Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    Each year, many Catholic universities, colleges, high school, parishes and dioceses embark on mission trips, or service trips.

    Fear, financial concerns, life responsibilities -- these and more can make the thought of serving on mission too far-fetched or frightening. But when God calls, there's a way.

    Catholics who participate in these trips live out the mission given them in baptism.


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    The impact of mission trips

    By Effie Caldarola

    Catholic News Service

    Joe Young spent last summer on a mission trip to Magadan, a city in the Russian Far East, where an American priest serves a parish on the site of a former Stalinist labor camp.

    "It was the most impactful summer I've ever had," Young said. "It was life-changing."

    Miles away, another Joe, this one a retired attorney, traveled last year to Honduras on a medical mission trip run annually by Creighton University and their campus parish in Omaha, Nebraska.

    "This was the first mission trip I ever took," said Joe Ramirez, who had previously been busy working and raising a family. As a translator for the project, Ramirez was struck by how useful the medical clinic was.

    Ramirez's parents were Mexican immigrants and he grew up in poverty, at one time living in "a little shack of a home" in Omaha with no running water.

    "I feel an affinity for the poor and particularly the Hispanic poor because of my personal frame of reference. In Honduras, the kids looked like my grandkids and that really had an impact on me," he said.

    It's no coincidence that both men use the word "impact" in describing how their experiences affected them. A good mission trip changes us spiritually and intellectually. And a mission trip definitely helps us to have "an affinity for the poor."

    Each year, many Catholic universities, colleges, high school, parishes and dioceses embark on mission trips, or service trips. These brief journeys assist the underserved in places overseas or in Appalachia, on Indian reservations or in impoverished inner cities in the U.S.

    Sometimes, they're called "alternative spring breaks" because that's when they take place on campus. Or they are "immersion trips" because participants live with the people they serve and become immersed in their culture.

    Usually, these trips have a specific project in mind, like assisting with a faith formation program or painting a school or church. But the actual work accomplished takes a back seat to the emphasis on building community. It's not "us" helping "them" but a mutual exchange that leads to solidarity.

    Jesuits talk about "a faith that does justice," and that's the faith that enlivens us on a service trip: a faith that is alive to questions about discrimination, white and male privilege, poverty, barriers between people.

    Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members in Los Angeles, often speaks of kinship, which he describes as "not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not 'a man for others,' he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that."

    Pope Francis exemplifies this aspect of mission trips when he washes feet on Holy Thursday. He bends down before the poor, the imprisoned, men and women, and people of other faiths. He brings an attitude of openness, humility, love and solidarity.

    Solidarity challenges us to leave behind any preconceptions we have about the superiority of our own culture or lifestyle. Solidarity brings us to a level playing field with the people we meet, a field where we have much to learn and gain. Although we hope to help, we aren't there to make people become like us.

    Ramirez said he found a profound meaning for mission trips in the slogan of a local charitable group: "We don't serve them because they are Catholic. We serve them because we are Catholic."

    In a thoughtful March 6, 2017, essay on The Jesuit Post, an online blog, Jesuit Brother Ken Homan talks about what he calls the "challenges and often pitfalls" of mission or service trips.

    In the piece, titled "Service Trips and Selfies," Brother Homan raises the idea that participants, armed with cameras, can fall into the trap of becoming more tourist than servant or kin. There are terms for this: "poverty tourism" or "voluntourism."

    Nothing wrong with bringing back a few great pictures of the people we met, of course, but a successful mission trip should mainly bring back some unease and a lot of questions.

    "Service trips can make us uncomfortable," Brother Homan writes, "challenging our privilege and helping us question systems of injustice."

    Rather than returning to our affluence with a sense of superiority, we should return with discomfort about our consumerism and materialism. We should question the great income disparity in our world. We should renew our own determination to fight discrimination and injustice. We should have a greater sense of communion with the poor.

    Young, who traveled to Magadan, said the best times were when he hiked, played games, baked cookies and dined with the young adults at the parish. He felt an identity with them through Christ during those ordinary times.

    Ramirez, who went to Honduras, saw his own grandchildren looking up at him at the clinic. These are the moments that impact us.

    After returning from a mission trip, Brother Homan had this to say: "We realized that our work was not world-changing. It would not radically alter the lives of the people we met. The communities, however, would radically alter our lives."

    (Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)


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    Your mission in real life!

    By Maureen Pratt

    Catholic News Service

    Think there's too much standing in the way between you and mission work? Think again!

    "There's probably a program for everyone," said Katie Mulembe, director of operations for Catholic Volunteer Network, a network of faith-based and volunteer mission programs for laypeople who want to serve on short-term or long-term mission.

    Although many volunteer programs are geared to young adults, others seek older adults with professional skills and longer life experience. Some programs will even accept entire families.

    A few years ago, Peter Newburn, his wife Joy, and their three children, ages 9, 7 and 5, volunteered to go to Cameroon in Africa for a 3-year mission through Lay Mission Helpers, a Catholic organization that works with local bishops abroad to place professionals, including teachers, physicians and technology experts, in their dioceses.

    "Before," said Newburn, director of pastoral concerns for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, "I had done some Renewal Ministries mission trips, and I'd come back so fired up from my experience, Joy was a little jealous. That got us thinking about going as a family."

    The discernment process and preparation involved everyone.

    Newburn said, "We had to give up jobs, say goodbye to friends and family, sold or gave away almost all we possessed, except for what we could fit in a small storage unit. People put us into two categories: We were saints, or we were crazy. We were actually somewhere in between."

