At a time of great turmoil within the U.S. Catholic Church, a determined group of people has carved out an enviable record of achievement in some of the most challenged regions of the world. Maryknoll Lay Missioners131 people in 17 countriesis the church’s largest and fastest-growing lay mission group in the United States today. Driven by a sense of faith, purpose and community, these missioners are powerfully affecting the quality of life for people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their work is resulting in measurable improvements in health care, education, the environment, human rights and economic development in a host of third-world enclaves. At the same time, members of the Lay Missioners are transforming their own lives, often dedicating themselves to helping the extremely needy in areas within the United States, like the South Bronx and Appalachia, once they have finished their Maryknoll assignments overseas.
Lay missioners are putting into practice the dream of the Second Vatican Council that the whole Church should be missionary’lay men and lay women working alongside priests, brothers and sisters in a powerful spirit of unity and global outreach, says Joseph Healey, M.M., who has served with Maryknoll in East Africa for 33 years.
Maryknoll’s Unique Role
The partnership did not develop overnight. The Maryknoll lay mission program was created in 1975 as part of the 90-year-old Maryknoll organization. Today that movement includes the Maryknoll Society (priests and brothers), the Maryknoll Congregation (sisters), the Maryknoll Lay Missioners and the Maryknoll Affiliates.
Maryknoll holds a unique place in the Catholic Church: it became one of the first missionary groups to send young Catholic families overseas for extended periods of service. The lay missioners brought their skills and the Gospel of compassion and love, quietly compiling a record of success wherever they went. In 1994 the Vatican directed the growing lay missioners organization to become autonomous and self-supporting. Since that time, the Maryknoll Lay Missioners have been working to build a base of financial support and are now largely dependent on contributions from private individuals to fund their work.
Their agenda brings the missioners face-to-face with some of society’s most impoverished members in marginalized areas around the globeareas that often have no potable water, electricity or plumbing. Maryknoll’s lay missioners not only confront, but openly embrace this challenge. Our fundamental work is to serve the poor, says Gerry Lee, co-director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and the way we do it is by living with, working with, and totally immersing ourselves in the lives of needy people.
Maryknoll lay missioners agree to serve one tour of three-and-a-half years, renewable every three years thereafter. Two-thirds of the missioners serve for more than one tour, and about a third for more than 10 years. They range in age from 24 to over 65, and about half have school-age children in tow.
Living the Mission
Gerry Lee and his wife, Patti McKenna, along with their four- and five-year-old daughters, left a comfortable life in suburban Boston in the summer of 1984 to become members of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Like all new members, they first received four months of theological and cross-cultural training at Maryknoll’s headquarters in Ossining, N.Y. That was followed by another eight months of language training and cultural orientation in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Their initial assignment was Caracas, Venezuela, where they became members of a makeshift refugee village set up by the government for citizens who had lost their homes in landslides (a common occurrence during the country’s rainy season).
We lived in a barrio on the edge of the city with no running water, Gerry remembers. It was a difficult adjustment for us at first, but our neighbors were a real inspiration, and we soon became vital members of their small Christian community.
Gerry called on his background in ministry (he holds a master of divinity degree), working with an existing team of Maryknoll priests and lay missioners to set up a small Christian community in the barrio. At the same time, he began pressing for greater civil and human rights for its inhabitants, who often found themselves under the heavy thumb of the government. Gerry also found time among his multiple projects to teach photography to a group of youths. They eventually got involved in video and today, as young adults, run a small church radio station.
Patti drew on her training as an early childhood teacher to help establish a modest elementary school to be run by parents of the children. She chose to focus on nutrition and health care education, training people to become knowledgeable in these critical fields. (She later became a nurse practitioner herself.) We learned so much from the people we were with for 10 years in South America, notes Patti. It allowed us to bring back to our parish in the United States a totally different perspective on ourselves as citizens, and as Catholics.
