Mission families experience faith in action

The Church calls all of the faithful to be missionaries in the world, and there are as many kinds of missions as there are individuals in the Church. For some, missionary work is a duty in which the entire family strives to fulfill what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches.

“By her very mission, ‘the Church ... travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: She is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.’ Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the Gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are ‘a sign of God’s presence in the world,’ and leads to the foundation of local churches” (CCC, No. 854).

Going on mission as a family can be challenging, but for every challenge, there are twice the rewards.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of mission is being welcomed into a culture not your own; to enter that culture and find God alive in new and unique ways,” said Curt Klueg, who, along with his wife, Anita, belong to Maryknoll Lay Missioners and are on their second mission in Mombasa, Kenya, with their 7- and 9-year-old daughters. “Serving in mission allows us a concrete way to express our faith in action among some of the most marginalized people in the world, and in doing so we also meet God and are ‘evangelized’ by the community that hosts us. Mission is a beautiful exchange of culture and faith.” In Mombasa, Curt works as a prison chaplain and Anita works with The Hope Project, an outreach for orphaned children.

Children rewarded

Flavio Jose Rocha da Silva and his wife, Kathy Bond, have been serving with Maryknoll Missioners in Flavio’s native Sao Paulo, Brazil, since 2010. Their 9-year-old daughter is with them. Flavio works in the health field, and Kathy works on health issues among women in prison. During their term as missioners, the family moved from a rural area to the big city and then to the United States and back for a six-month stay for advanced training.

The transitions were stressful, but they were worth it, the couple said. As a result, they see that their daughter has gained self-confidence and the ability to adapt to new situations and thrive socially and academically in spite of the bumps along the way.

“I love that our daughter is bicultural and bilingual,” Kathy said. “She has been exposed to many unique, outstanding people and diverse situations while living in Brazil.”

Peter and Melissa Altman have seen similar benefits for their son, 7, and daughter, 4. They’re on mission with Maryknoll Missioners in El Salvador until at least 2017.

“Our children have adjusted tremendously well,” said Peter. “We are astonished by how quickly they have learned Spanish. They are both very outgoing and have enjoyed making new friends. They have helped us to meet new people and to build relationships with other families. As children, they’re not concerned with the big picture. Through their eyes we’ve learned to appreciate all of the things that they find exciting about El Salvador — the volcanoes, lizards inside the house, buying bread from a man on bicycle, the chickens, rabbits and turkeys that live in so many backyards, drinking from coconuts and much more.”

Challenging work

Families who go on mission quickly discover that it becomes a way of life. Many serve more than one term, and some spend most of their lives on mission. Some, like the Mitchell family, find it so rewarding and contagious that they can’t just go on mission, they have to find ways to bring other families to the missions.

Greg and Colleen Mitchell founded St. Bryce Missions in 2010 with the assistance of Father Gregory Chauvin, who has become the organization’s director of spirituality. St. Bryce Missions is named after the Mitchell’s son, Bryce, who died of sudden infant death syndrome at 6 months of age in 2009. They and their five living sons consider themselves full-time foreign missionaries who are currently working in Costa Rica among the Cabecar indigenous people. Soon, St. Bryce Missions will begin serving Chanika, Tanzania.

“Our life in missions is challenging and rewarding all at the same time,” Colleen said. “We are so blessed to know we are living our lives in service to the God and the Church we love and loving others in his name. We have seen God work in amazing ways, learned new languages, new cultures and grown in our faith, hope and love. It is not always easy to manage life for a large family in a foreign place, and we have bad days and lonely times, but overall, we have found great joy in giving our lives to the service of God, the Church and the poor.”

A blessing to others

Colleen will never forget Noemy, one of the first mothers who came to the Mitchell’s center for indigenous pregnant women. The center provides housing, food, support and health education for pregnant women through the first year of their child’s life. In that area of Costa Rica, pregnant women must walk for hours or days to access medical care and give birth. Noemy gave birth to her daughter, Sabrina, in the hospital, but a few days later the baby contracted a serious infection and had to be re-admitted. The Mitchells cared for Sabrina’s family during that critical time, and when she was baptized, Greg and Colleen were named godparents.

Anita Klueg will never forget 18-year-old Bevarline, a student of The Hope Project, which helped the young woman enter vocational school and obtain her hairdressing certification. Bevarline is HIV positive and has suffered from many health problems. One in particular was black toe, something that concerned the Kluegs but not the doctors at the clinic. About three weeks later, the Kluegs checked in on Bevarline and noticed that her entire foot and leg up to the shin had turned black. Only with insistence did the clinic doctors diagnose gangrene. Unfortunately, it was too late to save Bevarline’s leg from amputation but not too late to save her life.

“For me, this was an emotional roller coaster as I was challenged by having to take a leap and somewhat offend health professionals who obviously made a mistake in their diagnosis and treatment,” Anita said.

“But I know I made the right decision to take steps to work for a young girl’s life rather than stand back and allow her to suffer and possibly die due to others mistakes.”

Well worth it

The nine years the Woznica family has spent on mission have given them impulse to continue their missionary work here in the United States with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Don is a family physician, and Celine has her doctorate in public health and teaches at the local university. From 1982-92, Don, Celine and their five children served through Maryknoll Lay Missioners, first in Nicaragua and then in Oaxaca, Mexico. All but their youngest child were born in mission territory, and it’s clear that their early life experiences affected them deeply, according to Celine.

Their first two children are now family physicians, their third is in his last year of medical school and the fourth is currently serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa.

“I feel that we are in mission in the U.S.,” said Celine. “My husband has worked over 22 years in a community health center in Chicago that serves mainly Hispanic patients, many without insurance. Over the years, I have been involved in many areas, especially among immigrants and refugees.”

Sam Stanton, executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, spent 29 years on mission in Chile with his wife, Cecelia, and three children. He summed up his own experience those of other missioner families: “It can be a challenge to be family in mission and time commitments can be stressful at times,” he said. “But the value outweighs the stress.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.