April 19, 2024

A cross in the sea: a couple’s gift to the community that gave them a faith home

As a brightly-colored cross stands out in the Caribbean Sea, Matt and Nikki Javit, former members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis, pose for a photo on the beach of Punta Gorda, Honduras. The Javits shared the cross with members of the faith community of St. Ignatius Parish in Punta Gorda, in appreciation for the way they have embraced the couple during the past two years of living there. (Submitted photo)

As a brightly-colored cross stands out in the Caribbean Sea, Matt and Nikki Javit, former members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis, pose for a photo on the beach of Punta Gorda, Honduras. The Javits shared the cross with members of the faith community of St. Ignatius Parish in Punta Gorda, in appreciation for the way they have embraced the couple during the past two years of living there. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The sight of the large, brightly-colored cross in the middle of the sparkling blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea is stunning and dreamlike.

Just off the coast of an island in the Central American country of Honduras, overlooking the beach community of Punta Gorda, the cross is a beacon of Christ’s love during the day, and its reflection glows and shimmers across the water when it’s illuminated at night by a solar light.

Both views make a person wonder how the cross got there, why it was put there and, mainly, who dreamed of it.

After all, the setting of the cross in the sea is the stuff of dreamers and believers.

As stunning as the cross is, so is the knowledge that it is the creative vision of two former members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis—Matt and Nikki Javit.

Having lived in the island community for the past two years, the married couple of 18 years wanted to create a gift to show their gratitude for how they have been embraced so warmly by members of the local Catholic parish who have made them feel so much a part of their community.

“We just wanted to give back because of the kindness they’ve shown us for over two years,” Matt says. “We just wanted to put that in a representation of the cross. We couldn’t think of a better way to do that than a cross.”

The cross is one part of the larger story of how the bonds of faith have also become the bonds of an extended family of people from two seemingly different worlds.

The foundations of a dream

We all have our dreams—dreams of places we will go, things we will do, lives we will touch.

For Matt and Nikki, living their dreams has become one of the main foundations of their lives, complemented by another one—their willingness to let God guide them in their dreams.

That combination led the couple to make an 800-day journey around the world from February 2017 to May 2019, a trip of a lifetime that encompassed 35 countries, five continents and countless adventures.

Their 27-month trip also led them into an even deeper appreciation of their Catholic faith as their adventures included experiencing Holy Week in Peru, making a pilgrimage to Fatima in Portugal, and persisting through a thunderstorm as they climbed the same dirt hill that St. Thomas did as he fled angry locals in India.

They saved extensively before they made that trip and tried to cut expenses along the way, including house-sitting for two cats in exchange for housing in Switzerland, and house-sitting for a dog in exchange for housing in Singapore.

That journey also made their marriage a better and closer one, they say. And they have no regrets that they gave up some prime earning years to take that journey—with Matt being a sales executive at the time and Nikki being a pharmacist.

“People looked at what we were doing as a risk in some ways,” Matt said after that journey. “We both were at peaks in our careers. But we had a deep faith in ourselves and in each other and in God—to know there was something out there that was pulling us.

“We knew God was guiding us.”

They also made every effort to follow God on that journey. Matt downloaded the daily Mass readings in English on his Kindle app.

“I knew we would go to all these different churches, and they sometimes wouldn’t speak our language,” he said. “We went to hundreds of churches and attended Mass many, many times.

“Going to Mass was a way of being thankful for all you have and asking for guidance in the week ahead. It was also a huge part of the travel experience. Going to churches is a way to experience the locals and get something authentic.”

In planning the trip, Matt and Nikki focused on “traveling with the sun.” So, their direction always led them toward warm weather and as many beaches as possible as they started in South America, spent two summers in Europe, lived 2 1/2 months in India, and experienced three months in South Africa, six weeks in Japan and six months in Southeast Asia before finishing their trip with a tour of Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.

So, when the couple looked for some place to move two years ago, the lure of sunshine, warm weather and sandy beaches was among the reasons that Honduras called to them.

“It checked all of the boxes for us after our time traveling the world,” Matt says. “Amazing weather, nature setting, peaceful environment, safe and secure, within the U.S. time zones for working remote, welcoming people, easy flights to the U.S., English-speaking for the most part, a cultural change and exposure to new things, low cost of living, solid internet, residency opportunity and tons to do.”

Shortly after they arrived, there was also the feeling that God had led them to the faith community of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Punta Gorda.

Building from a base of trust

From the beginning, the combination of the lively music at the Mass—complemented by the sounds of drums, tambourines and clapping—drew the couple in, leaving them with smiles.

So did the reception they received from the members of the parish who proudly embrace their Garifuna heritage as descendants of people from Central Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent.

