In 1974 the fledgling Lay Missioner program began work in South America when it sent its first missioner to Peru. During the next three decades the lay missioner presence would expand to include Bolivia (1975), Venezuela (1977), Chile (1978), Ecuador (1982), Brazil (1983) and Argentina (1992). To date more than 290 lay missioners have worked there in the areas of health and health care, justice and peace, pastoral ministry, education and sustainable development. They have touched the lives of the people they served, effected change in their mission field and in return have had their hearts and lives profoundly enriched. The following are a few of their personal reflections on their work and mission experiences:
“I live in a shanty town of 100,000 people, in the southern sector of Lima. Many children cannot attend school; of those who are able, many arrive without even having had a piece of bread for breakfast. My neighborhood has electricity; we do not have running water. People are hungry. Very few can afford a doctor’s visit, and even fewer can buy recommended medicines. Yes, there is suffering, injustice, oppression; one cannot deny or dismiss the reality of the Third World. Yet the one word that does not apply around in all that surrounds me here is ‘hopelessness.’ There are difficult moments – personal and shared. But there is also joy, inner peace and love. There is a beauty in the everyday trials, struggles, smiles and triumphs of the people.”
Missioner in Peru, 1978
“We expressed our role as a ‘standing with’ rather than as a ‘leading’ role. Our experience proved to us that it is not necessary to dominate to educate, that when a sense of freedom is sparked one can…take responsibility for the future…to forge a new humanity.”
Missioner in Bolivia, 1979
“When I left the United States three years ago my world, my faith, and my God all fit into nice, neat boxes and categories. However, after living and working in a barrio slum here in Venezuela, all those boxes have been torn apart piece by piece. The last 3 years have been some of the most painful and yet freeing ones of my life – a difficult journey and struggle of letting go. Letting go of answers, security, control, fear…becoming like a child, willing to learn all over again. It is here I have learned to see the world through the eyes of our Venezuelan friends and neighbors struggling to survive, struggling for justice.
Missioner in Venezuela, 1985
I have worked on a 10-mile long drinking water project in the rural mountain town of Tapacari, Bolivia, for the last year. The community contributes a small amount of money and a large amount of manual labor to the project. We do pay a few skilled workers for the more complex construction; the rest are volunteers. One Monday morning, Felix, one of the skilled workers, arrived and said he would not be working for a while. He wouldn’t say why and I could not convince him otherwise. But he was a friend and a good worker, so we did what we could without him. A few nights later, I saw Felix in town and asked him again why he wasn’t working. “The rains are coming soon,” he said “and I have to finish my house. If I don’t get it done now, the rain won’t let me finish.” Felix’s house was being constructed of adobe – mud brick – yet he, his wife and baby were living in a house with walls made of cardboard. For me, living with the spirit of Christ is the difference between being frustrated with a few days of lost work and being humbled by the thought that all Felix wanted were walls made of dried mud.
Missioner in Bolivia, 2008
Raul is an 18-year-old who comes to the foundation for visually-impaired students where I work in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Although he is blind, he is quite talented at painting. I asked him to bring a painting to show me. He always said, “Yes,” but ended up forgetting. I said “Raul, I’d love to see your artwork. I’ve heard so much about your paintings, but I’ve never seen any of them.” He leaned toward me and whispered, “Neither have I!”
Missioner in Bolivia, 2010
Participants in one of my Theater of the Oppressed groups in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are homeless people who come daily to a soup kitchen in the center of the city. I learned very early on to let go of my expectations and just be present with them. As we meet in the evenings once a week, some come under the effect of drugs. In spite of that, we have a lot of fun practicing the games and the exercises proposed by the Theater of the Oppressed to discuss discrimination against the most vulnerable. One of the participants is a 32-year-old mother of 10 children, who are all being raised by relatives. She has spent the last 17 years on the street. Recently, she announced she was pregnant again. She told me I should come more often to work with this group. I explained that it would be difficult because I had to work with other groups around the city. She insisted, saying the group was very helpful in keeping her mind and body healthy. She also casually mentioned that when I arrived that day, she was on her way out to buy crack but decided to stay and participate in the group.
Missioner in Brazil, 2012