Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven

Father Joseph Uhen’s Santisimo Sacramento parish in Peru attracts Super Bowl coach Jim Harbaugh and many others, and leaves them forever changed.

San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh leaves Rio Seco prison in Peru, after having played football with prisoners who were on good behavior. He gave prisoners his sweatshirt, another shirt and his shoes.
San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh leaves Rio Seco prison in Peru, after having played football with prisoners who were on good behavior. He gave prisoners his sweatshirt, another shirt and his shoes. (photo: Courtesy of Father Joseph Uhen)

Earlier this summer, San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh had a group of boys running plays and catching passes. It sounds like an ordinary football camp drill, although it was anything but. Harbaugh was in Piura, Peru, to teach the local youth about American football — and to build bamboo houses, deliver food packages, visit prisoners and much more.

Father Joseph Uhen, a Milwaukee native and the current pastor of Santisimo Sacramento parish in Piura, said each time the former All-Pro quarterback comes down (usually with four or five close friends), he enjoys giving of himself in a variety of ways: “Of course, he gets a thrill out of teaching football, and the kids get a thrill out of learning it, but Jim is generous in so many other ways. He would give the shirt off his back. I’ve actually seen him do just that.”

Father Uhen shared a number of stories about Harbaugh. He recalled it was on a trip to a Peruvian prison this summer that Harbaugh, a member of St. Raymond Catholic Church in Menlo Park, Calif., visited inmates and left one of them with his sweatshirt and shoes (see accompanying photo). Father Uhen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Piura, who started his Peruvian mission in August of 1993, believes Harbaugh also left the prisoners with something more important than material goods: an uplifted spirit.

“Jim has a charismatic personality that people are drawn toward,” Father Uhen said, “and, even though the inmates didn’t know him — they don’t watch TV, after all — they could tell he cared for them.”

The priest said another person who knew Harbaugh cared for him was a shy altar boy named Renzo. After noticing him faithfully carrying out his liturgical duties, Harbaugh approached him after Mass. He learned that Renzo’s family, like most of the families down there, doesn’t have the money to send him to school. Harbaugh made up for the family’s need from his own abundance by giving the altar boy a scholarship for his elementary education.

Quite unexpectedly, both the scholarship players and walk-ons from the Stanford University football team also benefited from the Peruvian mission trips. While Stanford head coach from 2007-2010, Harbaugh recounted some of his adventures, and he exhorted the team to gratefully make the most of what they have. He also invited Father Uhen to speak to the team about his mission work at the beginning of the 2009 season.

In addition to the verbal presentations about Peru, players benefited from getting to know some unique Peruvian practice techniques. In scrimmages, a touchdown did not count unless it was followed by successfully shooting a football into a basketball hoop placed near the end zone. This was known as “Peru ball,” a combination of two sports in one, which brought some levity to grueling workouts.


‘Peru Ball’

Harbaugh’s brother-in-law, John Feuerborn, who has accompanied the successful NFL coach to Peru five times, explains: “While in Peru, we came up with a fun combination of football, basketball and sometimes even soccer, which we called ‘Peru ball.’ The combo came about because of the locals’ unfamiliarity with American football. Our football games would sometimes morph into other sports they were more familiar with.”

The Kansas City, Mo., resident continued: “When Peru ball was taken to Stanford, I think it helped the team, because it provided an extra challenge of making a basket in order for a touchdown to count, and it kept the players’ spirits up. It came about unexpectedly. We certainly didn’t go down there so Jim would have better football teams up here.”

Yet that’s just the type of thing that happens when you give of yourself, Feuerborn has found. The personal contact with poor yet content people, who live slower, simpler lives, has helped him to step back each year and remember what really matters: “We tend to be very fast-paced in the United States, so it’s easy to get caught up in constant, even frantic, activity. You go from one thing to the next, all the while not even realizing why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Feuerborn’s awareness of motives, means and ends has been enhanced by traveling to Peru on a yearly basis. He said he has become better grounded in the basics of Christianity. Material things are relegated to their proper place, and human beings are recognized as unique creations of a Triune God. Each soul is worth saving, and each soul is worth serving.

“Through these mission trips, I’ve grown in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a member of his Church,” Feuerborn said. “It’s not so much that I’ve learned more facts, but what I already knew has been reinforced and enlivened. Being Catholic is a very real, practical thing that connects you to God and neighbor.”


Business Partner Involved

Feuerborn has recommended the Peruvian mission to many of his friends. Included in this group is his business partner in the company United States Appraisals, Scott Siegman, who started accompanying Feuerborn to Peru in 2012. When Siegman — who was raised in an atheistic home and is now a Methodist — learned of the benefits from Feuerborn’s yearly travels south, he signed up to go himself.

Siegman said he had heard people speak of “rewarding experiences,” usually in connection with some kind of volunteering activity. However, he did not know exactly what the term meant until he went to Peru himself the first time last summer. The experience was a life-changer.

“I was struck by how the less-than-ideal surroundings were accompanied by joyful living,” Siegman said. “Many Peruvians live in bamboo huts without electricity or running water, but they don’t have downcast spirits. Their lack of material goods is more than made up for by spiritual goods. This was so rejuvenating. It really shakes up your outlook on life for the better. You’re made acutely aware of how many resources you have at your fingertips, whereas before you might complain about the lack.”

As a successful businessman, Siegman is accustomed to generating a return on the investment of his resources. Yet he has found the Peru mission has given him a much more rewarding return than any of his financial investments. He even said he goes to Peru out of selfish motives, because what he receives back is so great. 

“Now I tell people to volunteer in Peru or, if that’s not possible, somewhere closer to home,” Siegman said. “It is not only for the good of those you’re helping, but also for yourself. If you are seeking real and everlasting rewards, then you should invest some volunteer time into the lives of those less fortunate in the world.” 


Focused on the Mass

The Masses at Santisimo Sacramento parish were sources of much good for Siegman. He noticed both the locals and the visitors were very focused on what was taking place before them. One of the things that stood out was how intently they listened to Father Uhen’s homilies. This was unlike much of his experience at Masses in the United States.

“Even though I’m a Methodist,” Siegman said, “I’ve been to Masses both here and in Peru. In Peru, it appeared like the Mass was the center of their lives. It wasn’t a casual social event; it was an encounter with the living God.”

This is the encounter that Father Uhen intended them to experience when he arrived at Santisimo Sacramento (“Most Holy Sacrament” in Spanish) parish in 1993: “All the corporal works of mercy we engage in here are rooted in Jesus, who is present in the Blessed Sacrament. He’s the source of every good work we do. Without his presence, I wouldn’t be here.”

Father Uhen further explained, “When God became man, he granted us a dignity we did not previously have. Our humanity was renewed and enlivened, so much so that Jesus even said what you do to the least of his brethren, you also do to him. He identifies with the poor to such an extent that he takes what we do for them as being done directly to him.”

Each Mass is a vibrant reminder of this, Father Uhen said, because Jesus comes to us, not just symbolically, but sacramentally: “The Jesus who humbled himself by taking human flesh 2,000 years ago continues to humble himself at every Mass by providing us with his own flesh. It was an astonishing thing for God to become man, yet it is even more astonishing for God to come to us under the appearance of bread.”

Father Uhen believes that if God can humble himself to that extent, we can go without some things for a time in order to share them with others. The nearly 500 yearly visitors to Santisimo Sacramento, most of whom come from the United States, agree with him. 

“God willingly takes on our poverty and then some, in order to unite himself to us, so we can do the same, albeit to a lesser extent, to unite ourselves to the poor,” Father Uhen said. “Then we live out the beatitude, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.’”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.