Bob Hentzen is on a continuing pilgrimage of faith, he said, and his home is the open road that takes him into the lives of the forgotten and the marginalized.

In 16 months, the pilgrimage will take him 8,000 miles through 12 countries to meet tens of thousands of the 185,000 families in Central and South America who are supported by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.

Hentzen, the president and a co-founder of CFCA, wants to hug them all. “They are my inspiration,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “They are my heroes.”

Help for poorest of poor

They are also the reason that he and his brothers, Bud and Jim Hentzen, their sister, Nadine Pearce, and their friend, Jerry Tolle, founded CFCA in Kansas City, Kan., in 1981.

“I believe that we who dare call ourselves Christians are convinced of the immeasurable dignity of all persons,” Hentzen, 74, said in an email interview from on the road. “CFCA is about people and their dignity as daughters and sons of a loving and life-giving God. For the founders, our basic beliefs became the natural pillars of CFCA. We believe the social teachings of our [Catholic] Church to be solid, balanced and with God’s grace, doable.”

Hentzen and Tolle were missionaries in Latin America. When they returned home, their desire to continue helping the people led to the founding of the sponsorship program for impoverished children and the aging. A lay Catholic organization, CFCA works with people of all faiths to create a global community of compassion and service. About 270,000 sponsors help 308,000 friends in 23 countries around the world. Their monthly donations support children in school, help feed the families, make medical care more available and supplement the families’ income.

 Side by side

This is not Hentzen’s first long-distance trek. In 1996, Hentzen walked from Kansas City to Guatemala, then moved to Guatemala with his wife, Cristina, who is from Honduras.

His latest trek began on Dec. 29, 2009, in Guatemala. Many sponsors from the United States attended the festive kickoff that drew thousands of sponsored friends from villages near and far.

“Bob wanted to do this walk to connect with the families we serve in Latin America,” said Judy-Anne Goldman, CFCA’s public relations manager who walked in the first days. “He wants to show that we are listening, and he wants to meet them on their terms; walking is their primary form of transportation.”

Hentzen spends 85 percent of his time visiting CFCA projects around the world. This journey is different.

“We truly want to treat these families as equals,” said Paul Pearce, director of international programs and Hentzen’s nephew. “And so they have the CFCA president visiting them on foot, and they get to walk right alongside, and they get to talk to him. These families are invited to the very core of CFCA by participating in the walk, or in just being part of the activities during the day.”

The daily walks begin at 4 a.m. or earlier to avoid the afternoon heat. The walkers cover 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) a day, and Hentzen takes off several days a week to rest or spend time in a village.

The sheer joy of the people creates many memorable moments along the way. One day, Pearce walked with a 16-year-old girl who was blind, and she was concerned that he didn’t trip on bumps in the road.

“We were falling behind the main group, and Sylvia took off running down the highway with her mother and grandmother,” he said. “She knew exactly where she was, and they were running and laughing. It was beautiful to see how she felt so safe and confident, and knew that the people around her loved her.”

One afternoon in Colombia, a farmer met the group on the road and handed Hentzen a heavy sack of mangoes. “I want you to have these,” he said. “I wanted to offer you papayas also, but they’re not ready yet. By the way, who are you folks?”

Hentzen is overwhelmed by the humble people who show such kindness to strangers. “They constantly give me examples of incredible faith, hope and love,” he said. “They have taught me strength and belief and courage.”

The trek will end in Chile in April 2011, just weeks after Hentzen’s 75th birthday.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

On the web (sidebar)

As of press time, CFCA co-founder and president Bob Hentzen had walked 3,041 out of the goal of 8,000 miles. To follow the walk, visit www.walk2gether.org.