VIENNA, Austria — An international aid agency spanning several continents being run by one man from a taxi in the Austrian capital Vienna, may sound like an unlikely proposition.
But Hannes Urban, a bearded 45-year-old, has made it a reality, building up a small but highly effective network of aid projects in Africa and Latin America in just three years.
Thanks to his efforts, dozens of street children in Nairobi, Kenya, are receiving education or learning a trade; the poorest of the poor in Mexico City's slums are getting free medication; and a remote community in South Africa's Eastern Cape will soon have a properly equipped kindergarten.
This remarkable story of what can be achieved by the faith and persistence of one individual began, without any planning on Urban's part, when he visited a pen pal in South Africa in 1998. He got into conversation with a young woman begging in the street and was moved by her plight.
“It was my first encounter with poverty,” he recalled.
Without any clear ideas about what he could do to help, Urban returned to Vienna, where he told the story to friends. Unprompted, friends and acquaintances showered him with gifts of clothes for the woman he had met in South Africa, which he duly delivered several months later.
On that second visit, Urban learned about a kindergarten in the diocese of Kokstad which operated out of a primitive hut with only the most basic supplies. He resolved to ensure that a new kindergarten was built and properly equipped.
Back in his taxi in the Austrian capital, Urban began telling passengers of his plans and was astonished at their spontaneous willingness to donate money.
“People were enthusiastic,” he said. “No one ever said, ‘This is stupid.’”
The devout Catholic, who also says he has the gift of healing, detected the hand of God behind the unexpected turn his life had taken. “I said to God ‘If you want a kindergarten there, you will have to build it. I will be the tool and offer my labor, you must find the people with money.’ And that's what happened.”
Urban has so far raised around $15,000 for the Kuyasa (“sunrise”) kindergarten, which is slowly but steadily taking shape, and he hopes it will be finished by the end of this year. The Catholic bishop of Kokstad, Irishman William Slattery, is overseeing the project and handling the finances on the ground.
Urban's work has steadily evolved in the last three years, always without conscious planning on his part. He now makes regular visits to Mexico City, delivering tens of thousands of dollars worth of medicines donated by pharmaceutical companies in Austria; and to Kenya, where he is helping Nairobi “slum” children to get schooling and teenagers to train as shoemakers.
He still earns a living driving his taxi in Vienna for about six months of the year. Equipped with nothing more sophisticated than a mobile phone and a bulging contacts book, he is constantly working to raise funds and assemble consignments of goods for his next trip to the developing world.
Urban possesses quiet charisma and an undemonstrative but robust Catholic faith. He also displays a down-to-earth practicality, stubbornness and an unshakeable conviction that God will provide.
He has no firm plans for the future and has no idea where his work will take him next.
“I live in the present and trust in God,” he said. “I just take Jesus at his word. He sent the Apostles out to heal the sick, to bless people, to preach the Gospel. I try to do the same.”
Urban's primary motivation is not merely to improve the material lot of the poor, although that is important. It is to bring the Word of God to as many people as possible, not by explicitly evangelizing but by demonstrating the power of Christian love in action.
He believes that too many Christians, including some bishops and priests, lack true faith and fail to appreciate the power of the Gospel message.
“The Bible says God made man is his own image. That is often forgotten,” Urban said. “If I take that seriously, then every person is like God. If I embrace a poor homeless person in Africa, I am embracing Jesus. If I help a child to get off the streets, I am helping Jesus.”
Christ's injunction to feed the hungry and heal the sick applies to all Christians, he said. “For me that is an official mission from God. He made no distinction between bishops, priests and normal believers.”
Urban has established a charitable foundation named Wir Helfen (We Help) to give his activities an official identity, but it remains essentially a oneman operation. He receives no salary. Several airlines ship his consignments free of charge but he pays his own airfares. The foundation's costs in 2001 amounted to just 5% of donations, meaning that a full 95% reached the needy.
In contrast to large aid organizations with their salaried employees and high overheads, Urban incurs virtually no costs when on the road. He stays with priests and missionaries or local people and shares their food. “I can go to South Africa with $50 and come back three weeks later with $30 left.”
Urban urges Christians not to succumb to the temptation to see only wickedness in the modern world. Citing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, he says that amid the horror at the carnage, the fact that the death toll might have been much higher is often overlooked.
“No one talks about how many people were saved,” he said. “Even at such a moment of great evil, the hand of God was in play.”
Richard Murphy writes from Vienna, Austria.