Witnessing Faith

| October 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

Modern-day missionaries share perspectives on their work

St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove will host the conference, “Witnessing Faith.”

The event will be a day of prayer, learning and sharing with keynote speakers and a variety of enriching, motivating workshops.

The conference will be from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at St. Joseph the Worker, 7180 Hemlock Lane N., Maple Grove. For information or to register, call (763) 425-6505 or visit http://www.centerformission.org. Conference speakers will share experiences and offer perspectives regarding what it means to proclaim the faith through witness and through word, especially in the 21st century.

The Catholic Spirit asked four of the presenters about their work and their presentations. Their edited responses appear on this page. — The Catholic Spirit


Society of the Divine Word Father Roger Schroeder

Father Roger Schroeder visits with former parishioners in 2003 after Mass in Papua New Guinea.

Father Roger Schroeder spent six years in Papua, New Guinea as a young missionary. He has a doctorate in missiology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and has been teaching Intercultural Studies and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Father Schroeder holds the Bishop Francis X. Ford, M.M., Chair of Catholic Missiology.

Q: Describe what led you to become a missionary in a foreign country.

A: While on a retreat for altar servers in the seventh grade, I heard Father Willie Ross — a 5’4” missionary with a long white beard — talk about his missionary life in Papua New Guinea. I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do!” When I arrived there the first time in 1975, I went to his grave (he died two years earlier), and I said, “It is because of you that I am here!”

Q: What did your experience in Papua New Guinea teach you about being a missionary and “witnessing faith”?

A: My seventh-grade images of a missionary were very romanticized. After six years in Papua New Guinea, I learned about the reality of missionary life, which I now describe as “the worst of days and the best of days.” I faced deep loneliness and frustration. On the other hand, I met God in new ways and experienced the fullness of the meaning of life through my relationships with some wonderful villagers, who were first- and second-generation Christians.

Q: Describe an instance in which you deeply touched someone through your missionary work.

A: In the early 1980s, I identified and accompanied several young people as potential catechists, who eventually would teach, preach, pray with the sick, and lead prayer services on Sundays and at funerals. What a blessing to meet one of them, by the name of Aaron, 20 years later. On the day we met, he was returning from a week of preparing some people in a faraway settlement (two days walk) for eventual baptism. Aaron had also served the diocese over the years in their efforts to renew other parishes. Today he is a gifted and dedicated catechist, and a caring husband and father of eight. God touched Aaron through me and God is touching so many others through him.

Q: If people are unable to go to another country to do missionary work, how can they support missionary efforts?

A: Mission occurs across the ocean and across the street. First, all Christians are to be missionaries themselves at home. They are to be the eyes and ears, hands and feet, head and heart of God’s love, forgiveness and justice with family, neighbors, co-workers, and those on the margins of society. Second, Catholics can support those doing missionary work in other countries through prayer, financial support, keeping informed, and being involved in parish activities like parish twinning, evangelization teams, and stewardship committees.

Q: How is “proclaiming the Gospel in a global age” different from a generation or two ago?

A: The world has gotten much smaller for us and many others due to planes, internet, Skype, and cell phones. The message is the same but the avenues of communication are changing.

Q: What is the main message you are hoping to convey to conference attendees?

A: All Christians can share the good news of God’s life, love, and justice, with or without words (proclamation or witness), in many different ways. It all requires both listening and speaking. In my afternoon workshop, I will continue this reflection by exploring how we can do this through “table fellowship” around three “tables” today — dining room table, eucharistic table, and the “table” of God’s many diverse peoples near and far. In this way, we are nourished and fed, and others are nourished and fed through us.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: For over twenty years, I continue to be a missionary in Chicago through my teaching of women and men preparing to live out their faith more fully as lay and ordained, lawyers and doctors, young and old, both overseas and at home. A fifth of the students are seminarians, a third are women, a third born in other countries, and over half are lay persons. My missionary life continues to be challenging and fulfilling!

Maryknoll Sister Claudette LaVerdiere

Sister Claudette

Sister Claudette joined Maryknoll Sisters in 1956 immediately after high school and was assigned to East Africa as a teacher. She lived in Africa for many years before obtaining a licentiate in sacred theology at Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. She subsequently taught in Kenya and Myanmar and recently published “On the Threshold of the Future: The Life and Spirituality of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers.”

