“Maryknoll Lay Missioners has a special role in peacemaking and in healing this crazy world of ours,” Vicki Simon believes. That role, she is convinced, is ever more urgent in today’s increasingly divisive world.
After facing several major life disruptions and challenges in her 50s, Vicki participated in a yearlong Ignatian spiritual-retreat program. During the program she found, “All these thoughts about mission started to come back to me.” She took the plunge and joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners Class of 1998. She never looked back.
Back in St. Louis, Vicki had been an MBA career advisor at Washington University. Now as a missioner, arriving at her placement in Nairobi, Kenya, she found herself mentoring street kids, trying to help them not just to survive but to better their lives. The goal was to get them off the streets and into schools or vocational trade programs or jobs. “But there is no time to plan for tomorrow,” she says, “if you still have to figure out how to eat today.”
Vicki recalls that “they were very faith-filled kids, and they taught me what it was like to slow down, live day by day, to be present to others and to be in the moment. In the U.S., we talk about that a lot and we may try it for a while, but we usually don’t really do it. In places like Kibagare [the informal settlement where Vicki worked], you have to.”
The young people at her two ministries — the Kibagare Good News Centre and the Ukweli Home of Hope — also inspired her through their hospitality and sharing.
At Ukweli’s drop-in center, street kids could get a meal and find a place to lie down and rest. The lunch was just two slices of white bread and chai tea, but for many it was the only meal they would get that day. Even though they had next to nothing themselves, when other kids arrived late and the bread was already gone, those who had received bread shared it with them without hesitation.
Many would hang out in groups of two dozen or so, and the older ones would look out for the younger ones. “It’s how they survived,” she explains, “taking care of each other, as together they faced a very difficult and often violent life.”
She admits it was disturbing to witness the level of poverty and the sheer number of people living in difficult circumstances in Nairobi’s informal settlements. But Vicki says it was almost more difficult to come back home to the States:
“Seeing the contrast, noticing the waste, constantly living on the clock, the lack of attention to relationships and living in all this plentitude and taking it for granted.”
Vicki had mostly worked in corporate America, but says her time in mission “completely changed what I wanted to do when I came home.” After her return in 2002, she spent another three and a half years working for Maryknoll Lay Missioners in the U.S. in human resources and the mission services department.
Returning to St. Louis and her Jesuit connections, she then became the director of social ministry for St. Francis Xavier College Church, where one of the main ministries was again with the homeless population (this time mostly with adults). Her time in Nairobi was good preparation for relating with people experiencing homelessness in the inner city of St. Louis.
Vicki retired for a year in 2011, but after serving as an Ignatian volunteer, was asked to become the director of the St. Louis program of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. IVC matches retired and semiretired professionals with charities and nonprofits seeking skilled volunteers.
In 2017, she joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ board of directors. She has been chairing the board’s governance committee for the past two and a half years. Vicki feels “a great responsibility to bring good and strong new members to the board who can help us achieve our goals.”
She is a strong proponent of Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ approach of requiring a comparatively lengthy service commitment (three and a half years). She sees it as vital for establishing the kind of real relationships with people that Maryknoll is known for.
“It takes a while to establish that trust and relationship, to be invited into people’s homes, and to welcome people into your own home as well. Time deepens relationships,” Vicki says.
And yet, Vicki — and the board — are also thinking about ways to give those who cannot make that kind of commitment a “taste of mission” through short-term trips and other opportunities.
“I love serving on the board because it has reconnected me with the mission and goals of Maryknoll Lay Missioners,” Vicki says. “I am very hopeful for our future — that we can remain true to our mission and continue working with those that are in great need, while also not being afraid to change some directions and adapt to the challenges of our times.”
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 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.