Most people would be hard pressed to call to mind anything concrete from the time when they were 8, never mind a life-altering interaction. They were too busy hiding from bullies, or that classmate they crushed on.
But Maryknoll Lay Missioners board member Bob Carlsen still recalls sitting in a back pew at St. Aidan’s Church in Williston Park, New York, during Mission Sunday. He was listening to a Maryknoll missioner describe his ministry and work overseas.
After Mass, inspired by the priest’s stories, young Bob approached him and received a copy of Maryknoll magazine. Fascinated by the stories in its pages, he promptly checked the box that said, “Send me more information about Maryknoll Missions.” He kept wondering about the lives of those ready to head to parts unknown and live and serve there among the people.
Unlike most youngsters, whose dreams and aspirations can change with the seasons, Bob held firm to this fascination with overseas mission. He began to see what Maryknollers have called the “Fields Afar” as a place to help those most in need.
Supported by parents who encouraged their children to volunteer, Bob never lost that drive to get involved. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of the people around the world who were portrayed in the pages of Maryknoll magazine. Global mission seemed to be the place where the diversity of our world meets some of its greatest needs.
After graduating from Catholic high school, Bob went on to study at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and eventually earned his Juris Doctor from St. John’s Law School in Queens, New York.
As he pursued his career, two questions challenged him: “Where do I fit into the puzzle?” and “How can I be used?”
Early in his law career, in the early 1990s, Bob worked for Catholic Charities as a volunteer in Dallas, providing legal help for immigrants seeking asylum in Texas. Almost 30 years later, he will revisit the border when he spends a week in May volunteering with Maryknoll lay missioner Heidi Cerneka, offering legal help and, more importantly, hope to families desperate for asylum in the United States.
One of Bob’s passions is languages. During what little down time he has, one can find him with his nose in a book about any of a dozen or so indigenous or endangered languages. While hesitant to classify himself as a polyglot, Bob is advanced in Spanish and is conversant in a number of other languages, including Norwegian, Icelandic and Hindi.
And lest one thinks that this is just a passive hobby by which Bob spends his idle time, he serves on the board of the Endangered Language Fund, a nonprofit at Yale University that works to support the documentation and revitalization of the world’s endangered languages.
While always fascinated with the people of our planet near and far, Bob also volunteers at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, a shelter program in Danbury, Connecticut. This grounding in the local community helps inform the broader dialogue on homelessness and the global role Maryknoll Lay Missioners can play in it.
After a lifetime and career of working and volunteering in communities around the world, Bob returned to Maryknoll when he participated in his first Friends Across Borders mission trip in 2010. That experience hooked him, and he has since deepened his support of and involvement with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. He has served on its board of directors since 2015.
For Bob, the Maryknoll charism of humility in service is compelling. Whether visiting with lay missioners in Tanzania, El Salvador or El Paso, Texas, the mission he encounters is the same: Inclusion and diversity. Meet people where they are. Respect and love them. Celebrate their culture. And acknowledge that “everyone deserves to have a seat at
A family dedicated to lives of service and engagement surrounds Bob. His wife, Patricia, is a nurse practitioner whose brother is an Alexian, an order of brothers who care for the sick, the aged, the unloved, the unwanted, the poor, and the dying. Their son, Nicholas, a graduate student living in Madison, Wisconsin, also embraces the call to step outside of himself to care for those in need.
Bob proudly relates a story of a time when he and Nicholas were walking in New York City and encountered a homeless man seeking assistance. Nicholas wasn’t content to just share his money with the man. He stayed and engaged the man on a first-name basis. In the end, Nicholas gave him something more valuable than a handout. By treating him as a fellow human being, as a child of God, Nicholas affirmed the man’s dignity as someone worthy of recognition by another.
Guided by a deep and abiding faith, Bob Carlsen has been committed to helping the forgotten and marginalized see God’s love not as a distant concept but a reality in their lives. He embodies the Maryknoll spirit, celebrating Jesus’ call to all at the global table of service.
As a board member, Bob is excited about the future of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. And Maryknoll Lay Missioners is excited to have him as an integral part of its family.
This article appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Voices of Compassion. To read a PDF copy of the magazine, click here.
You can find an archive of previous issues of Voices of Compassion magazine here.