Years ago, the Rev. Richard B. Martin, who died May 3 at 74, was searching for a way to make the Lenten season more meaningful for his parishioners in Northern Virginia. Instead of calling on them to give up the simple indulgences often sacrificed during the 40 days of reflection before Easter — chocolate or television shows — he asked for their spare change.
Father Martin settled on 50 cents a day, the amount someone might have spent at that time, in 1998, on a soda or pizza topping. The 2,500 families he served as pastor of Burke’s Catholic Church of the Nativity raised $67,000 by Easter.
Father Martin had developed ties with the Florida-based humanitarian organization Food for the Poor, which sent the money to the needy in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the developing world. In that first year after the Lenten collection, Food for the Poor built 27 houses.
Father Martin impressed on his parishioners the ongoing need in Haiti and strengthened the bond between his church and Food for the Poor’s outreach efforts there. By the time of his death, he had raised $4 million for housing and access to health care, education and clean water.
To date, the Church of the Nativity has helped finance homes for 1,300 families in eight “Nativity Villages.” The villages are developments that include community centers used for vocational training or as clinics or places of worship.
Father Martin had traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America during his decades as a priest and spoke in simple but harrowing ways about Cité Soleil, a slum near Port-au-Prince.
Hundreds of thousands of people there were terrorized by gangs, disease and chaos, he told his congregants. Roofs were made of cardboard, and families lacked electricity and running water.
“They use the creek to urinate and bathe in,” he said, according to a Washington Post account at the time, describing the living conditions he had witnessed.
“It got us all thinking,” parishioner Richard Miserendino told The Post in 1998. “We kept wondering what kind of house you could possibly buy for $2,500, but the fact that people [in Haiti] don’t even have that much really had an impact on our kids. . . . It’s easy to take things for granted, particularly when you live in Fairfax.”
Father Martin dubbed the effort Operation Starfish, a reference to one of his favorite parables.
In the story, a storm has thrown millions of starfish onto a beach. An old man is determined to save the delicate creatures and pitches them, one at a time, back into the sea.
“How can your effort make any difference?” asks a boy who has been watching.
The man tosses another starfish into the water and replies, “It made a difference to that one.”
Officials at Food for the Poor, which trademarked the Starfish name, said Father Martin’s work in Haiti spurred similar programs at more than 300 churches, schools and organizations across the United States.
“Many churches have done it over Easter, but none with the level of success that he inspired in his people,” said Angel Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor.
“He wasn’t satisfied with just building the stuff,” Aloma added. “He’d go back the next year and help the people by doing another project. If the village needed clean water, he’d help dig a well so the village would not have to send its little girls walking three hours away to find water.”
In all, Aloma said, Father Martin’s efforts benefited many thousands of Haitians.
“They no longer live on dirt floors and no longer get wet when it rains and have to sleep in the mud,” he said. “They have a home, with a door that locks with a key, so parents find it safer to leave their kids with Granny. They leave their home, with its few possessions, to go out and find work.”
Aloma added that Father Martin funded efforts to teach sewing and animal husbandry, among other skills, that would help Haitians “not only come out of poverty, but have the dignity to support themselves, to move them up in the ladder of life. That is a huge thing.”
Richard Bernard Martin was born Oct. 17, 1939, in Providence, R.I., and grew up in Warwick, R.I. He was a 1962 graduate of Providence College and attended St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Pa., before his ordination in 1966 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.
He worked at churches across Northern Virginia before joining Church of the Nativity in 1997. From 1977 to 1981, he was an Air Force chaplain.
Father Martin, a Burke resident, died at a hospital in Fairfax County of complications from diabetes, said Jim McDaniel, the Operation Starfish coordinator at Church of the Nativity. Survivors include a brother and a sister.
In addition to his work in Haiti, Father Martin helped the poor and the marginalized in the Washington area through Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. His efforts were aimed at promoting affordable housing and work opportunities for immigrants.
The parish motto, Father Martin once wrote in the Church of the Nativity bulletin, was, “We reach out to those in need, across the street and around the world.”