By Katie Fiermonti
As Jay Gwinn prepares to volunteer in San Francisco de la Paz, Honduras, in March, the thing he finds himself most looking forward to is Mass in the village, and especially the moment of the Sign of Peace. For Jay it remains the thing that most affirms his faith in the world, and his purpose in Central America.
“Mass there is marvelous,” says Jay. “I sit there with kids running around, playing. The occasional dog will walk in. There’s so much love. The Hondurans are a very faithful people, and it can take a half hour for the ‘peace be with yous.’ It’s mayhem! But it reminds me and grounds me as to what faith is all about.”
Jay travels to San Francisco de la Paz every other year with the Durham-based nonprofit group and diocesan mission Project Eden/Adelante to help the impoverished villagers there, most of whom live in thinly-walled homes with dirt floors, little to no electricity and no running water. He helps with the nutrition and education programs led by the group, digging gardens for families, helping in the classrooms and building fences. His volunteer work is closely aligned with his deep faith, which challenges him to make a difference where he is able.
“Thirty years ago I was divorced and lost for some time,” says Jay, who was born Episcopalian. “I would pass by the Monastery of the Precious Blood every day. One day I walked in and asked the nuns if they minded if a lowly Episcopalian sat in the back and prayed. I prayed there almost every day. It turned me around.”
“In the process, I thought, ‘Catholics are doing all the heavy lifting. I think that’s the team I want to join,’” says the Manchester resident and Ste. Marie parishioner. “I went through the RCIA process and loved it. I love the Catholic Church. I love the faith.”
Ten years ago, Gwinn was given the opportunity to go to Haiti. “I just wanted to be a part of it and when my friend, who was a doctor, offered to bring me, I decided to go,” he remembers.
He was put in charge of coaching a girls’ soccer team. “That was a hoot because I didn’t know anything about soccer and I didn’t speak Creole. The girls had never been allowed to play, and they were terrible. But you could not believe the faces of these kids. It was marvelous. After Haiti, I wanted a different experience. I accompanied Father Dan St. Laurent to San Francisco de la Paz and loved that Project Eden/Adelante was focused on both education and nutrition. I have been going every other year for the past decade or so. It’s a great bunch of dedicated people.”
Helping others became a passion for Jay, who even molded his career to support his faith and global volunteerism. He works at IMEC America, building clinics and hospitals in lesser-developed countries, getting involved in aiding those countries devastated by natural disasters. “There’s a common theme running through my life for sure,” he laughs. “I’m not comfortable being an evangelist, but hopefully, I can be an example for others.” He spends his free time volunteering for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Manchester, delivering food to the hungry. “It’s just something I feel compelled to do. I thought that I should help in my own backyard as well. I try to let the Lord take me in the direction he wants.”
In March 2017, Gwinn will once again feel the familiar lurch as his plane banks over the treetops into the Central American airport. He’ll accompany his fellow volunteers into San Francisco de la Paz and be handed a hoe or start tending plants. He hopes more people might get involved in Project Eden/Adelante to spread kindness, education, and goodwill. “It’s a great education in what needs to be handled,” says Jay. “That’s what I love about it. It’s divinely inspired. For however long God keeps me here, that’s what I’ll be doing.”