I had a rich, wonderful and sometimes challenging time as a Maryknoll lay missioner. It strengthened my conviction about social justice for everyone and encouraged my willingness to act on that.
After working three years in the U.S. as a physician assistant, I started training with Maryknoll Lay Missioners at the Bethany Building in Ossining. I was not young. I had certiﬁed in medicine after two decades as a clinical social worker.
Assigned to the Altiplano, the high planes of the Andes Mountains in Peru, I drew on the experience of shorter mission trips to Central America with Maryknoll’s Call and Response Program. I was delighted to be called to longer service.
In Peru I opened a simple clinic in our village, serving my indigenous Aymara neighbors. Sometimes I’d make trips to larger cities seeking advanced care that the local hospital could not provide. A young mother treated locally for thyroid cancer needed radiation treatment that was only available in Lima, so we bused there.
Mostly I treated everyday illness: bronchitis, arthritis, earaches and sore throats. It was usually very early in the morning, as folks would stop at the clinic on their way home from gathering fodder for their animals from Lake Titicaca. I’d have to unwrap layers of wool, worn in the cold high mountains, to check people’s lungs. It was a heart-ﬁlling experience. I’ve always been a writer, and I am just ﬁnishing a book-length memoir of those days.
Since I’ve been back in the U.S., living in southern Delaware, I’ve done a few things that have recreated the joy of serving as a lay missioner. For several years I taught English as a Second Language to young immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. We had live classes, then went to Zoom during the pandemic.
I enjoyed the students! Lively and diligent, they worked at learning in the same way they tackled their demanding jobs and managed spouses and children and tight budgets. We laughed together a lot, not infrequently at my sometimes mangled Spanish.
We grew even closer to each other when they told their stories — some that were hard to hear. One young man ﬂed Guatemala in a car trunk when a vicious gang was threatening him. A mother had left her young children behind. Always they persevered, always they found a way to be happy.
About ﬁve years ago, I was approached by a friend in the local Jewish synagogue about another project. Was I interested in joining with other women of diﬀerent faiths to form an ongoing group. Two Jewish women, two Muslim women and two Christian women, we formed the ﬁrst group. Now we have ﬁve groups with the same wonderful mix.
We meet regularly, sharing our traditions, visiting each other’s mosques, churches and synagogues, learning about our faiths and traditions. Most of all, we grew to love one another, supporting each other through life’s celebrations and heartbreaks. We have truly become sisters.
Recently, we led a discussion group about a ﬁlm, The Narrow Bridge, about a group formed of Palestinians and Israelis who lost children during the years of conﬂict. Our sisters represented another possibility of an unlikely group coming together.
I’m almost retired, now facilitating a weekly support group for cancer patients, which draws on both my former careers. Learning guitar and having regular jam sessions with a group of friends provides community and balance. Also, an ongoing writers group and writing classes keep me sharp and help me hone my craft.
I have wonderful adult children with wonderful spouses. We are a close family, texting back and forth and visiting. They are the highlight of my life. Add to this the blessing of being connected to Maryknoll, and I am deeply, consciously grateful.