|Father Gerry Roche at work in Kenya|
Four months and 11 days later, an event occurred halfway across the globe that would alter the course of our lives in an extraordinary manner.
An Irish missionary priest, named Father Gerry Roche, was killed in the small rural village of Kericho, Kenya.
Before I can begin to connect the dots, I have to give you a bit of background information on my connection to Father Gerry Roche.
As far back as I can remember, a mysterious figure named Father Gerry would send my parents letters from Africa with requests for donations. And no matter how much my parents struggled to take care of their five babies in the Bronx, they always managed to make sure that they sent money to this man that they rarely saw, who spoke of helping people they’d never meet.
My mom told me of one month in particular, when extra household expenses left us short on the rent. We performed a charity gig and it just so happened that we won a raffle for $700: the exact the amount we owed in rent. Relieved, mom went to sleep that night with a peaceful mind, but by the time she woke up in the morning, my Dad had already mailed a check for $700 to Father Gerry in Kenya. He reasoned that “they needed it more than we did.” Amazingly, my mother instantly accepted this gesture of generosity. “I couldn’t even be angry with him. That’s why he’s the man I married.”
It was only while attending Father Gerry’s funeral in December 2009 and witnessing a Church full of grown men and women openly weeping, that I realized how important this man was to so many people.
The way in which Father Gerry met his rest was a particular point of grief for his loved ones. He was stripped naked, tied, and beaten by men wielding machetes and sticks. Much of the Irish media simply recounted the gruesome details of his death, and after a week, it seemed that his life was all but forgotten by everyone except his heartbroken community members.
Something about that did not sit right with us.
So, armed with our trusty HDV camera and a wireless microphone, my sister and I set out to find out who this man was, and to explore why he was so brutally murdered. In the process, we’ve come to learn about a man who built clinics, schools, churches, and farms in the poorest regions of Kenya. About a man who fund-raised his entire life, but never owned more than a few old pairs of shirts and shorts – and one 30 year old cassock. And about a man who challenged authority and who fought for the truth, without regard for the consequences. He also supported marginalized people, including unwed mothers and same-sex couples.
Although the exact reasons for the murder of this man may never be known, we’ve captured opinions and responses from his close confidants and contemporaries that are strong enough to raise questions about the official Kenyan Police record, which classified the death as armed robbery.
Two years ago, I wrote this column about “the cool sting of rejection” I received from a potential financier because he believed Ireland simply wasn’t “ready” for any story about a good priest. I took it quite personally, and at the time, we were barely able to make rent, so for a while, we simply dropped the project.
Emily Dickinson once famously wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb of Me."
Hope is indeed the thing with feathers, that sings its tune and never stops, but it is a bit of a cruel mistress. It is often the thing we hope for above all else that we find ourselves losing. Sometimes we just hope for the opportunity to make a movie about a really good man, and we hope to inspire people with the story of his achievements. But a silly little thing like colored paper makes it almost impossible to do so.
Sometimes we hope for somebody to love us so much that we’ll convince ourselves that there is truth in his lies and warmth in his cool embrace. Sometimes, we just hope that God will do us the grace of sparing the lives of our loved ones. But often, despite our good deeds and all of the prayers that we offer up to Hope, she doesn’t provide.
Just as that famous Willa Cather character once admonished, "Don't love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you”; we learn to fear hope, because so often its closest companion is disappointment. And yet, Life has a strange way of sending us blessings in exchange for our sorrows. We may lose our loved ones, but the lives of others might be saved because of what has been learned from that loss. The thing we thought was love may have been nothing of the sort, but we know what it means to be fooled, and won’t let it happen again. And a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service may have met a terrible fate. But a couple of kids with a camera might come along and find a way to tell his story. And maybe, just maybe, his story will spread, and people will be encouraged to emulate him, and maybe somehow, that’ll help to make the world a better place.
We may as well hope for it.
We’re delighted to report that our documentary film, "A Mighty Man: The Father Gerry Roche Story," will be screened in Dublin at Filmbase in Temple Bar on Thursday, August 30th. It is available for sale on DVD (please contact [email protected]).