    Lay Mission Helpers provided formation, a small stipend and support throughout the process.

    "We were going to a country we'd never been to and only had a vague idea of what we'd be doing," says Newburn. "It was a leap of faith. LMH's support was very important."

    In Cameroon, Newburn, who holds a doctorate in theology, taught at the seminary and in faith formation. Joy volunteered in schools, trained counselors and worked with an HIV support group. The Newburn children attended the local school.

    "The kids were missionaries in their own right," Newburn said, "by making friends and being who they were."

    The experience had a profound effect.

    "There were some difficult moments," said Newburn. "But Joy and I feel this was the best thing we could have done for our kids. The simplicity and peacefulness that comes from not being so busy, so complicated -- our family motto became, 'Rather than focus on what we don't have, let's be grateful for what we do have.' We learned to be thankful, and each day was an adventure."

    In seventh grade, Annemarie Coman had short-term mission experiences in the United States through Catholic Heart Workcamp. In college, she participated in the University of Notre Dame's Summer Service Learning Program, living at a homeless shelter run by the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity in Memphis.

    "You kind of get addicted," Coman said. "It's an amazing gift to be able to give to others. In my life, it doesn't get better than that."

    After graduating from Notre Dame two years ago, Coman, 23, has continued serving, most recently at Nativity House, a Catholic Worker house for first-time mothers. But this summer, she will make her most ambitious mission yet, co-leading a two-week service trip to Bolivia for college-aged students through the Diocese of Joliet.

    It will be a challenge -- Coman does not speak Spanish.

    "I'm a little bit nervous," she said. "But nervousness is a good sign. It means you're stepping out of your comfort zone, and that's really important in faith and life in general."

    Fear, financial concerns, life responsibilities -- these and more can make the thought of serving on mission too far-fetched or frightening. But as the Newburns, Coman and others show by example, when God calls, there's a way.

    "I encourage people who have that little idea to follow through," said Mulembe. "It doesn't have to be a 'wish.' It's more possible than people think."

    (Pratt's website is


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    Every Christian is a missionary

    By Daniel S. Mulhall

    Catholic News Service

    In his 2013 apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" ("Evangelii Gaudium"), Pope Francis states that Christians are to go out into the word as "a community of missionary disciples." The pope says that we can go out into the world boldly, seeking those who are lost and forsaken, showing mercy to those in most need of compassion because we have been loved by the Lord.

    We can take the initiative to act because we have experienced "the power of the Father's infinite mercy" (No. 24).

    Pope Francis emphasizes that every Christian is called to be a missionary by virtue of his or her baptism. No longer can we think that missionaries are other people, primarily priests and religious. If you have been baptized, then you are a missionary.

    As the pope says, "All the baptized, whatever their position in the church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization" and have a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed (No. 120).

    While the turn of phrase "missionary disciple" may originate with Pope Francis, the concept is as ancient as the church itself. Mark 6:7-13 tells how Jesus sent his disciples out "two by two" to heal the sick and preach repentance (see also Lk 9:1-6).

    Jesus' message required the hearer to share what they had seen and heard (Mt 11:4). As Pope Francis notes, the Samaritan woman "became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus," and through her testimony others came to believe (No. 120).

    The women who met Jesus following his resurrection were sent to tell the other disciples the news. Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to "proclaim the Gospel to every creature" (Mk 16:15).

    The story of the early church, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, relates the efforts of those first missionary disciples to fulfill Jesus' command. Much of Acts reports the missionary work of St. Peter, along with St. Paul and his companions Silas, Barnabas and Timothy.

    Christian tradition holds that most of the other apostles were killed for preaching the Gospel in far-off lands. For example, the Catholics of India consider St. Thomas as the founder of the church in that country. According to tradition, Thomas was martyred in India in A.D. 72.

    Today, many people fulfill Jesus' command by participating in "mission trips" where for a period of time they fulfill Jesus' teaching to care for the needs of others (Mt 25:31-46), often times by repairing houses or cleaning up after storms.

    But make no mistake about it: While these trips often require hard, dirty work, they exist for the primary reason of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ by witnessing to his love for us.

    These trips are missionary journeys like those taken by St. Paul. Those who participate in these trips live out the mission given them in baptism. And in so doing, they embody the phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Proclaim the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary."

    (Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.)


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    What can the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-21) teach us about mission trips?

    The parable juxtaposes a rich man dressed in fine garments who dines extravagantly each day, and Lazarus, a poor hungry man covered in sores.

    "The Lazarus parable points to a humanity divided and in need," reads a Catholic Relief Service guiding document for short-term, international and immersion mission trips.

    Lazarus and the rich man show that there is a "neediness" and "giftedness" in each person that "invites a new model for reflection upon mission experiences" -- a relationship-based approach.

    "Rather than focusing on what participants can give (service, action, time, donations), we reflect upon the giftedness of host communities and the neediness of participants -- and ask how we can overcome divisions between the two," the document states.

    CRS suggests several defining features of a relationship-based approach, including:

    -- Working with the host community to plan the trip.

    -- Basing the exchange more than solely on the "stuff" or resources brought.

    -- Deepening faith by experiencing the universality of the Catholic Church.

    -- Questioning the injustices facing the host community and our part in those injustices.

    -- Reflecting and praying on the experience.

    -- Continuing the relationship beyond the trip.

    "When we enter into relationship with people who suffer beyond what we can imagine, our hearts open. The divide between Lazarus and the rich man begins to close," the document reads.

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