What's the next right step? - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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U.S. Border Patrol agent Carlos Antunez answers questions from retreat participants at the border fence in El Paso.


They traveled to El Paso, Texas, for Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ first ever “Discerning through Service” retreat at the U.S.-Mexico border.

They arrived as strangers from Chicago, New York, Maryland, Connecticut and from just outside El Paso; they left as a community.

Following the see-judge-act methodology of Catholic Action, the six retreat participants wanted to see the reality at the border and learn about the structures, systems and people behind today’s border-crisis headlines.

Together they took the time to judge by listening for the messages God was speaking to them through their encounters on the border, the experiences that brought them to the retreat and the time with one another.

And they departed eager to act and figure out the next right steps to follow that call in their own lives.

“The next right step” was a phrase lay missioner Heidi Cerneka repeatedly used while talking to participants about following their call while in El Paso. But how does one figure out that next right step?

For Peggy Dolan, a librarian from Connecticut, coming on this retreat had already been a next right step. She had known of Maryknoll for years and had joined a Friends Across Borders trip to Tanzania in 2018. That trip had been her first intentional step toward mission after beginning to feel that call. Seeing Maryknoll lay missioners in action there had led her to the retreat to deepen her discernment.

Karen Bortvedt Estrada, Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ recruitment and relationship manager; Maryknoll Sister Arlene Trant, mission educator; and Yvonne Dilling, a Texas-based mission educator/promoter with the Maryknoll Society, led the retreat. They teamed up with the Encuentro Project, a collaborative immersion and service project in El Paso, to set up moments of encounter throughout the week. The retreat also provided times to reflect and judge where those rumblings within each person may be calling them to step next.

The many “border experts” they had an opportunity to learn from included Marisa Limón Garza from the Hope Border Institute. Marisa explained the border policies and related them to the call of Catholics to respond.

Retreat participants meet with El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz. Standing (from left): Maryknoll lay missioner Heidi Cerneka, Lou Tullo, Bishop Seitz, Letty Macias, Francis Wayne and Sister Arlene Trant, MM. Kneeling (from left): Robbie Anderson, Peggy Dolan, Janet Tullo, Yvonne Dilling, Karen Bortvedt and Father Rafael Garcia, SJ

The retreat in El Paso coincided with the end of International Migration Week, and participants joined El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz in a Mass to pray for all those who migrate and whose lives are intertwined with people on the move. Bishop Seitz has taken a leadership role among U.S. bishops in advocating for migrants at the border.

Retreat participants had an opportunity to serve migrants by welcoming guests at one of the local migrant shelters. Although the current draconian government policies and practices at the border have greatly reduced the numbers of migrants at shelters in El Paso, the participants had an opportunity to share a meal with and listen to the stories of those receiving hospitality there. The group was also able to contribute to several maintenance projects, so that migrants coming to the shelter in the future will find an even more welcoming space.

At the shelter, they also talked with long-term volunteers on the border. With each interaction, the numbers and headlines became people with names, stories, experiences, and grief—people who were profoundly, and at great risk, taking their next right steps with little certainty as to where their own journey would take them.

Reflecting on these experiences after returning home, Letty Macias said, “I am a firm believer that our Lord places us with people and in circumstances within God’s perfect timing at any given moment. I have not stopped thanking God for the Maryknoll discernment retreat and for meeting all the wonderful retreatants and missioners!”

The day the retreat ended, she submitted an application to begin volunteering locally in El Paso alongside Maryknoll lay missioner Heidi Cerneka. Letty brings with her not only decades of experience as an educator but also a local network of retired educators and social service providers whom she is now organizing to serve in their own backyard.

For Letty, being involved locally is the next right step, as she prepares to apply to become a lay missioner wherever God may call her to serve.

Letty was not alone in experiencing a deepened desire to “mission in place,” as retreatant Janet Tullo called it when speaking about her ongoing work with migrants in New York. Robbie Anderson shares Janet’s sentiment, “I took home a yearning to help asylum seekers and am now exploring ways to do that in Chicago while discerning a long-term mission.”

At the beginning of each discernment retreat, facilitators always emphasize, “We are not here to give you a call to Maryknoll, the call does not come from us. We are here to create space—a space to discern, to encounter, to reflect free from the normal chaos that fills our lives.”

Being in that space together can be powerful. Everyone has their own unique call, but can at the same time help others to listen to or reflect back the messages God provides. In that communion, all are called to determine their next right step.


Karen Bortvedt Estrada
Karen Bortvedt Estrada is the recruitment and relationship manager of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. She served as a Maryknoll lay missioner with the Deaf Development Programme in Cambodia from 2014 to 2017.