By Lori Herz
Bob Carlsen can’t give up his Maryknoll magazine collection. Hundreds of issues sit in a box in his basement, containing thousands of stories he read growing up in Queens and on Long Island in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, the print publication was a staple of Catholic parishes and households, and its vivid content brought home the work of Maryknoll, featuring the missionary work of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Maryknoll Sisters and later, the Maryknoll Lay Missioners (MKLM). It has been a pillar of the U.S. Catholic Church’s global mission for more than 100 years.
“The magazine fascinated me,” Carlsen says. “It was like the intersection of National Geographic and [the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper] The Tablet. It showed priests and nuns traveling by donkey and motorcycle to visit communities in the Andes, working with tribes in Africa, and serving in remote parts of Asia. They became conversant in many tribal languages, allowing them to connect with the local people.
“As a kid interested in language and culture, and raised in a strong faith tradition, those stories played a big role in opening up the ‘world church’ to me. So when a missioner came to Sunday Mass and passed out cards stating ‘Check the box if you’re interested in joining Maryknoll,’ I turned to my mom and said, ‘Check the box!’”
Now, several decades after that enthusiastic response, Carlsen is on the board of directors of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Serving alongside him is his good friend of 30 years, business associate, and fellow St. John’s Law School alumnus Mike Cammarota. Over the past eight years, the two have also lived the MKLM mission on short-term immersion and volunteer trips with the organization’s Friends Across Borders program to El Salvador, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bolivia, and, most recently, Tanzania.
Like Carlsen, Cammarota is a Queens native who grew up in a Catholic family that encouraged faith-based volunteerism. After graduating from the law school, Cammarota started in IBM’s legal department, where he worked for 20 years. Every year he returned to St. John’s to connect with law students who had accepted positions at IBM. “In 1987, that was Bob Carlsen, and we hit it off immediately” he recalls.
Carlsen’s work for IBM took him across the country and around the world. As senior counsel in IBM’s software business, he relocated to Bangalore, India, where he spent two years advising the company’s software labs in the region.
“Living as an expat in India turned into the greatest spiritual journey of my life,” he says. “I was with Hindus, Muslims, Jains, and others in a big, churning country that was just starting to feel its global presence. The Gandhi history and legacy, and the deep personal commitment to holiness I saw in so many Indians, strengthened my Catholic faith tremendously.” In his memoir, Sacred Dust on Crowded Streets: Conversations with India (Trafford, 2010) Carlsen deftly recounts his life-changing experiences in India.
Eventually Carlsen left IBM for Accenture, a management consulting and professional services firm where he is now the director of legal services. The move reunited him professionally with Cammarota, who had already become Accenture’s managing director–senior director of legal services, global transactions. “The boys in the band were back together,” says Cammarota, expressing a warm camaraderie that carries over to their service with MKLM, including their most recent mission trip to Tanzania.
“Like our prior missions, Tanzania was a fabulous experience,” says Cammarota. “We stopped in a number of cities to visit with missionaries, work in their missions, and attend Mass with them and the people they support, often in Swahili.”
Cammarota took particular delight in interacting with the children they met along the way. “Kids are simply awesome,” he says. “We went to a school run by Maryknoll and they were so happy to show us around and play with us. I was particularly good at flash cards.”
Carlsen explains, “Our Tanzania trip was specially designed by Father Bill Vos, an MKLM missioner who worked with rural tribes for 30 years. With his contacts, we visited places the average traveler can’t access, including MKLM mission sites focused on education, women’s empowerment, and self-sustaining communities. It was great to meet some of the successful students and catechists that Father Bill has worked with, such as a young man who, with Maryknoll’s support, studied law at university and became a district court judge.”
Carlsen and Cammarota also traveled to a remote village, where they enjoyed a traditional meal of goat and other foods prepared by a family to celebrate all that Father Bill had done for their son, who had just joined the priesthood. “This is the impact of acting locally and globally according to the Maryknoll way,” Carlsen observes. “Change one person’s life in rural Tanzania, and the pond ripples with new opportunity, new hope, and new dreams for everyone on the path. We saw this time and time again in Africa.”
The insight that Cammarota and Carlsen gain on their lay missions around the world informs their stewardship on MKLM’s board of directors, which is now chaired by another St. John’s Law alumnus, Terry Miller, who is a returned Maryknoll Lay Missioner.
Miller, who is senior international officer at Marquette University in Milwaukee, is equally delighted to work with Carlsen and Cammarota. His MKLM board leadership is rooted in an early desire to advocate for human rights and social justice.
Raised in New York, he was one of six children in a Catholic family that made frequent trips to Maryknoll’s campus. “I made the connection between a legal education, my interest in social justice and working for the economically poor, and my Catholic faith during Sunday family breakfasts with Father Murphy, our parish priest,” Miller shares. “I wanted to use the law to benefit people who didn’t have access to justice.”
While earning his law degree, Miller interned with the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Division in Queens. “It was a great opportunity to apply … the Vincentian value of serving the poor,” he recalls. “That experience helped me get my first full-time job after graduation as a defense attorney with Legal Aid in Brooklyn.”
Looking to broaden his impact, Miller joined MKLM as a lay missioner in the rural Diocese of Linares, Chile. From 1988 to 1991, he worked with the families of individuals who were detained, disappeared, and tortured under General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.
“Among other duties, I assisted in the investigation and excavation of a mass grave where 17 victims of the repression had been secretly buried,” Miller says. “I also helped prepare Linares diocesan input for the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Report on human rights abuses during the dictatorship.” Miller then returned to the United States to head up the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office (forerunner of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns) and to serve MKLM full time in different leadership capacities before starting his career in international studies and education. A year ago, he joined the board of directors to support MKLM’s global commitment to the poor.
For Miller, Cammarota, and Carlsen, their affiliation with MKLM is an integral expression of their Catholic faith and of a lawyer’s duty to serve the greater good. “There are so many lawyers out there wishing they could stretch themselves a bit,” says Carlsen. “I believe that, as a lawyer, you’re a person first. As a Catholic, you’re a force for change in the world. … The world needs committed folks to go forth and serve, and MKLM has plenty of ways to get involved.”
For Cammarota, it’s a simple equation: “I’m a kid from Queens who, through hard work, good luck and help from others, has been able to live a blessed and fulfilling life. I need to give back. We all need to give back.”
Excerpted with permission from an article in the Fall 2018 issue of St. John’s Law, the alumni magazine of the School of Law of St. John’s University in Queens, New York.