“We felt super welcomed when we moved here and started going to the Catholic church,” Nikki says. “And just slowly spending time with the people in the community, whether it be on Sunday during or after church, or during the weekday to go grab some food or hang out at some local spots. I think over time, we really felt connections and bonds with people in the community.”

As the relationships grew, so did the trust between the couple and the community.

“Over time, a few opportunities arose for us to really extend a helping hand to people who needed assistance with clothing or food or something like that,” Nikki says. “People who had health issues came to me as they know that I’m in health care. We’ve also been able to help provide school supplies for children, and Matt had a wonderful stint where he was handing out sports equipment.”

Building off those moments, the couple also saw ways that the church needed repairs and updates to the building.

“When you’re on an island and the ocean is right there, the wind, the salt and all the weather really have a huge wear-and-tear on the building and the structures within the building,” Matt says. “We’ve both been involved for the last 20 years in different ways with outreach. So, we understand that you don’t want to come with your own ideas right off the bat. You want to hear their ideas in which ways that you could potentially help. So that’s what we did.”

They also reached out to their former faith community at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis, with Matt asking the congregation for help during a few Masses during a weekend visit last summer.

“We raised a little under $16,000,” Matt recalls. “The upgrades that went to the church from those funds were massive.”

The upgrades included remodeling two bathrooms, updating the electricity, repairing the roof and pews, fixing the water drainage system, improving the sound system and buying a new tabernacle.

“We were never approached to do the things we did because they’re fine without us,” Matt says. “They’ve always been here. They will always be here. But we’re just trying to do our small piece of helping them as we can.”

And the community did its part, Nikki notes.

“It was a really neat experience to watch the community come together to help with these repairs,” she says. “When people in Punta Gorda saw the repairs that were going on, it was awesome to see people who were not working come around and ask how they could lend a helping hand. And to see the little kids, either before or after school, come around to pick up trash outside and clean up and just make everything look beautiful.”

That connection and cooperative effort especially came together in the creation of the cross.

A vision of faith and love

The inspiration for the cross—and the placing of it in the sea—came from the 800-day journey that the couple made.

They remembered climbing the same dirt hill that St. Thomas did as he fled angry locals in India. They remembered the story that while St. Thomas prayed at the top of that hill, the Blessed Mother appeared to him, assuring him he would be successful in his efforts to lead people in the area to Christ. They also recalled the huge golden cross that was erected at the top of the hill, and how they reached it in the middle of a downpour, with thunder crashing around them.

“Nikki and I probably went to six to eight different crosses around the world, just based on the fact that a cross was either built there or there was something that inspired it to be there at that time,” Matt says. “I knew a cross could bring more people—bring more people to the church, bring more people to think about God. So that’s how we saw this as that gift to this community.”

Matt and people from the community worked together on creating the cross from two huge wooden beams. Then they painted it white and added small mosaic tiles of yellow, orange and red to the cross.

“We covered it in fiberglass and a gel that is water resistant, similar to how they build boats here,” Matt says about the process that included taking the cross into the sea on two surfboards. “We put a post in the ground with PVC and concrete as if we were building a dock. The base is all top-grade steel ordered from the United States. It should last many, many years.”

Matt particularly made sure of the location of the cross.

“It lines up with the altar of the church. So, when the doors are open at Mass and the priest is at the altar, he can see the cross in the ocean from the altar. That’s the importance of the placement there.”

Beyond the cross’ faith-based connection, the couple and the community believe it will also serve as a tourist attraction that will help sustain the church in the future.

“There is a lot of tourism that already does come to this town,” Matt says. “Based on our travels, we saw that crosses can draw tourism. The idea is the tourists will visit, take photos, say a prayer, light a candle and donate money to help this community make sure the church stays there. By creating a self-sustainable model of income, we can use this money for ongoing repairs and such. 

“And as the church becomes more beautiful with art that looks like them—black- and brown-colored images—more people in the community will come as well, bringing their children. With more money, more children’s programs can be built. It’s a long vision, but we’ve laid a foundation that will make it possible.”

It’s a vision based upon faith and love.

“People are the same around the world, no matter the color of their skin or their economic background,” Matt says. “People typically want love, security, food on the table. That’s what being part of this community really reflects to me and Nikki. At the end of the day, it’s all love and joy.

“We get that every time we’re in Mass with the people around us. And every time we visit the town, we just are overwhelmed with the love of the people because they greet us and they’re happy to see us.”

Matt pauses and adds, “That’s God and Christ coming through all of that.”

(To view a short video of how the cross was created and placed in the sea, go to www.youtube.com/shorts/39bVbwyG95E. To see a selection of photos of the faith community of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Punta Gorda and to learn more about it, visit the website, pgcatholicchurch.org.)

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