World Mission Sunday: Q&A with missioners Ashley and Michael Leen

| October 9, 2014 | 0 Comments
Photo courtesy of Ashley and Michael Leen

Photo courtesy of Ashley and Michael Leen

In January 2014, Ashley and Michael Leen, both 28, began work in Tanzania with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, a Catholic organization inspired by the mission of Jesus. They “live and work in poor communities, responding to basic needs and helping to create a more just and compassionate world.” Ashley is from Lino Lakes and was a parishioner at St. Joseph there. Michael is originally from Naperville, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago.

Below they respond to questions about how they’re living their Catholic faith serving others in a developing country.

Q. What’s your connection to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis?

A. From the age of 11, Ashley was raised in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, growing up at St. Joseph’s Church in Lino Lakes. Ashley received the sacrament of confirmation there and was heavily involved in its youth group, volunteering in the local community and getting to know other young people interested in faith and spirituality. In June 2010, Ashley returned with her then fiance, Michael, to get married at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Q. What inspired you to become missioners? When did you begin?

A. We both had the opportunity to go on short-term immersion trips when we were in college (Ashley to the Dominican Republic and Michael to Swaziland). As soon as we returned, we began discussing the future possibility of living and working overseas, particularly feeling called to work with the poor and the marginalized in a developing country. After a three-month orientation program, we arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania, in January 2014 with Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

Q. How does your Catholic faith help in the work you do in a developing country?

A. Catholic social teaching is our guide and our hope as we continue to work in Tanzania. Our tradition believes that every human person possesses innate dignity, regardless of economic circumstance. Although Tanzania is an incredibly poor country and it is often easy to lose hope, we take comfort in the fact that we believe that each Tanzanian has the right to live a full and dignified life, including a living wage, quality education and access to health care. This is our ultimate goal as we live and work alongside Tanzanians.

Q. On your blog, you go into detail about the living conditions and poor economy in Tanzania. Would you briefly describe them here?

A. Tanzania, while a beautiful country, is also one of the poorest in the world. Over two thirds of its people live below the International Poverty Line, making the equivalent of $1.25 per day or less. We live in Mwanza, the second most populated city in the country. While modern luxuries are more available here than in the villages, those luxuries are only available to the elite few. Because there is no majority middle class, all economic classes live side-by-side. We live in a middle-class house, with running water and electricity, but our neighbors on either side of us live in mud-brick homes with flat tin roofs and have neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Their latrines consist of a hole dug in the ground and plastic tarp hung around it for privacy.

Michael Leen, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, leads entrepreneurship training in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Ashley and Michael Leen

Michael Leen, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, leads entrepreneurship training in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Ashley and Michael Leen

Q. What specific work do you do in Tanzania?

A. Ashley began the After School Program at Shalom Care House in order to serve children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Shalom Care Home is an HIV/AIDS resource center in Mwanza, serving under the larger Archdiocese of Mwanza. Ashley’s main focus is to enhance the academic skills of children, ages 5 through 16, in mathematics and English and encourage their ongoing development outside of school. Ashley strives to support children living in difficult circumstances by providing them with a safe place to learn and play with a caring teacher and with one another.

Michael started a project through a local Tanzanian non-governmental organization, the Education for Better Living Organization, that helps the poor learn the process of starting, running and implementing a successful group enterprise. Primarily, Michael works with young mothers who have dropped out of secondary school due to pregnancy, youth living on the street and their families. The hope is to empower them to attain economic emancipation and rise out of poverty through income-generating activities.

Q. What were you doing before becoming Maryknoll Lay Missioners?

A. Before Maryknoll Lay Missioners, we lived very different lives! Ashley worked for the Department of Justice as a research analyst, first in Boston and then in Dallas. Michael was brand manager at Dr. Pepper Snapple Group in Dallas.

Q. What has been the most challenging? The most rewarding? Most hopeful?

A. We’ve been told the first year of mission, in general, is the most challenging. Although we were prepared well before we came to Tanzania, our expectations still didn’t match with reality. You also have to deal with intense culture shock and homesickness. It’s easy to become frustrated with the local culture and the time it takes to learn the local language. On top of that, we had to adjust to constant power and water outages, everything in our home breaking and more daily ups and downs than you find in the United States. It’s a completely new way of life! It’s challenging to be patient with yourself and to trust that it will all become normal and routine.

For Ashley, the most rewarding moments come in the classroom. One day, she was working on multiplication with an 11-year-old girl named Nuru. It was clear Nuru was far behind in her class and was getting every multiplication problem wrong. Many Tanzanian students pass on from grade to grade not understanding basic concepts like multiplication, due to very large class sizes and poor teacher training. In Kiswahili, Ashley worked one-on-one with Nuru to explain multiplication, using different analogies and activities. Finally, Nuru got it! She exclaimed, “Mwalimu, Teacher, now I get it! And I’m going to work really hard!” It’s moments like these that keep us in Tanzania.

