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Maria Montello at her laptop in May 2020

I have written my mother and father 939 letters since I moved to Cambodia. I began a few years ago when they were starting to struggle with memory issues. They could read and reread the letters.

One of my brothers, a technology guy, set up a computer printer with, in essence, an email address. When I send to that address, my letter auto-magically prints on the other side of the world in my folks’ spare bedroom. My mom knows to check it. Every day. I send the daily readings too. We’re, literally, on the same page.

Perhaps during this time of COVID-19, when your communications with loved ones are more limited than ever, you understand the heartbreak that a missioner feels when she leaves home, when she has to say “goodbye” to the people she loves. That’s the worst part of this work for me. The separation.

It’s nothing like it used to be. Missionary religious sisters, brothers and fathers would board boats to take a one-month trip to Asia, whereas I just suffer through 25 hours of flying. When they said goodbye, it was goodbye for good. I say, “I’ll email you when I get there.”

With Mom, during a recent visit home.

Now for us missioners in the field, we can make trips home. I visit Atlanta every year. And I was able to stay home for the months when my mom had chemotherapy. It was a gift from Maryknoll Lay Missioners to be allowed to do that.

And now we, far from home, and you, separated by this virus, both have cell phones. We “Zoom,” we check in on Facebook or Instagram, and we do a dance on TikTok. Good for us.

But being “in touch” thanks to technology is not the same. We need connection. Physical connection.

And now, more than ever before, I think you know something of the twitch in the hearts of us missioners in Asia, Africa and other parts of the Americas. The heart twitch.

For me the heart twitch is that gnawing feeling which says what I’ve heard many times when I go home to the United States: “Why don’t you help out here. We have plenty of problems in America.” And that’s true, especially now. But I cannot explain a Call to go far away. It’s just there.

It does give some consolation to know that there are plenty of helpers in the States. Good ones. I have been bowled over at the decision of the executive director of the retirement community where my parents live. Unique among such facilities across the country, nearly 70 staff members agreed to live full-time at the facility to take care of the 500-plus residents. No virus can penetrate. That’s quite a sacrifice.

“We are all missioners, regardless of where we are,” I say whenever I speak to churches about my work. It’s true. The parents who stay up all night with a colicky baby. The breadwinner who every day trudges to an enervating job that the family might eat. The son of an elderly parent who takes her on an outing, perhaps one that she’ll forget about by the next day. The skilled nursing administrator at my parents’ retirement community who missed her sister’s wedding to stay with my folks. Mission work. All of it.

And now, here we are. Missioners, all of us. I’ll write my 940th letter tomorrow. You’ll do your part. We’re missioners with our work cut out for us.

And here we are. Missioners. The pain of being separated from loved ones.

Welcome to my world.


Photos courtesy of Maria Montello

 

Maria Montello Maria Montello
A Maryknoll lay missioner since 2011, Maria Montello teaches philosophy and critical thinking at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the Catholic Major Seminary there.