Q: What during your mission work in Africa made the biggest impact on you?

A: I was always struck by the resilience of the African women. Regardless of life’s difficulties, they maintained a hopeful attitude.

Once, in a women’s group one of them said, “We know it’s too late for us, but we have such great hope for our daughters.” In the course of the conversation, it began to dawn on the women that the traditional way in which they raised their sons excluded any hope for a better future for their daughters. Their openness to such insights was in itself life changing for them.

Q: How do you think you made the biggest impact on others?

A: In Mombasa, Kenya (1980-84), I was on the seven-member diocesan Christian education team. With the exception of the two of us expatriate sisters, all others were Kenyan — two priests and three laymen. One of the latter was team leader.

The team’s composition and the fact that a layman led the group made the biggest impact on the participants. They had never experienced such mutuality in relationships. In the formation of Small Christian Communities on the Kenya coast, the team led more by example than by words.

Q: How were you influenced by Mother Mary Joseph Rogers?

A: Mother Mary Joseph’s influence on me came almost exclusively through our sisters who had known her personally.

Our founder died on October 9, 1955, and I entered in September the following year. Although we heard her voice as we listened to recordings of her spiritual conferences, she came alive in a qualitatively different way when the sisters shared with us their personal experience of her warmth and wit.

Even after her first biography was published in 1964, the retelling of the stories of the early days continued to be the predominant way her spirit has been passed on to us. In recent years, I was asked to complete a new expression of the life and spirituality of our founder begun by a sister who became too ill to finish the work.

I read Mother Mary Joseph’s writings and marveled at the timelessness of her insights. What amazed me most was that her counsel applies to all people. We are all called to make God’s love visible especially by the way we treat one another.

Q: What words of advice do you have for those interested in doing missionary work?

A: Above all, we must be people of prayer, consciously living in the presence of God. We must be people who put aside any desire for personal satisfaction or success.

All that is required of us is faithfulness, even if our years in mission sometimes seem like a colossal waste of our life’s energies. We do well to recall that Jesus squandered his life, constantly emptying himself. He enjoined us to do the same.

We need also to steep ourselves in the new culture, to listen deeply to what it is saying to us. It is a mistake to assume we understand, even if we know all the words. In a new culture, each of us is like a “child,” always having more to learn. The call to participate in the mission of Jesus is not only a gift to be treasured but one to be lived out in deep gratitude.

Q: What has been your greatest reward in doing this work?

A: My greatest reward has been the relationships of mutual appreciation that were forged among the people with whom I lived and worked. It is very true that we missioners receive far more than we give. Acknowledgment of the blessings received never ends.

Q: What is the main message you are hoping to convey to conference attendees?

A: The main message is that of Jesus: “Love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). Mother Mary Joseph urged Maryknoll Sisters to see one another as God sees them. When we love the people as God does, that changes everything.

Molly Schorr

Molly Schorr, top left, plays a game of “Apples to Apples” with members of her youth group.

Molly Schorr is the director of parish life and youth ministry at St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park. She is a graduate of the College of St. Benedict majoring in theology and music and St. John’s University with a master’s degree in theology and pastoral ministry. She lives in Plymouth with her husband and daughter.

Q: Why did you become a youth minister?

A: I heard and listened to God’s call. In college I was originally a pre-medicine major, and since I pass out at the sight of my own blood I was asking God to lead me in another direction.

Throughout my experiences in the church growing up and in college, I started to feel the nudge into parish ministry, but it was so different from what I initially thought I was going to be doing.

Through prayer and discernment and great mentors, God opened the doors for me. I have been doing parish and youth ministry for over ten years and I know that this is exactly what God has created me to do.

Q: What are the most effective ways you have found to reach youth and deepen their faith?

A: Teens are very relational and tangible people. It is hard to talk about the faith without giving them something to touch, see and hear. Service opportunities and retreat ministry allow teens to dive into the teachings of their faith and grow in their relationship with Christ. Finding faith-filled adults to minister to and with the teens also gives them a witness of what it means to live out discipleship.

Q: What are a couple of practical ways that have helped teens be public witnesses of their faith?

A: Service and peer ministry. When teens serve the local church through peer ministry programs and the local community through service, they are literally doing what Christ asked of us when he said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The best way for teens to share their faith is to model it in their actions. This hopefully will translate into a lifelong journey that they continue to strive throughout their whole life.

