Mission calls the church into being to serve God’s purpose in the world.
The church does not have a mission, but the mission has a church.
—Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, in Prophetic Dialogue
As I reflect upon recent conversations with Maryknoll lay missioners, I keep coming back to this energizing quote from the Orbis book Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today. The simple statement by Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroder reframes and refreshes two very common words which Catholics use all the time without much thought: church and mission.
It is no big surprise that lay missioners will readily agree that we are most church when we are about building up the reign of God. But have we also reflected upon mission as the amazing invitation that at the same time draws us in as disciples of Jesus, led by the Spirit, and makes us co-creators in the reign of God? “The mission has a church,” and we are this church. Albeit only part of it, but the mission “has us”!
Let us consider what the signs of this church are in the world:
For 40 years Anne Greig has labored to give nutrition education and healthy food to poor children and families in Peru and El Salvador. Her gift of self has brought her much joy and personal satisfaction, but her life-long yes to listening and acting on God’s priorities also gives witness to the larger purpose that is baked into every ordinary action of her successful soy project in El Salvador.
Minh Nguyen has been a lay missioner for 13 years. Currently she is serving in the altiplano of Bolivia assisting indigenous Quechua communities through children’s afterschool programs and serving as a parish administrator. She described to me how her experience of tremendous love has allowed her to lose fear of the unknown, for she trusts that God will be with her and not disappoint. Tacopaya, where she lives and works, is in a remote rural area and the resources to offer children educational opportunities are scarce, as are the resources for poor people who must walk for hours to get supplies. But Minh is always ready to respond with caring presence and her skills, acknowledging that she sees God’s presence in the people to whom she ministers.
Julie Lawler works with 16– to 40-year-old Cambodians who are deaf and have never had an opportunity for education. Together with their team at the Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, she and Father Charlie Dittmeier provide direct services and training for the Deaf community. The program goes into rural communities to identify this unserved population and to inform the families of the opportunities that change the lives of those who would otherwise be treated as noncontributing individuals of their communities. Through the two-year program at DDP, deaf young people thrive as they interact with peers for the first time in their lives and learn skills to communicate, have employment and gain the possibility of starting a healthy family of their own. Julie says that in mission things often are not clear, but we have to be willing to respond despite those uncertainties, and trust that we will thrive as we become part of the change.
In Mombasa, Kenya, Megan Hamilton, who joined with our most recent class of new missioners, has eagerly embraced the challenge of establishing new addiction recovery support services. Working with the 12 steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, she is collaborating closely with the support of a local partner. Her desire to share the gift she has received is strong, and her joy is apparent. Megan sees the long road ahead, but her vision is clear, there is work to be done and those who are in need of the good news she bears are waiting.
These are like the stories brought back to Jesus by the 72 disciples in the Gospel, and they are but a few that come to mind from Maryknoll lay missioners who have accepted the mission. They bring hope, lessons learned and consolation for the church. Our gratitude and our prayers are with you all.
However, there are many voices that continue to call out for help and support — the thousands of migrants and refugees who embody suffering and desperation; older persons and children who continue to suffer hunger, disease, abuse and neglect; and the many people who are victimized and hurt by acts of violence in all its forms.
If God has called the church into being to fulfill God’s mission, then we must keep our sight, our resources and our hearts focused on this mission, which is God in the world today. “The mission has a church.”