September 9, 2013 — While many in their 70s are enjoying retirement, for Jesuit Father Bernie Owens it’s the perfect time to start a new assignment many miles from home — in Nairobi, Kenya. Last month shortly after his 74th birthday, Fr. Owens left to begin a three-year assignment at the Mwangaza Center near Nairobi, Kenya, run by the Society of Jesus’ Eastern Africa Province.
In Nairobi, Fr. Owens anticipates working with local priests and nuns as well as helping their humanitarian outreach efforts, which include assisting families affected by HIV.
“You work to help people … give them the tools to think and to make decisions and to lead and help change their nation for the better,” he said.
Fr. Owens previously served at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he had worked in spiritual direction and education for the past 19 years. Staying on at Manresa seemed like the best plan until Fr. Owens watched the film “Of Gods and Men” two years ago.
The film’s depiction of French monks opting to stay among Muslims in Algeria during a civil war, even after death threats, moved him to tears and kindled a desire to embrace a foreign mission wholeheartedly.
“They wanted to give their all,” Fr. Owens said. “It was just like: I want to love like these men loved. … I kept saying that to myself during the movie, over and over again. … It was very engaging for me, very powerful.”
Drawing on his many years at Manresa, Fr. Owens said he hopes to teach and views this as a divine opportunity to impact others. In 1994 Fr. Owens started serving in retreat ministry at Manresa, where he directed an internship in Ignatian spirituality, led an annual reading seminar that examined spirituality-themed works and guided those attending retreats through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He also led pilgrimages abroad and earned a lifetime achievement award from the retreat house.
When asked how long he would like to stay in Nairobi, Fr. Owens said: “Whatever time God and my body permit me. … Because to do this kind of work and have any results, you need to be there some years to set down roots and nurture what you started.