At age 24, Abby Belt is sometimes surprised by reactions she gets to her cross tattoo with two scriptural citations on her shoulder. As she explains, “One of them, in my mom’s handwriting, is Psalm 46:11: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ The other one, in my high school track coach’s handwriting, is Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.’ Whenever I’m stressed out, it feels like I have two of the strongest women of faith in my life right here by my shoulder. That’s been very comforting.”
In her ministry at the Jesus Mary School in Gros-Morne, Haiti, several parents and even some students voiced concern about the tattoos, and whether she might even go to hell because of them.
Abby says she used these occasions to talk about the power of God’s love, and whether you can really ever do anything that will make God stop loving you.
In her 15 months in Haiti, Abby has especially appreciated Maryknoll’s focus on mutual accompaniment and sustainability. “To me, that’s huge,” she says. “It became even more important when I got here and saw other organizations’ projects go belly-up when foreigners left and the funding stopped.”
Abby also notes that she would not be able to be in mission were it not for Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ student loan repayment program. “I cannot express enough thanks to the generous donor behind this program who has enabled me to live this life that God has called me to without having to worry about going on loan deferment.”
For Kylene Fremling, 27, one of the traits of her millennial generation is that “we’re really good at handling ambiguity, transitions, and constant change. That is a great strength in mission.” For millennials, she says, there is no single-track career or life path. “We are comfortable with exploring different paths and developing new skills.”
Kylene loves that Maryknoll Lay Missioners is flexible and supportive of missioners working out the right ministries for themselves. In her case, she says, “I just trusted that God would handle it and things would fall into place.” And they did.
She is now in her third year serving as a physiotherapist assistant at LaValla, a school for children living with disabilities near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “I fell in love with the school the first day. As soon as you get here, you just know that it is a good place.”
For a while Kylene lived on her own. With Cambodia being such a communal culture, she said that her coworkers were “horrified.” Laughing, she adds, “they think it’s crazy that I’m not married yet, not dating, or don’t have a boyfriend. Almost every day since I’ve been here, they’ve asked me, ‘When are you getting a husband? Don’t you want kids?’ ”
Sharing life with young adult Cambodian teachers—many of them living with disabilities—has been a good cross-cultural learning experience for everyone, she says. “We have a lot of interesting conversations about the differences between our two cultures. Sometimes they say, ‘OK, well, that’s because you’re a foreigner. In Cambodia, this is what we do and that would be weird.’”
Serving in Mwanza, Tanzania, Sam Janson, who is 24, thinks that being at the beginning of their careers can be an advantage for young adults in mission, and he’s been trying to convince friends back home to consider mission too. “This might be the only chance that you have to do it,” he says, “when you are right out of college and don’t have the types of commitments that you might have down the road.”
Sam works in the public health ministry of the Maryknoll-run Transfiguration Parish in Mwanza’s Mabatini neighborhood and has also recently restarted a literacy ministry there. He explains, “People my age are very focused on all the problems in this world. This is a unique opportunity to work on some serious issues and make a real difference.” He adds, “My hope is that having this exposure to different types of things will help me in discerning what my ultimate vocation will be.”
When 25-year old Margarita Duran was discerning joining Maryknoll Lay Missioners, like many of her peers, she was concerned about separation from family and friends. In São Paulo, Brazil, however, she has found that building new relationships and friendships has been the most rewarding part of being a lay missioner.
“Coming from a big, tight-knit family, I’m very family-oriented. But in your ministries here, you build relationships with people that help you fill that void. They have become my friends and family here.”
Another potential obstacle for some millennials is the required three-and-a-half year commitment. However, for Margarita “that was exactly what I was looking for. I thought to myself, if I want to do mission in another country, I want to be integrated into the culture on a deeper level. That requires a longer period of time.”
Margarita teaches art, dance, physical education, English and religious education to immigrant, refugee and other children from low-income families living in favelas of São Paulo.
In São Paulo, “There is so much going on all the time—so many temptations and distractions.” Margarita has found that starting the day with scripture or other spiritual reading is a good antidote. That daily practice has helped her stay on course and remember why she is there.
As a Latina, she has had a great interest in Latin America, and the option of going to Brazil was very attractive. “The culture is similar to my own but also different and challenging with a different language.”
Both Margarita and Kylene have been thinking about renewing with Maryknoll Lay Missioners for a second term, making mission a long-term or even lifelong career. “I find being in mission to be really fulfilling.” Kylene says, “I just want to be open to where the spirit leads.”
Larry Parr, who is 35, was in their shoes nine years ago and is now completing his fourth three-year contract in Las Delicias, El Salvador. “I’ve been here for more than 12 years,” he says, “and it’s been the best experience of my life. I’ve been able to learn so much from the people here. And I’ve been able to really find my calling and find God in the young people that I work with. I love being a Maryknoll lay missioner and being able to use my gifts to work together with the youth for something bigger than myself, to really create a more just and compassionate world.”
All photos courtesy of lay missioners.
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.