It’s very unusual for an American elected politician to have experience living in Africa and doing Christian service work. When Bill Ritter – Colorado’s new governor – was in high school, he thought he might want to be a Catholic priest. Years later, he found a way to express his Christian ideals at a Catholic Mission in Zambia, outside of the seminary and the path to priesthood. In doing this interview with Ritter, I found that he was very easy to talk to, and he has far more depth to his personality beyond public role as a politician. It is clear to me that Bill and his wife Jeannie have an usually deep and abiding love for Africa.
A Governor’s Missionary Experience in Africa
Father Bill Morel believes it was divine intervention that led Bill Ritter and his wife Jeannie to become lay missionaries at the Mongu nutrition center in Zambia, Africa in August 1987. As an administrator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Father Morel was responsible for the religious order’s missions in Africa and other parts of the world, and yet his organization had never accepted a lay couple as part of their work before. But the future Colorado governor and his wife would prove to be an extraordinary exception.
Father Morel first met Ritter when he was an idealistic high school student coming to San Antonio, Texas, to study at St. Anthony’s, a special Catholic high school for young men considering becoming missionaries and priests. Ritter stayed at the school for his freshmen and sophomore years, and while he eventually decided to follow a secular path in his career and education, Ritter had been deeply impressed by his mentors at St. Anthony’s. Nearly twenty years after his seminary experience, married and with a one year-old son, Ritter felt a strong spiritual urge for service, and he called Father Morel with a special request.
“He called and said, Father Bill, but I don’t know if you remember me, but you taught me as a sophomore. I don’t want you to interrupt me, because I have something to say all at once, or I won’t have the courage to say it,” Father Morel said, recalling Ritter’s nervous voice over the phone. “I’m married to Jeannie and we have a one year-old child and we want to work as lay missionaries in Zambia, with Oblates of Mary Immaculate.”
Ritter didn’t know that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate did not work with lay couples; he also had no idea that Father Morel had received an unusual letter from the Bishop of Zambia that very day. The Bishop’s letter explained that a very important nutrition center in Zambia needed new leaders, and the Bishop requested a lay couple. Father Morel was stunned.
“To me it was perfectly clear – I had never in my life seen such a clear example of God intervening in kind of a coincidental way,” Father Morel said. After he told Ritter about the letter, Father Morel declared that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were going to change their rules, despite their usual concerns about the complications of housing and accommodating lay missionary couples. Bill and Jeannie Ritter were going to see their wish come true.
While going through a year of training and evaluation, the Ritters sold their house and most of their possessions in preparation for their three-year missionary service in Africa. It would prove to be an indelible experience. Witnessing crushing poverty, the onset of the AIDS epidemic, horrible diseases and malnutrition, as well as experiencing beautiful traditional cultures and the great love and dignity of the Zambian people, Africa had a profound impact on the Ritter family.
The Oblates mission was in the town of Mongu, the capital of the Western Province of Zambia – but the provincial “capitol” was really little more than an isolated back-country hamlet.
“The paved streets were probably only a mile long through Mongu town. Most of the people there lived in villages with thatched huts,” Ritter recalled, adding that there were only a few other expatriates in the area. “We were saturated by Zambian friends, Zambian workmates and Zambian culture.”
Ritter describes the mission as having 45 “bush depots” that been established for distributing food to rural villages; he and Jeannie created more depots, and worked on diversifying the mission’s activities to stimulate economic development and help the mission achieve sustainability. In addition to running a nutrition education program for village mothers, they set up a poultry program, expanded a fisheries project and sold fishing nets to fishermen along the Zambezi River.
Ritter estimates that the mission moved 60 tons of agricultural commodities per month between Mongu, the rural village depots and Lusaka, Zambia’s capitol. Through buying and selling, Ritter was able to raise a cash fund that was eventually used to build rice mills, which was a significant expansion of a rice project that Japanese aid workers had introduced 10 years earlier. Between the fisheries, the poultry project and the rice mills, Bill feels that he and Jeannie were able to achieve modest success in expanding the mission’s profile from a nutrition center to aiding economic development in the region.
“Today it functions as a cooperative and outpost that helps in agricultural economic development and that was part of our vision,” Ritter says. “We began thinking about it in broader terms than just feeding people; we began thinking about it in terms of economic development. That was a really important part of us doing the right thing.”
Despite Ritter’s success with the Oblates mission, he was dismayed by many of the overwhelming development needs of Africa. Ritter arrived at a time when the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to make an impact in Africa, and the rapid spread of the disease was disheartening. The Oblates also ran Zambia’s only leprosarium – a special hospital for lepers – and Ritter worked closely with two lepers who were eventually able to return to their communities.
“The interesting thing about sub-Saharan Africa is you can work really hard on health and nutrition issues, but with something like AIDS, as much as you wind up doing, you are keeping the score down, unless you engage in other kinds of prevention work,” Ritter points out. “But what I always, say and this is absolutely true – what may be even more clear to me than the devastating affects of poverty, disease and AIDS is the grace with which these people handled all that.”
Beyond fulfilling Christian service work and providing tangible aid to the region, the Ritters’ experience in Zambia has had a unique and lasting affect on their family. When they arrived in Mondu, Ritter’s eldest son, Augustine, was a year and four months old, while their second son, Abraham, was born in Zambia in June 1988, and by the time the left in June 1990, Jeannie was pregnant with her third son, Sam. Young Augustine – who was four years old by the time the Ritters left Zambia – played almost exclusively with Zambian children and was deeply affected by his environment on a subconscious level.
Ritter loves to tell a story about how his oldest son was somewhat confused when they returned to Colorado from Africa.
“I have 10 brothers and sisters, and they all have children, so he has all these cousins who came in the first few days we were home and they just mauled him. And he looked at me after we had been home three days and he said, ‘Dad, are we white?’” Ritter said with a chuckle. “It’s great story if you think about it. It speaks to the innocence of childhood. It never had occurred to him that in spite of the fact that he was white – he was blonde haired and blue-eyed, with a light skin tone – it hadn’t occurred to him that he was different from all of his (African) playmates.”
By the time the Ritters returned from Africa, young Augustine had acquired a British accent with a hint of an African Bantu dialect. While Augustine lost his accent over time, Bill believes that all of his children were affected by the family experience in Africa, which had “some kind of positive impact on the breadth of their thinking.” Abraham, who was born in Zambia, recently returned to Africa, visiting Ethiopia with the Four Quarters for Kids program, run by Noel Cunningham, the owner of Strings restaurant.
Ritter keeps up with political events in Africa, particularly the situation in Darfur, Sudan, civil unrest in Zimbabwe, the ongoing conflict the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the International War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha on the genocide in Rwanda. Beyond his faith and concern for Christian social justice issues, governor Ritter feels that his experience in Africa has also affected his view of political leadership.
“I think that with all that I’ve seen in the way of devastation and the really serious crises that I’ve witnessed, I have some perspective. We have serious issues here I’ll have to handle as governor,” he says. “But I think I have some perspective and it gives me some ability to remain calm as we walk through some of the difficult issues we face as a state,”
Ritter also feels he’s learned some important lessons from the Zambians themselves.
“Zambians are people who have a different pace than the Western pace. While I work hard and work long days, there is something I think to being more focused on trying to do the right thing rather than the quick thing. And that I think has always been a help and a benefit to me.”