Last January, I was at my son’s hockey game just prior to leaving for Uganda on assignment for this magazine. A parent asked me if I had ever been to Africa. I thought for a moment and realized this would be my third trip to the continent. In 15 years, my work for St. Thomas has taken me around the globe with my camera, lights, microphones and tripod. I never travel light.
I have never traveled anywhere for St. Thomas without learning something. And much of what I have learned came from watching people’s hands.
On this recent trip to Uganda, I was filming in the street outside of Hope Medical’s Kasubi Clinic in the capital city of Kampala, surrounded by a group of kids. One had his hand on my microphone cable, another his hand on my tripod and a third with his hand on my back. They were all just curious - anxious to make a connection to me or my gear.
My first trip to Africa was to Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2003, with St. Thomas students and surgeons from Children’s Heartlink. The students were there to do a documentary on the work of the surgeons. I watched in awe as the hands of a surgeon opened a small child’s chest, stopped her heart, repaired it, and started it up again - all to give her a chance at a longer and healthier life.
When I went to Cuba with Coach Dennis Denning and his Tommie baseball team in January 2000, I watched Denning’s right hand as he held his index finger above his head while talking to his players. "Play hard," he said, "because your opponents want you to. Play with passion and respect."
When in Rome in 2000, it was respect for the pope I was concerned about. I used my own hands as signals to communicate with a Vatican police officer who escorted me up the steps of St. Peter’s to shoot footage of our group with John Paul II. The guard held my right elbow the entire time, and when he felt I had enough video he squeezed my elbow and lowered my arm and camera. He guided me back down the stairs and gave me a look, as if to say, I just did you a favor.
In Bogota, Colombia, in 2009, it was the hands of a nun holding an infant in her arms that touched me. Sister Valeriana Garcia-Martin runs Hogares Luz y Vida, a home for abandoned and terminally ill children. She received an award of $100,000 from the Opus Prize Foundation for the work of her hands. I later discovered the child she was holding died shortly after we left. I was comforted knowing that she loved that child and all those in her care as if they were her own.
And Father Dennis Dease treated all those he met in Kampala as though they were friends or family. He put his hands on their shoulder. He shook their hands. He held their hands. And to the children he met, it was "high fives." He used his hands as a pastoral tool, reaching out to touch the lives and spirits of those he had just met.
They say a person’s eyes are the gateway to their soul. Perhaps, their hands are a reflection of their spirit.
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