When a serious illness struck my youngest son and couldn’t be healed during our Maryknoll Lay Missioners assignment, it became clear we needed to leave Venezuela early and return home. We were grateful that we had some success in starting a new ministry with other supportive lay missioner families and local families (i.e. baseball ministry) that continued well after we left, with local catechists.
Yet leaving the team and new friends sooner than planned felt like an unexpected dying process and what early death must feel like. It seemed such a shame to leave before the end of our contract. It took us so long to work our way through the MKLM interviews, testing, acceptance and integration stages, the training and language programs, settling into a new culture, etc. As we headed to Cincinnati, I thought, “I wonder if I’ll ever find another meaningful mission opportunity again like Maryknoll where the good Lord can use me and my family?”
Fortunately, by the grace of God, I participated in the healing “Mission to Mission” 10-day workshop with other returned missioners. The sister directing the retreat wisely told me, “Be Maryknoll wherever God places you again.” What a wonderful revelation and a freeing moment that was!
With great follow-up counseling, I was prepared to become a pastoral associate for a suburban parish in Cincinnati that was looking to start a new parish twining relationship in the hollers of central Kentucky. I soon realized that all the Maryknoll mission training was to become most helpful and useful again. The Glenmary Sisters made it clear they neither did charity nor pity, but rather long-term friendships based on solidarity and mutuality, learning from each other’s cultures and religious beliefs and practices. It took years to build trust, but by listening and taking a humble approach, attending Masses and meals, and collaboratively rebuilding houses, great friendships and faith grew.
When I later took a directorship position in the Mission Office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2000, the archbishop invited me to tap my experience with Maryknoll and parish twinning. Among my first opportunities was to visit a Maryknoll lay missioner, T.J. Meyer, in San Salvador, traveling with his family, his pastor Father Shine, and parishioner friends from Harrison, Ohio.
Seeing the warm friendships T.J. had already developed with his Salvadoran parishioners, it was a “no-brainer” to realize this was a fertile bed to start a twinning relationship between these two parishes. I was able to “float” this ministry of inter-parish friendship during the visit and I offered workshops upon our return.
I’m happy to report that the Spirit has enflamed this partnership these past two decades with many reciprocal visits between their parishes and long-lasting friendships. There’s been lots of dancing, singing, lively Masses, tasty meals, tours, visits to Romero’s tomb and Cincinnati baseball games. Also, sharing hardships and the love for the Lord and, more! Even during the COVID pandemic, they still visit and pray together with the help of email, Facebook and Zoom meetings. About 150 families in Harrison and El Salvador are now connected, which helped to create school scholarships for Salvadoran children and a badly needed health clinic.
Kathy Meyer, T.J.’s mom, reflects, “Sharing love, laughter, friendship, faith and culture is what we do. We are so impressed by their parish faith formation and discipleship programs, learning to be servants before joining the parish council. Our goal in this twining ministry is to mainly to be present to each other. Not to do for them but be with them in love and friendship. We share what it means to be Catholic, a borderless universal faith. Solidarity is no longer just a word for us. Because of our twinning experience, I have been gratefully and wonderfully transformed.”
I have been blessed to be a small part in the training and organizing of many of the other 40 other parish twinning relationships now in our archdiocese. They include church communities on the Navajo Reservation, Kentucky, Central and South America, islands in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Madagascar. What a human/spiritual joy for me and our Archdiocese of Cincinnati! …and a meaningful way to eliminate prejudice, racism, ultra-nationalism, and xenophobia.
Pope Francis’ teachings on the importance of following Jesus by building a culture of “encounter with others” (as found in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti) continue to inspire us.
I highly recommend parish twinning and mission trip resources that I and my fellow Maryknoll friends have developed the past seven years through our Institute of the “Third Wave of Mission.” Returned missioners like Mike Haasl, Bob Short, and Father Dave LaBuda are among those with whom I have collaborated to produce mission trip and parish twinning training video modules available at ThirdWaveOfMission.org. Also check out my Mission Office’s website to learn about starting and building parish twinning relationships. Returned missioners can also teach in parishes, schools, and colleges.
Xavier University hired me to help organize a full semester in Nicaragua with the Jesuits here and there. What life-changing semesters those have been for 20 years! Two of my sons participated as well. And consider joining a local Maryknoll Affiliates group, which has been so supportive of Kathy and me.