Last night Erik and I had coffee and great conversation with another couple in our community who have surprisingly quickly become dear friends since we first met them a little while after our baby A was born. Early on the conversation focused on some of the time I’d spent as a young single woman in Mexico, several of those trips having been made with missionary work in mind. I–actually both my husband and I–got pegged as missionaries. It wasn’t just because of the mission trips; it also had to do with the various local ministry efforts both Erik and I have undertaken in the last year or so which our friends already knew something about. In any case last night it was decided and declared: we are missionaries. I don’t think all the self effacing “naw we’re just doing what Christians do (or should be doing)” words in the world will talk our friend out of seeing us as missionaries, so neither of us bothered.
Earlier in the day I paid a visit to one of the moms whose children are involved in my church’s religious education program. In some ways this new friend who I will call Maria is typical of the people I feel irresistibly drawn to. She’s lived in the US for over ten years but never learned English. Her children attend the local public school so they do know English and therefore can be in our all English catechism classes. Her house is an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town, clearly showing signs of wear but kept impeccably clean at all times. Her common law husband works for a nearby onion farm. She works seasonally on a farm, but since it’s the dead of winter she gets to enjoy some down time at home while worrying about paying the bills. When I come over she offers me soda, white bread and cookies. I accept the soda and enjoy it (it’s the only time I really drink sodas), and nibble on the bread and cookies. She considers herself Catholic but for various reasons (language barrier being a major one) she misses mass more often than not, though that is improving somewhat with her children being enrolled in catechism classes.
My reason for visiting her is to show her how our new bilingual missalettes work. Missalettes are the little books you can use to follow along during the Mass. Most of us use them just for the hymns and maybe following along while the Bible readings are read out loud. But you actually can follow the entire Mass (except for the homily) if you have a good missalette. And when the Mass is in a language you do not understand, that missalette becomes very important. Our missalettes used to be only in English, but after a conversation our new parish priest and I had about simple ways we could make the Mass more inviting to our Spanish brothers and sisters, he ordered the bilingual ones and then sent me an excited email telling me about it. Ever since they arrived I’ve been showing people how to use them.
The missalette is my reason for knocking on the door in the first place. It’s one of several “foot in the door” items that I either have or are on my mental list to acquire that provide an initial reason to make an appointment and show up at a near stranger’s house. And I’m very thorough about going over how she can follow along and participate in the English Mass with the help of the missalette. But throughout the conversation I’m open to opportunities to delve more deeply into matters of faith, and even broach the subject of how that applies to the peculiar situations of her life. And I’m looking to figure out what she most needs from the Church now and how we can best serve her. As with any new relationship, the puzzle pieces of her life and faith are revealed in snatches of conversation here and there when she’s dropping off and picking up children from class or while attending my occasional parent meetings at the church, or in more relaxed conversation around her kitchen table, and they gradually come together into a clear picture…
…and then I get a clearer picture of the kind of infrastructure that is not yet in place but which would really make a difference in our ability to help her and her family come to deeper conversion and a truly vibrant life of faith. As I drive away from her home (and she’s sent me with a bag of white onions from her husband’s work), I consider my options and what the next steps would be and when I can make the time to take them.
The infrastructure issue mostly centers around two things: the language barrier and the general limitation of resources and manpower small rural parishes have. Overcoming those challenges is largely about connecting available resources (sometimes in unusual and unexpected ways) so that people are supported as they take the next step in their conversion journey. Often enough all they need is to be told there is a next step and be challenged to take it. But we can do much to make it easier, sometimes even possible, to take that next step.
Without realizing it it I blew away the first major infrastructure obstacle within a month of accepting my new position as Director of Religious Education when a couple walked into my church to register their children for catechism classes. It was clear from the beginning that they did not speak a word of English, so I did what any even marginally bilingual person would do, I spoke to them in Spanish. All I did was help them fill out the registration form (while making a mental note to eventually translate the registration form), they paid for the classes and they left. And then out of nowhere all these other non English speakers came to me to also register their children as word got around that someone in the church speaks their language.
What began as speaking a little bit of Spanish just to help someone through the immediate task at hand (filling out a form!) has grown into a major yearning and calling to truly reach the Spanish speaking people who so strongly identify with the Catholic Church and who yet are at present confined to the margins of parish life because very few parish members speak Spanish. In the past year, my ministry has grown to include completely translated written communications (one side of my handouts are English, the other Spanish), parent meetings held in both English and Spanish, and even English as a Second Language classes, and now thanks to the thoughtfulness of our priest, bilingual missalettes. This list might look impressive all together, but to me it seems hardly adequate, barely scratching the surface of what’s needed, and yet it’s a really great start. Sometimes you have to take action before you even know what to do, and all those little things I’ve done just to make basic communication possible have opened my eyes to see better what the needs are and how to meet them.
The first truly major step for me has been coming to the realization that while parent meetings and English classes in the church building are just fine, if I really am serious about evangelizing these people I need to go to their homes. Due to my own personal logistical challenges (busy working mom of four kind of things), I’ve been both excited and reluctant to embrace this. It’s just not easy to either pack four kids into a car and show up at a stranger’s house and count on them behaving well enough to have a conversation, or find a time when I can get away without the children. I’ve done it both ways and neither one is easy or convenient. So while I’ve been willing to make the occasional visit, I’ve been reluctant to actually make visiting a priority until earlier this week.
And that brings me to where I am now–the part I wrote about earlier where this occasional little side evangelism hobby now needs to become a way of life. And I guess that’s when I crossed that mysterious line from being just a plain old ordinary Catholic Christian to being a missionary. My visit with Maria was the first one I’ve made since making that important mental shift.
We typically think of missionaries as those people who leave their homes and native lands to go take the Good News of Jesus Christ to a land that is foreign to them. For me, it’s as if I just got teleported to my mission field and all the trappings of my pre-missionary life are basically the same. I live in the same house, have the same address, attend the same churches, my kids attend the same school and have the same friends, I even still have the same job; on the outside it all looks the same. But the reality is everything has changed. I see my life and the basic geography and demographics of my community in a whole new light. It has a purpose to it that I never saw before and there’s this path opening up to me that I’ve been unknowingly following for a couple years or more and I’ve just figured out it has a direction to it.
And then last night over coffee my new friend started calling me a missionary and that’s that. So I guess it’s official. I’ve crossed a threshold and I don’t think there is any going back.