Wonderful conversations occur at unplanned times and places. As I exited my car and approached the church at St. Agnes Parish in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, to make a mission appeal at their Saturday afternoon Mass, I saw another man getting out of his car. We were the only two cars and the only two people in the parking lot.
I introduced myself as a Maryknoll lay missioner and told him that I would be giving a mission appeal talk for our works in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Elmer, whose name I learned afterwards, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Overseas mission! We need mission right here in our parish!” At first I thought he was kidding; yet as we began to talk, I realized that he was sincere.
As he unlocked the church doors, Elmer, who serves as a welcoming minister, explained that he has been a long-time member of St. Agnes and knows the community well. He pointed out the tables in the vestibule with explanations of the prayer mat and shawl ministries. Alongside were flyers about the upcoming parish bazaar fund raiser.
Among the faithful arriving for the Mass, I overheard several conversations about the local ministries and their funding challenges. Part of me cringed and feared that I would encounter many who already made donations to local causes. Part of me said I needed to pray harder that our mission appeal would be fruitful.
When I gave my mission appeal talk, I specifically acknowledged that there are a great many needs in the parish and the North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, area; yet I was asking them to open their hearts a little wider to consider not only the needs of their immediate community but also those of our marginalized sisters and brothers in countries like Bolivia where I work.
After Mass, I spoke again with Elmer and I asked permission to take his picture with me. Quite naturally, he asked why, and I told him that during the Mass his statement about mission needs in St. Agnes Parish resonated deeply with me and that I was thankful for his sharing. As he smiled and chuckled in response, I could not help wondering again if his initial statements were spoken sincerely or spoken as a test of my fortitude in the value of overseas mission.
That night, reflecting upon the day, I thanked our Creator for my conversation with Elmer. Elmer’s remarks reminded me that mission appeals for works in the States and mission appeals for works in other countries are not in competition. Rather, they complement each other. They remind us, for example, that our Maryknoll lay mission vision of a world of justice, compassion and dignity will never be achieved if we are excluding anyone.
Quite often and despite the geographical proximity, we don’t know our sisters and brothers who are our geographical neighbors and much less their needs. While it is challenging to focus upon the need for a hand up from those we do not know, everyone is our sister and brother. We continuously need to open our hearts to neighbors near and far.