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Maryknoll lay missioner Peg Vámosy and Juan look over maturing coffee beans in Monte San Juan, El Salvador.

I read the paragraph and then I read it again.  It was one of the most beautiful descriptions of mission that I had ever read—only it wasn’t about mission at all. It was a reflection by the late civil rights leader John Lewis, in which he described organizing communities during the movement:

[W]e were meeting people on their terms, not ours. If they were out in the field picking cotton, we would go out in that field and pick with them. If they were planting squash, we planted too. Whatever the people were doing, we were with them, really there. We lived with them in their homes, held hands and prayed with them, shared their food, shared their beds, shared their worries and their hopes. We listened to them. Before we ever got around to sharing what we had to say, we listened. And in the process, we built up both their trust and their con­fidence in themselves. Essentially, we were out to spread faith and courage, and naturally we had to find those things in ourselves first. (John Lewis, Walking With the Wind)

This passage, as much as any I’ve ever read, captures the approach to mission embraced by the El Salvador region. No matter how different our ministries might look from the outside, they all share the approach described by Congressman Lewis: a genuine sharing of life marked by deep listening. At a glance, our ministries might sometimes look similar to the work being done by the many NGOs in El Salvador, but what distinguishes our work is that it is built upon authentic relationships and a real presence in local communities. 

Our mission statement says that we are “inspired by the mission of Jesus to live and work with poor communities.” The gospels show us a Jesus who accompanied people through their struggles and in doing so led them to profound transformation. As we continue to build a more just and compassionate world, let’s remember that it is through relationship that people are transformed. 

Peter Altman Peter Altman
Peter Altman is Maryknoll Lay Missioners' regional director for El Salvador, Haiti and the U.S.-Mexico border. He accompanies internally displaced people in church-run shelters.