Kim and Patty LaMothe found their work as missioners in East Timorwhich gained its independence from Indonesia in 1999 amid a wave of violenceto be a transforming experience. I deliberately chose a helping profession as a young woman, says Patty, a teacher, but didn’t realize the full impact of that choice until I began working with marginalized societies around the world. Patty currently teaches English as a second language to teachers and health care workers in East Timor, as well as to two high school classes, while her husband Kim’s carpentry skills are also in great demand. Patty’s real passion, though, is running a mobile library that brings books and educational materials to youngsters in 10 primary schools. When I see the eyes of students and teachers light up, I know I’m in the right place, she says with enthusiasm.
Marj Humphrey would not trade places with anyone else. This indomitable lay missioner is helping to ease the intense sadness and suffering of children left orphaned by AIDS in Africa. Based in Kitale, a rural town of 50,000 in northwestern Kenya, Marj runs a small clinic and school assistance program for orphans, meeting their basic education and nutrition needs. As the AIDS epidemic continues to destroy African families, we’re discovering more and more children raising children, Marj observes. Our mission is to bring a message of hope to the families, and especially the children, affected by AIDS.
In her own ministry, Dr. Susan Nagele brought desperately needed medical care to as many as 120 people a day in a village in southern Sudan, an African country ravaged by famine, starvation, disease, civil war and slavery. As a family physician and Maryknoll lay missioner, Dr. Nagele decided nearly 20 years ago to pass up the amenities of the modern world to live with and care for people whose greatest preoccupation is day-to-day survival. I’ve come here because this is where God wants me to be, Dr. Nagele told ABC’s Nightline as part of a special story the network prepared in 1999 on this extraordinary woman. I’ve had a lot given to me, and I want to be able to give some of it back.
Spreading Their Ministries
Clearly, the success of Maryknoll is measured one small victory at a time through the work of missioners like Dr. Nagele, Marj, Kim and Patty. Others, like Phil Dahl-Bredine, are at the helm of ongoing projects with the potential to benefit vast groups of people. Phil, for example, is teaching reforestation skills and practices to residents of Oaxaca, a mountainous region of Mexico that was stripped of its soil by over-farming but is now making a comeback.
David Rodriguez is exercising his ministry by working with small coffee farmers in the backwaters of Bolivia and Venezuela. He is helping these campesinoswho are barely able to survive because of the fierce global competitive pricing of coffeeto bring in additional income by diversifying their crops. It is a job for which David is well suited: he was one of 11 children raised in a mud-and-palm-thatched house in a poor village of farmers and fishermen in eastern Venezuela.
In my 19 years as a Maryknoll missioner, I’ve worked alongside some remarkable people, he says. What’s really impressed me, though, is how most of them left very good jobs and homes in the United States to live with the poor in forgotten corners of the world. I’ve seen their lives transformed, and I’ve seen their children become young men and women with incredible generosity of spirit. This has had a tremendous impact on my own life.
Indeed, the core strength of Maryknoll over the years has been the intense dedication and faith of its people. This is reinforced, says co-director Gerry Lee, by the fact that Maryknoll has the longest-term members of any lay mission group today. We encourage people to come for three years or for 30 years, he elaborates. They know that if they choose a life of service, we will support themas well as their familiesin every way we can.
Because the number of applicants, all of whom are rigorously screened, is so great, Maryknoll Lay Missioners are preparing to add a second category of missioners to accommodate the growing demand for its services overseas.
Many of these new recruits will be embarking on a lifelong journey, as evidenced by the over 400 lay people who have served with Maryknoll over the years and whose spirit of service translates into continued work with the poor, the sick and the needy even when their Maryknoll tours ended. Kip Hargrave is a perfect example. When he and his wife, Terry, returned to the United States after working with families in desolate regions of Bolivia, he turned his sights to helping poor immigrants and migrant workers in inner-city Rochester.
Most members of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners come back to careers they left behind in the states, but they come back in a very changed way, points out Gerry. They’ve touched the lives of countless numbers of people overseas, but just as importantly, they’ve transformed their own lives by reaching a level of human fulfillment that few others on this earth will ever know.