It began just months after his 1954 ordination in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when a 16-year-old burglarized him. The priest asked the judge if he could care for the boy instead of sending him to jail. The judge gave him eight other street children as well. Since then, the one-time Arizona resident has been priest and “father” to more than 10,000 children in six different countries. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Barb Ernster.
Barb Ernster: There are a lot of kids that come to you that are filled with bitterness and hatred. How do you begin to tear down those walls?
Father Wasson: Little by little. For instance, we just got started in El Salvador. We're getting our children from a compound that's in the city of San Salvador. They must have about 2,400 street children, all boys, between the ages of 3 on up to late teens. When they come, they're filled with aggression and they don't trust anyone. So they have daily training to try and overcome their fear of one another.
Does the aggression and fear come from the poverty or from bad homes?
It comes from the bonding with violence which they learn on the streets. They're on the streets because they are orphaned or abandoned.
Is it easier to help the children if you get them when they're little?
Oh yes. That's a formative age; that's when they become bonded with their heart. Sometimes because of their lack of bonding, or bad bonding, they become psychopathic or sociopathic. They are able to learn, but they're not able to feel. They're not able to bond with anything, really, because they think that everything has an angle and everybody they approach wants something.
So they just go along. From time to time, there are children who have a mother who doesn't want them at all because she's in business on the streets. They'll go back with her for a while till finally she says, ‘I don't want you at all.’ So they'll come back, but they can't understand why their mother doesn't want them or why their grandmothers can't take care of them. With the man in the family, there's usually a type of machismo and he isn't prepared for children. Maybe he's 16 at the time that he has children.
You have five principles that you work with: You offer the children security and love, and then have them, in turn, learn to share, work and be responsible with each other. Did you come up with these principles?
Oh, yes, they've been with us since the beginning. Like all things, it's the way people grasp that idea and carry it forth that makes the difference.
Suicide among teen-agers in the United States is becoming a leading killer, and yet you have never experienced that with your kids. Why is that?
I think it's because we're constantly living for the future, rather than concentrating on their past. We give them constant hope. My own belief is that with suicide, there's usually a great deal of narcissism, a great deal of self-concern and self-despair involved. We're constantly reminding our children that they have nothing to despair over and that they can get caught up in a new embrace and carry forth their lives with hope and joy. [Suicide] is possible, of course, but the positive side of their lives is what carries them along.
We never allow any kind of violence in our bonding with the children, no violence in any thought, word or deed. It is something we constantly meditate on and encourage with our staff, and it is very difficult to achieve. Many people think that the only way you can control children is by the threat of violence. That's a negative thing of course, and we try to eliminate that from our approach and way of dealing with the children. And then there is the positive side, we encourage all of our staff to imagine themselves as a good shepherd. That's something almost anybody can handle.
What would you say to parents in the United States whose children are surrounded by violence?
I would say to try on a daily basis to eliminate all violence in their lives and not feel guilty. In place of that violence, do frequent talks with their children about right and wrong. I would encourage them to feel the difference, rather than just to know the difference (between right and wrong), because unless you can touch the heart of a child with these concepts, they don't really accept them. They do mentally, but not with their heart.
They also must realize that money has nothing to do with the education and helping [of] a child. It may pay bills, yes, and schooling, but even the very poorest of the poor, as parents, can try to be good shepherds. It's a matter of having or being. You can have many things, but if you are a good person, whomever you come in contact with will be a little better.
In the United States, there is a great deal of work to be done, and there is a great deal of work to be done with children. But in the United States, it is difficult for this reason: It has become so wealthy that everybody believes that the problems of children can be solved by money. Throw up a building, pay high salaries — you buy everything you think a child should need without getting involved yourself. Of course that usually ends up very badly. Achieving something is an obstacle course and those who overcome the obstacle course are the ones who are going to win.
In America, many people have an expectation that the government should take care of all the poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, etc., through social programs. What do you say of that opinion?