For Michael, the most hopeful moment came recently when he was able to establish a partnership between the Education for Better Living Organization and the local Pepsi branch. Through this partnership, Michael was able to obtain, among other things, 25 Pepsi pushcarts, for young mothers. Each pushcart is a mobile store allowing the young mother to sell ice-cold soda along with snacks and mobile phone vouchers. One Sunday recently, he spotted one of his young mothers with her Pepsi pushcart at a local weekly festival. She reported that she had been able to make a profit of 6,600 Tanzanian shillings in one day, the equivalent of $4! Although this sounds hopeless to most Western income standards, this is an incredible triumph for her, her child and for all young mothers like her.

Q. Could you share a story from your experiences that highlights the importance of mission work?

A. Michael and his boss, Bernard, were recently discussing the possibility of a European volunteer coming to join their organization. Michael was asking what role this volunteer might fulfill. After explaining the potential responsibilities, Bernard looked at Michael and said, “But Michael, you are not like other volunteers who come here [to Tanzania] because you’re a missioner. You don’t simply come to observe, or do your day job and return home. You get involved in the lives of others. You become part of the community. You make a difference.”
This interaction gave us hope that we are fulfilling our call to mission well. We not only work alongside the poor, but also we live in their neighborhoods, shop at their markets, worship at Mass together and invite their children into our home. Being in mission is not a job. It encompasses every aspect of our lives.

Q. If people want to help, but aren’t able to jump on a plane and serve others in a foreign land, what can they do?

A. Mission is typically thought of as “somewhere over there,” but it’s not necessarily so. We believe mission happens wherever people are concerned about the lives and well-being of the poorest of the poor in their community. They exist everywhere, in Tanzania and in the United States. When we lived in Dallas, we volunteered at our parish’s food bank and through that, were able to meet fellow parishioners who were struggling to meet their basic needs. Our eyes were opened to the realities of the poor living not far from us. That’s mission, too.

Q. How long will you be in Tanzania?

A. Our first contract with Maryknoll Lay Missioners ends in May 2017. After that, we can decide to sign another three-year contract or to move on to the next step in life.

Q. What are your plans when you return to the U.S.?

A. Honestly, we have no plans! When we decided to move to Tanzania, we told ourselves this would be a completely new phase in our lives. We didn’t want to become obsessed with the future and planning every step of it out. Instead, we’re trying to focus on the present moment that we have. Tanzanian life brings enough worries for one day!

Q. Anything else you’d like to share about your mission work?

A. When we first announced to family and friends that we were moving to Tanzania, we heard many responses like, “Oh, I’d love to do that, but I’m not brave enough.” Believe us, we’re not brave! Overseas mission work does take an incredible amount of discernment. But, truly, anyone can do it. We have Maryknoll Lay Missioners of all ages, from 25 years old to 70 years old, married people, single people and married people with children, serving all over the world. Although living in a developing country brings challenges, we feel honored and privileged to be here. If you feel called, you, too, can make the jump!

Read more from Ashley and Michael Leen on their blog, “From Tanzania with Love.”

The meaning of transformation and hope

From Ashley and Michael Leen

Solidarity with the poor is the most humbling position I have ever been in. It doesn’t feel powerful. It doesn’t feel like I’m standing for anything. When we were students at Boston College, solidarity with the poor was signing petitions and wearing T-shirts with clever slogans and turning off the electricity for a day a year. It felt trendy. It felt easy. And sometimes, surrounded by your like-minded friends, it feels fun.

The solidarity we know now is anything but fun. It forces you to look at yourself — American, privileged, college-educated — and realize there’s truly not much you can do amidst the suffering. With all of your training, your specialized skill set, the hours you put into that senior thesis on political game theory . . . well, it’s a head-on collision to admit that none of that holds a candle to a mother who just lost her child for any reason, but especially for a death that was completely preventable.

Without doing anything, like any good American should, it’s easy to despair. It’s easy to throw up your hands and think, “Well, I gave that a good try. Let’s go back to doing something that’s easy and obtainable.”

But hope is different than that. Hope looks like praying. Hope looks like joining locals for meals in their homes, where they live. Hope looks like holding the hands of people who are grieving, singing and crying with them. Hope looks like entering into their suffering, if only for an hour.

Above all, hope looks like love. Yeah, that sounds cliche, but that’s what we do. We do our best to love the locals as our own, even if there’s no way we can fully understand them. Knowing the hard stuff just gets harder, we engage with them, learning about the issues faced by everyday Tanzanians, meeting those who are working toward a better future, and partnering with them. We act as their cheerleaders and incrementally, it gets better, even when we don’t see it ourselves.

And with that, the next generation won’t have to accompany so many who suffer. For now, this is the best we can “do.”

Interested in Catholic mission work overseas?To help defray the costs of their mission work, Ashley and Michael Leen applied for and received the Mustard Seed Mission Endowment from the archdiocesan Center for Mission.

The endowment was established in 2002 to provide seed money to missioners from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who serve in a Catholic mission overseas for one year or more.

Missioners may apply annually for a grant to support their direct mission activities or provide necessary assistance to their livelihood while in mission service.

Grant recipients become mission ambassadors when they return home to the archdiocese, offering to share their mission story with parish and school groups.

For more information about the endowment, contact the Center for Mission at or (651) 222-6556.

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Category: World Mission Sunday