When people hear the word “missionary”, most people think of someone who travels to another country to share the Gospel, teach in schools, volunteer in hospitals, and serve the community. Missionaries go to places like Africa, El Salvador, and Haiti. That was always the image I had, anyways.
When I was 16 years old, I was given the opportunity to go on a mission trip with my youth group. But here’s the catch…we didn’t leave the country. We went to serve in Immokalee, an impoverished, migrant working community in southwest Florida. Immokalee is a community made up of Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian populations, many of whom work long, grueling hours picking tomatoes in the fields to provide for their families.
Throughout the week, we spent time at many organizations in the community, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Jubilation Farm, Immokalee Housing & Family Services, Habitat for Humanity, and the Guadalupe Center. My favorite part was working with the children in a community summer program. They were so hungry for love and attention while their parents were away working in the fields. They wanted a hand to hold and someone to hug and play outside with them. I could provide this for them. This was my mission. This was why God called me there. I left Immokalee, knowing I was leaving a piece of my heart there.
Six years later, it was time to go back and get it. Upon graduating from college, I joined the Humilty of Mary Volunteer Service Program and dedicated a year of my life to live and serve in Immokalee. I was placed in the Guadalupe Center, where I was tasked with teaching an after-school and summer enrichment program for first graders. Many of these children were behind in school because English was not their paren’ts primary language. Therefore, assistance with homework and reading was difficult in the home.
These were some of the sweetest children I’ve ever known. I helped them with school work, and in exchange, they overwhelmed me with hugs, colored pictures, drawings, picked flowers from outside and loads of love. These children needed more than homework help. They, too, just needed someone to invest in them, listen to them, play and laugh with them until their parents were done working. I could provide this for them. This was my mission.
I also volunteered in an alternative school for at-risk girls in sixth-twelfth grade. I was able to mentor these girls, assist in leadership programs, exercise classes, reading groups, and tutor them as needed. Toward the end of the year, I was even given the opportunity to plan their Field Day, complete with games, competitions, races and a Talent Show.
The most important thing I did for them though, was to listen to them. I heard many stories of trauma, abuse, and grief. I heard stories of a wounded young woman who watched her mother get deported. She had to step up at a young age to take care of her younger siblings while her grandfather worked in the fields.
I met young girls who were pregnant or already had a little one at home and were desperate to complete high school. I talked with girls who had anger and behavioral issues and acted out, not because they were bad, but because they were dealing with trauma and disorder in the home. I felt deep compassion and love for each of them. I felt deep gratitude that these girls trusted me enough to confide in and share their deepest wounds with me. Once again, these girls needed someone who cared enough to hear their stories. I could provide this for them. This was my mission.
October is Extraordinary Mission Month. We as Catholic Christians are all called to live lives reflective of Jesus and His Mission. We are all called to be missionaries. This may take form in various ways- traveling to a different country, being a missionary here in the States, finding an outreach program in your own city and community to connect with, or even being a missionary and spreading the love of Jesus in your own home. We can be missionaries to our family, friends, and neighbors.
Saint Theresa of Calcutta said it best: “Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.”
These are the people who need us—those who are looking for hope and compassion. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We can provide this for them. This is our mission.