I was totally faking it.

As the director reached my chair, he warmly, sincerely greeted me and we took our seats next to each other. The meeting Francis set up three days ago completely changed this interaction. We had a knowledge of each other so easy conversion took place as the ceremony started. Dwight, one of the rising stars of CDVTA, was the emcee of the event and he was comfortable with the microphone. It looked like three to four thousand people were there for the inauguration.

Before I knew it, the celebration was underway. I’m glad Zack captured it on video, as I was numb to the whole experience. The local priests led prayers, shots were fired in celebration, dignitary after dignitary gave appropriate speeches, a beautiful church choir sang blessings in different languages. Hearing Dorothy York’s name, Hannah Thomas’s name, Its Never 2 Late’s name, even my name over and over through the PA system and Cameroon dialects was astounding. I wish Jude and Bill Thomas could have been there – the spirit of Hannah was felt through the valley, sung over and over by the choir. I have overused the word “surreal” in these writings, but it is the only way I can describe it.

Before Francis and I spoke there was a parade – a parade acknowledging all of the marvelous works done by CDVTA. Each of the villages had their people holding up hand-made signs highlighting the different projects they are working on for elders in the community. Then the CDVTA volunteers, about 250, all walked by and paid their respects to Francis. He is such a humble man. We didn’t speak at the parade walked by but I know his heart swelled with pride. From the northwest corner of his heart (one of his favorite lines) he wondered if his organization would even survive for its first few years. Now it has earned remarkable levels of respect and acceptance from the people and the government.

The goats were formally blessed, about twenty of them bleated their way up the proceedings. I remembered the night nine months ago, with Paul Riccio and Angie McAllister, when this far fetched idea hatched. And here I was on the other sound of the world watching that craziness come to life. I couldn’t wait to tell both of them when I get back! The goats were their hilarious, non cooperative selves. The divisional director, Francis and I said the first blessings. Another of the hundreds of people back home who won’t believe this moment.

Francis grabbed the microphone after the more formal presentations were delivered. He talked passionately about the power of how we met and how our mothers set us both in motion in 1998. He was the master showman, he exhorted the crowd, had me climb on his back and yelled the appropriate “Oh Yay” over and over again. I watched him and felt the presence of my marvelous Mom wash over the valley. I felt my brother Tom, my partner in crime when we started the company and felt his heart all over the experience. I thought about my brother Jim – it was his birthday and I want him to accompany me here next year. I was given a chance to speak and I don’t remember exactly what I said. I made sure to thank all of the villages that honored me and tried to remember so many people back in the states (especially Leslie) that made this day possible. I will honor this day – the birthday of my brothers Tom and Jim. I was speaking to both brothers from across the globe.

After I spoke and taught all of the villagers Kristi’s secret iN2L sign, we walked over to the building and officially opened the Center dedicated to Dorothy York and Hannah Thomas. It was all pomp and circumstance, the divisional director cut the ribbon with oversized scissors with Francis, Immaculate and I by his side. We took a brief tour of the facility, seeing huge pictures of Dorothy and Hannah in full regalia and the formalities of the day were finally winding down. We drove to the parish center reception area and had a feast of traditional local food to honor the Center, Francis and the day. Zack even bought a slingshot for his buddy Eli.

Mom, I’m not sure how this all happened. I know I don’t deserve any of the acclaim, but you are the most magical woman I have ever known. To have your spirit honored by thousands of peaceful, joyous, delightful Cameroonians is I guess the best way I can say thank you. In the most fitting possible ending to the day, as the chairs were stacked and picked up and the sun drifted behind the mountains, I saw Francis in the distance, holding the hand of a villager. I assumed she was one of the folks who came for the day. But he held out her hand and introduced me to this soulful woman – Francis’ mother. The world had come full circle. The most remarkable day I could imagine had finally come to an end.