Catholics seeking to improve lives on mission trips say they’re changed as well

| Clare Kolars | July 21, 2016 | 0 Comments
Children from the Los Chaguites community in Jinotega, Nicaragua, give Sue Kellett a chicken in August 2015 as a token of their appreciation. “I felt bad taking this chicken,” Kellett said. “I had to humbly accept it, so they could feel the pleasure of giving.” Courtesy Sue Kellett

Children from the Los Chaguites community in Jinotega, Nicaragua, give Sue Kellett a chicken in August 2015 as a token of their appreciation. “I felt bad taking this chicken,” Kellett said. “I had to humbly accept it, so they could feel the pleasure of giving.” Courtesy Sue Kellett

To serve and be served

On July 5, Jeff Reither left with a group from his parish, St. Anne in Hamel, to spend two weeks in a small village in Uganda, Africa.

Since 2001, the group has worked with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with whom group members have formed strong bonds.

“It’s uncomfortable how well we’re treated,” said Reither, 40, a stay-at-home dad. “I remember asking a sister to stop feeding us and to give the money to other people, and she got so mad. She said, ‘You cannot deny us the chance to be Christ to you. If you deny us this opportunity, then what else do we have?’”

The sister’s words made an impact, he said, teaching him to bear his pride, become humble and allow others to be Christ to him.

This mentality is reflected throughout the small village of Busolo, located 2 miles west of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

“When you first arrive, you notice the external poverty,” Reither said. “But after three days, you only notice the true joy. They put their faith in the afterlife.

“This reflects in the Mass and how they pray,” he continued. “We sit around for hours talking about how we’ve lost that.”

He added: “We are in a rural area, so we’re forced to know the individual person, and I dare say, the Christ in that person.”

A partnership in improvement

Father Eliar Pineda gives a homily in August 2015  at Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, the sister parish of St. Edward in Bloomington, in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Courtesy Sue Kellett

Father Eliar Pineda gives a homily in August 2015 at Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, the sister parish of St. Edward in Bloomington, in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Courtesy Sue Kellett

For Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, mission trips have become a popular way to serve others around the world.

Pointing to an 80-year-old man who had a heart stent procedure so that he could make the trip, Reither said it’s important to prioritize mission trips.

“People should take the perceived risk and just go,” he said.

Reither was influenced by his mother, Carol Reither, who started going to Busolo in 2001. This year, Reither brought three siblings, seven nephews and his 70-year-old mother.

“I saw the impact these people were on my mom,” Reither said. “I signed up for the 2009 trip and kept going.”

Ultimately, Reither and his team want the people they serve to be self-sustaining. They bring sewing machines and carpentry tool kits with hopes they can help villagers improve their living conditions.

“We want to be part of it, but we want the locals to invest in the project, too,” Reither said. “We can’t be the change — they have to be.”

“I’ve had people ask me why we go when there’s so much to do here [in the U.S.],” Reither added. “I understand their concern, but our government has a fall-back. In Uganda, if you don’t have money to pay for lunch, you don’t eat.

“As one of the sisters said, ‘Anyone can write a check. But once you come, you leave a part of your heart here.’” (Read Reither’s reflection on asking for help on page 15.)

Encountering Christ

It’s not only in Africa that lives are being changed. St. Edward in Bloomington sends a group to Central America a few times a year to continue a 30-year-old relationship with its sister parish.

Parishioner Sue Kellett has been traveling to Los Chaguites, a community in Jinotega, Nicaragua, to visit Nuestra Senora de los Angeles — Our Lady of the Angels — since 1991.

Regardless of the group’s size from year to year, Kellett said the missionaries focus on meeting others and looking into their eyes.

“When you look into someone’s eyes, you’re looking into the eyes of God,” she said. “What’s a better way to connect with others?”

Besides partnering with Feed My Starving Children, building chapels and wells, and installing solar ovens, Kellett said the best part is jumping into the back of a pickup truck and traveling to the rural chapels to sing and worship.

“Everyone in the village says it’s not our presents that matter, but our presence,” Kellett said.

In the example of living the Christian virtues of faith and charity, the people of Los Chaguites thrive in their Christian faith, Kellett said.

“We often end up telling the villagers they do so much more for us, and they show us what it’s like to be true and faithful Catholics,” she said.

“In every house, the most important thing is their altar, adorned with images of Jesus, Mary and the saints,” she said. “We always leave in tears.”

Kellett explained that the people they help actually give far more than they receive.

“They show us how to smile in the midst of suffering,” she said.

Kellett believes mission trips should raise awareness and understanding of social justice when others see the disparity between their lifestyle and of those living in extreme poverty.

“This is what Pope Francis is calling us to do — to go out into the world and help those who are suffering,” she said.

Crossing borders

Deacon Mickey Friesen, director of the Center for Mission, which serves the archdiocese, said missionaries intend to bring Christ to people abroad, but they often discover that Christ is already present where they arrive to work.

He said, “Every mission trip [group] should ask themselves, ‘Is this calling me to encounter Christ?’”

While Deacon Friesen highlights the importance of traveling to other countries, he also recognizes the needs of people across the street.

“If you turned on the TV right now, you would see we have a lot of work to do to cross the borders of fear keeping us apart from those living right next to us,” he said.

Some of those neighbors can be found in nearby states. Tim Cooper, a religion teacher at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, takes a group of juniors and seniors 900 miles southeast on Interstate 94 to Hazard, Kentucky, to do the same kinds of mission work happening in other countries.

This year, Cooper, 34 students and eight chaperones rebuilt and refurbished homes, visited a local homeless shelter and helped in a daycare.

A group goes for a week at the end of every school year, and Cooper said his goal is to immerse students in hard work and culture.

“They learn just how drastic poverty can be,” he said. “They see a different kind of poverty than they see in their lives here in a major metropolitan area.

“In the end, they experience every imaginable kind of growth — spiritual, emotional and empathetic growth.”

An incoming senior at Hill-Murray, Jenna Schwartz described her experience as something she will never forget.

“What surprised me the most was how open people were with sharing their lives and stories,” she said. “I talked to a man in a wheelchair for over an hour about his life story and how he grew up.”

Deacon Friesen said there are two parts to every mission trip: the actual mission trip and what happens when participants return home.

“Every missionary will experience this reverse mission,” he said. “They should ask, ‘Now who am I? How am I different?’”

He added: “Mission trips are a way to express our faith, meet others and learn together.”

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Category: Travel and Pilgrimages