Q: Describe a success story you have had in youth ministry.

A: I have one teen that in seventh-grade was dropped off at youth group. It was clear he did not want to be there and made every attempt to show us that. That summer his mom signed him up for our summer junior high service program. He loved it! He really enjoyed working side-by-side with his peers at their service site. The service that he participated in impacted his life and he saw how God was working though him to help the people. Now he is an 11th-grader and a peer minister to our junior high program. He has been on the mission trips and pretty much every other youth ministry event we have had.

Q: How is youth ministry changing?

A: Lives are increasingly becoming so busy and teenagers are forced at a much younger age to think about college and their future. Teenagers don’t feel that they have the “free time” for faith. We also live in such a relativistic world in which the Christian faith does not seem to fit. It is an ever growing challenge to show teens that their faith is relevant in today’s world and it is invaluable for their future.

Q: What is the main message you are hoping to convey to conference attendees?

A: I am hoping to give practical suggestions in a clear, concise and humorous way on how we can encourage the teens we work with to live out their faith. I am bringing two high school teens with me in the hopes that through their witness, the adults that come to the conference can learn from what has worked for them and see the ultimate goal of our ministry to youth.

Alexie Torres-Fleming

Alexie Torres-Fleming was raised in the projects of south Bronx in New York City witnessing the decline of her neighborhood. She left the projects for a corporate career, only to return to the Bronx in 1992, joining a community action group at Holy Cross Parish. She and other leaders founded Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) in response to an arson attack by drug dealers on her parish. After 17 years as executive director of YMPJ, Alexie moved on to public speaking, writing and serving on several boards and she still serves on the board of YMPJ.

Q: What made you give up your corporate job to do this work?

A: A lot of it was feeling a call from God, feeling very disconnected from my community and feeling like there were ways I would never fit in, and feeling that the type of success I was achieving was still not making me happy.

And knowing that even though I had a nice apartment and I traveled a lot and I was outside of the neighborhood, whenever I came home, my neighborhood wasn’t any different and my community wasn’t any better from my own individual success. My parents were still there and my sisters and I really felt a need to go back.

Q: How has YMPJ made a difference in the South Bronx?

A: We’ve done a lot of community organizing, particularly around environmental issues in the neighborhood. We’re crisscrossed by many highways. We are in a very toxic community. . . . What we worked to do is reclaim a beautiful river that runs through the neighborhood that was abandoned, covered in brown fields and toxic sites. There are some 25 acres of green land and parkland, waterfront access to view, places for canoeing and fishing along our river as a result of the work that young people are doing. They reclaimed that river and got the city and state to pay attention and do cleanup work and a lot of restoration.

We are a neighborhood that has suffered from stop-and-search policies and a lot of police arrests. Young people have organized to understand their rights and to be able to defend themselves around some very difficult issues with the New York Police Department.

We’ve also done a lot of work on urban farming. The church that we are adjacent to has rooftop solar panels and an urban farm where we grow herbs and vegetables. The idea is we can help the environment and live healthily and have access to healthy food, even in the poorest congressional district in the United States.

It’s also important for me that young people for two decades have come through an organization that has helped them see that there is a deep connection between their faith and the work of justice. Our role as people of God is not just to go to church and make it into heaven some day, but to see that we are connected to the people around us and our communities.

The lasting legacy is that you have a generation of young people who did not grow up like I did. When I grew up, I believed that I needed people to save me, whether they be missionaries or policy makers or elected officials. Things just happened to me. Poverty happened. Violence and destruction happened and I had no agency and no voice. What has happened is that there is a lasting legacy that these young people — that I’ve worked with for 20 years now — get to pass on to their children. [That legacy] says that as children of God, you have power and you have dignity and you have a voice and we can partner with God to save ourselves and to work it out and to lead within our own community.

Q: What is the main message you are hoping to convey to conference attendees?

A: We are all called and have a purpose and a mission here on this earth and it is more than just survival, getting through, getting the next paycheck. God has called us to something extraordinary and great. When you find your mission in Christ, it is always connected to others, it is always about community. I want to challenge people that their mission is to be connected to all of God’s children, especially those that are at the margin because our church teaches preferential option for the poor.


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Category: World Mission Sunday