John Minerva, '78: Empowering Others Through Yoga
September 10, 2013 by By Tristan McConnell
Niagara alumnus John Minerva, '78, recently returned from East Africa, where he took the university's Vincentian tradition of service in an unusual direction.
A recent convert to yoga, the 57-year-old resident of Naples, Fla., travelled to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi with the Africa Yoga Project, which seeks to spread yoga in Africa, creating jobs for young people and sharing the discipline's health benefits. It also encourages volunteers like John to get involved in community outreach projects.
This is how John found himself standing outside a two-story primary school made of wood and corrugated tin in Huruma, a Nairobi slum, surrounded by the filth, squalor and stench of urban poverty. John wore a baseball cap to fend off the equatorial sun, clutched a three-quarter-inch thick paintbrush, and wondered what he was doing there.
“They handed me a paintbrush and I didn't do anything with it for an hour and a half. There were so many things that needed doing. How do I make difference with that little paintbrush?” he recalls thinking.
As everyone else got busy, scrambling up and down rickety wooden ladders, paint in hand, John snapped out of it and joined in. By the end of the day, the school had a fresh coat of paint and John's eyes had been opened.
“I was looking for a retreat, to kick back, do a little yoga,” John said after a vegetarian lunch of lentils, rice and flat floury pancakes called chapatti at a simple restaurant next to AYP's bright and airy wooden-floored gym. “But it has really turned into a gradual opening of myself to accept being comfortable with a lot of the discomfort the program puts you through.”
The discomfort is both physical ”“ through the strenuous yoga sessions ”“ and mental.
John grew up in New York state, went to college at Niagara University, and spent his career in Ohio, first at the attorney general's office and then with the McDonald's Corp. He now lives in Florida. He says the poverty he was faced with in Nairobi came as a horrifying “culture shock.”
He muses on the fact that average life expectancy in Kenya is 57. “In this country I'd be dead right now. Pretty crazy,” he says.
Niagara did not just instill in John his sense of service, “the paying forward,” as he calls it. His major in political science with a minor in criminal justice prepped him for his early career choices, but most importantly, it was at Niagara that he met his wife Laurie (Grundtisch), '78.
“We graduated on a Sunday, got married on a Monday. Seventy-five of our friends hung out that extra day at college to see us get married,” he says. That was 35 years ago.
AYP is run by American Paige Elenson and her husband. Started in 2007, the program has so far trained 71 teachers who now earn $125 a month each, a decent enough living in the poorer parts of Nairobi. For the Kenyan trainees, AYP can provide a way to earn a living. For volunteers like John, who practice yoga alongside them, the impact is less practical and harder to define, but no less valuable.
John trained alongside two deaf Kenyans and a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has become a byword for all that can be bad in Africa. During his visit to Kenya, he learned the alphabet in sign language and learned something of Congo, a place that, until then, he could “never even imagine.”
John said he was challenged physically, mentally and even spiritually. “Whether it's God or Jesus Christ, Gandhi or Mother Theresa, or just father-son, it's all a divine being that we call by different names,” he says.
“What I've found here is that that divinity is in each one of us. It's been a real positive opening experience. I've grown a lot.”
Photo by Brendan Bannon.