I think the government should be forced to use the tax money on worthy things. But I think that to insist the government should take care of all the things that a parent should really be concerned with, such as counseling their children and helping them in any way, is another matter. The government should provide the wherewithal to education, employment and all these different things, but you can go too far by insisting that the government provide the psychologists to give advice on every subject. It's the parent's job to take care of a lot of that.
On a global scale, children are often devalued as “population growth,” rather than cherished as a gift from God. Are there ever too many children, in your opinion?
No. But I wouldn't encourage people to have children who really don't want to have them. That is playing with unwanted children, abused children and abortion. I certainly believe that everybody should have children, but because they want to, not because they're careless or don't care.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I used to be very concerned with getting the wherewithal to continue the work. Last week we celebrated our 45th anniversary of our first child. By the way, he's already 62 years old. Over the last 45 years there were times I was worried about how we were going to keep going. But I found that if we just did our very best to help each child, in some way, help comes.
What has driven you to do what you do for these children? Do you identify with them?
I've been greatly influenced lately by people like Mohandas Gandhi and his constant concern with the great harm that violence brings about. That's treated in the Sermon on the Mount by Matthew. The Christian is not allowed violence in any way. And then the whole concept of the good shepherd, of being concerned constantly, and being able to follow that concept in your own life, your own family and in an extended family. You can't force those concepts on people; they have to understand them and then be willing in their heart to follow through.
At the foundation of all this action, you must have a strong faith and prayer life.
Short prayers, anyway. My favorite prayer is the Lord's Prayer; that's my daily meditation. My favorite guide is the Sermon on the Mount, and the Last Judgment.
Do you try to influence the children in the Catholic faith?
Oh, yes. They have to have a guide. We've had several children who are Jews and I've never tried to force them to be Christian. Later they did become [Christian], but not through force. I don't think it's good to force anyone to change their bonding. We've had some children who have been non-Catholic Christians, and almost always they become Catholic later. But I never felt that I should force that. Why? Because every Christian is bonded to our Lord in certain ways through baptism, and I feel that that's something very sacred. About 99% of them have been baptized Catholic.
How did you feel called to be a priest?
When I was 6 years old I decided [to be a priest], but for all the wrong reasons, of course. I thought it was lovely. I was an altar boy when I was 6, in a Franciscan parish. And they always wore sandals when they said Mass and I noticed they would wiggle their toes. We didn't wear sandals in those days. Only Franciscans wore sandals and could wiggle their toes, so I thought that would be great. Of course, the concept grew and that's how things sometimes happen.
So that must have been a great disappointment when you were told in the United States that you would-n't be ordained because of your health.
Yes. I had a thyroidectomy and then I went down to Mexico. One thing led to another and when the doctor there said that I would be able to live long enough, the bishop of Cuernavaca ordained me.
Did you feel called to start the orphanage there, or did it just happen?
No, I always felt that I wanted to do this. I didn't have the same idea at the beginning as I did later on. When I first began, I wanted to take a maximum of 12 children in honor of the Twelve Apostles. Then later on I thought, well, maybe the 72 disciples. Then it kept growing and now there have been between 10,000 and 15,000 children we've taken in six different countries.
Whatever happened to that first boy that you took in?
He's married and has three children. He is a landscape director and is living in Arizona and doing very well. His name is Gunter, and his parents had migrated from Bavaria to Bolivia. His father was a math teacher in Bolivia and was killed in an automobile accident. His mother immediately married a German from a German colony, and he took them to Cuernavaca, Mexico. He was an alcoholic and would come home and beat up his wife and beat up the boy, so that's where the hatred began. The mother took the side of her second husband, and the boy was on the street. That's when he broke into the church and stole.
Did you ever look at him and wonder what on earth you started?
I blame him for it.
Father Wasson, who was raised in Arizona, has received numerous awards throughout the years, including Mexico's Honor of the Aztec Eagle, in 1991.
Mother Teresa called him a “man of God” and treasure of men.
Father Wasson said many of the children he's helped go on to lead productive lives in education, medicine, law, construction, farming and other careers.
Today, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters) orphan homes are in Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador (http://www.nphamigos.org).