Volunteering with refugee children in the Philippines while she was in her 20s led Julienne T.T. Hoang on a path of working, advocating and volunteering with refugees, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking and abuse for the next 30-plus years. That experience also kindled a desire in her to eventually return to international mission and justice work.
“T.T.,” as she likes to be called, is now fulfilling this long-held desire by preparing to become a Maryknoll lay missioner. Together with two other missioner candidates, on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, she will begin Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ eight-week Orientation in El Paso, Texas. This extensive formation program will culminate with a Sending Ceremony for the three candidates and one additional returning missioner on Saturday, Dec. 2.
Like all Maryknoll lay missioners, the new “class” is preparing to commit to serve marginalized people for at least three and a half years. T.T. will be serving in Cambodia. Also participating in this year’s Orientation are Sarah Bueter, who is preparing for mission in El Salvador, and Theresa Glaser, who will be sent to Kenya.
Joining them for the final week of Orientation will be returning Maryknoll lay missioner Kathy Flatoff, who previously served as a Maryknoll lay missioner nurse in a parish clinic in an informal settlement of Mombasa, Kenya. Kathy will be returning to Kenya, but this time to work in the western part of the country.
For the first time in Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ 48-year history, this year’s Orientation program will take place in El Paso, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. Maryknoll Lay Missioners began serving in the border region again in 2019 (after a previous presence from 1995 until 2009) and earlier this year moved its mission services department from the Maryknoll campus in Ossining, New York, to El Paso.
“Preparing for mission service is a tangible sign of change for the persons in the eight-week orientation program,” notes Elvira Ramirez, the interim executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. “And moving the Orientation program to El Paso marks a sign of change for Maryknoll Lay Missioners as well. Like other lay mission organizations, Maryknoll is challenged to be accessible and effective in our response to marginalized communities throughout the world. El Paso clearly invites individuals and communities to put faith into action.”
A new feature in this year’s Orientation is a weekly “Ministry Day.” Each Monday, the candidates will be volunteering at migrant shelters at the El Paso Catholic parishes of Holy Family and Sacred Heart. “Our lay missioner candidates look forward to working alongside collaborative partners in El Paso as together we discern the Spirit’s call to mission throughout the world,” says Elvira.
This year’s Maryknoll lay missioner candidates are:
Julienne T.T. Hoang first heard about Maryknoll from a friend who had volunteered with her in the Philippines and who subsequently joined the Maryknoll Sisters as a novice. She later met several Maryknoll lay missioners who became close friends and whom she visited while they were serving in Thailand and Bolivia.
The COVID pandemic delayed her retirement and mission commitment for a year, but that additional discernment period only confirmed for T.T. that Maryknoll was the right choice for her. She retired from her job as a regional analyst with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement this summer.
“Each of us,” she says, “is called to mission when we are born, whether we choose to listen to this call or not. God has a mission for each of us: to love one another as God has loved us — and continues to. … We can hear this call when we live a life of gratitude and awareness of God’s love for us.”
An active parishioner at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, T.T. sings in the choir, serves as a lector and eucharistic minister, teaches catechism and participates in fundraising events. She is also an active member of Dong Hanh Christian Life Community, which is grounded in Ignatian spirituality.
T.T. loves to cook in big portions, especially when it comes to a big pot of noodle soup like pho. “Although I am single, with no extra mouths to feed, I can’t cook soup just for one person or a few. I always end up cooking a huge pot for 50 or more people. I would have to call all my friends over to have some and then pack up some more to go. One of my friends, a priest, used to tease me, saying, ‘She cooks for an army, but the army went to Kuwait, and now I am left with a month of left-over pho!”
Sarah Elizabeth Bueter says she’s “always been drawn to beautiful things, and practicing justice and peace is beautiful.” At the heart of her desire to participate in Maryknoll, she adds, “is a desire to seek God; joining Maryknoll is just a response of wonder and awe to God’s own movement to be in close proximity to the margins, … to be close to God’s creation.”
Sarah says she sees missionary work as “an extension of God’s solidarity with creation, which is ultimately an expression of hope and justice, not of pity. That God chose to become enfleshed in a particular way in the margins is a sign of great hope and tenderness.”
Earlier this year, Sarah earned a master of divinity degree from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. At the University of Notre Dame, she had majored in theology with a minor in Catholic social thought.
Sarah has already worked for several years in a wide range of intercultural, international and mission-oriented communities, ranging from Catholic Worker communities in Denver and her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and a Jesuit social action center in Honduras to the Kino Border Initiative and a conflict transformation summer program in Bethlehem, Palestine.
In her justice work, Sarah has found, “faith and spirituality have been important …, especially when I stick out like a sore thumb or feel constantly observed in new environments. … Faith isn’t about living perfectly. It’s about living differently, which at times looks a bit upside down. It’s about living dependent on God instead of one’s self, open to powerlessness and humility instead of honor. Faith is like surrendering to the debt of gratitude, in recognition that everything is gift.”
Her decision to become a Maryknoll lay missioner was in part influenced by the examples of “some of the most thoughtful, gentle-yet-bold individuals” she has met. “At the border, I would watch them meet a migrant mother with grace and attentiveness, like they had just met Christ the King himself. And of course, they had! There was something rich and profound about the way they moved in the world. … Some revealed they participated in Maryknoll. … I wanted to be like them. Live the way they lived, with a kind of deep reverence and awe toward life.”
Like Sarah and T.T., Theresa Glaser is no stranger to international justice and mission work.
A profoundly influential experience for her was the year she served in 2008 as a Catholic Relief Services volunteer with an HIV/AIDS care and support team in West Africa. The program was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy in the Gambia. Theresa was part of team, led by a missionary sister from India, that supported people in remote villages who had HIV/AIDS with food and medical care, attended to vulnerable children orphaned by AIDS, offered educational programs for AIDS prevention, and many other services.
During her decades as a biology and science teacher in Ohio and South Carolina, Theresa always chose to work in high-poverty, inner-city high schools. She retired from teaching in 2021. Theresa has a Ph.D. in the biological sciences from the University of Cincinnati and during the 1980s and 90s worked as a research scientist, including for six years abroad, in Australia and Switzerland.
“Going into mission,” Theresa says, “to me means living in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable of the world; working together to improve the circumstances of the lives of others.” She adds that it involves a process of mutual learning and growing from the experience.
“When I was working as a volunteer in the Gambia, I found a note someone had scribbled … that said, ‘We are missionaries when we demonstrate with our lives God’s great love for his people.’ This impressed me at the time. This, I believe, is the meaning of mission.”