Cultural immersion, a year later

| March 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

Marilynn Neuville, left, and Deb Streefland, right, talk with Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny at their convent in Vandiperiyar, India, Feb. 4, 2019. Neuville and Streefland were part of a delegation to the Diocese of Vijayapuram organized by the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A year after the trip, Neuville continues to marvel at the way she saw the Church care for the needs of everyone, whether they be Hindu, Muslim or Christian, she said. “India is filled with wide varieties of sights, sounds, colors, smells and tastes, but most pervasive is the gracious hospitality and kindness that I encountered everywhere I went,” she said, noting that she plans to return one day. “The people are the real treasures of India.” Maria Wiering, The Catholic Spirit’s editor-in-chief, was also on the immersion trip. Read her first-person account of the experience on pages 9-11. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Eight of us Minnesotans were sharing stories with a community of Indian sisters over tea, bananas and savory pastries at their kitchen table when they began to detail a catastrophic flood that affected their convent in the fall of 2018. And then one sister, who had a generous smile, turned serious. She closed her eyes and started to sing a solemn song, her voice trilling the melody. The other sisters joined in.

The song was about God’s providence. “Whatever happens, he is with us. He is ever faithful to us,” another sister explained. The previous August, the nine sisters, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, watched the Periyar River crest over its deep banks bordering their property in the city of Vandiperiyar, in the southwest Indian state of Kerala. By breakfast time Aug. 15, river water filled their courtyard and was lapping at their doorstep. Thirty minutes later, it had risen several feet, eventually reaching above their front door. When the water receded five days later, it left a mess that took months to clean. But here the sisters were, five months later, hosting us for morning tea, speaking about their joy in God’s care.

This tea with the sisters wasn’t on our agenda. The day before we were eating lunch as part of a blessing celebration for a new roadside shrine to Mary, when one of the sisters sat beside me. She told me that her convent was adjacent to the parish retreat center where we were staying, and we should visit. I smiled, said thanks and a non-committal, “We’ll have to see.” Our schedule was packed, and while the offer was generous, I doubted we could accept. But the next morning’s plans fell through, and, by what can only be explained as divine appointment, we ambled out the door, down a short hill and through iron gates to the convent. They welcomed us with open arms, and, like almost everyone we met in India, the universal sign of hospitality: something to eat.

Jessica Ottman, right, holds a baby as Deb Streefland, left, smiles during a Feb. 3, 2019, celebration following the blessing of a roadside shrine in the Indian state of Kerala. Ottman and Streefland were among local Catholics who traveled to India Jan. 27-Feb. 7, 2019, on an immersion mission trip organized by the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Our delegation from Minnesota spent nine days in the Diocese of Vijayapuram, one of Kerala’s 12 Latin Catholic dioceses. The trip was organized by the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and designed as an immersion mission experience. That meant we were there to encounter people, form relationships, live in the culture and get a taste of its life. We were explicitly not there to fix problems or donate money.

So for a little more than a week, the eight of us visited priests and parishes, schools and homes. We joined small groups for intimate prayer meetings, and a crowd of thousands for a charismatic Mass and adoration. We explored hilly tea plantations by bus, river backwaters by boat, and rural hills and city streets by foot. And we listened attentively to stories of faith, like the one shared by the sisters. “We spent a lot of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and we prayed that the Lord would give us courage and strength to face the difficulty,” a sister said of the ordeal.

Along the way we wondered how these encounters would change us, what would stick after our return to normal life.

More on the pilgrimage

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