*This blog was first posted on Blessed Is She. Check them out here.
People often ask when I decided to become a campus missionary. My call, actually, came to me on an overseas mission trip. As I crossed the muddy waters from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, I watched the natives bathe while their children splashed in the awful smelling, cholera-infected water. Careful not to touch the water for fear of sickness, I thought to myself, “These people don’t realize that they are swimming in infected waters.”
As a student, I couldn’t help but wonder what my campus would look like if I placed a spiritual lens over my eyes.
I suddenly saw my own friends unknowingly swimming in dangerous, infected waters of hopelessness, confusion, and sin.
Translating the physical poverty in the Dominican Republic to the spiritual poverty on my own college campus placed a sense of urgency and mission on my heart. I responded to this mission by giving Jesus my ‘yes’ to serve as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary where I was called to serve at Arizona State University, then at the University of Southern California.
Inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II’s call to a “New Evangelization,” FOCUS is a national outreach that meets college students where they are and invites them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic Faith.
As a missionary, I signed up to fundraise my salary, enter into a year long dating fast (in order to be more present to the students and to more clearly discern my vocation), and to move across the country in order to serve students that I didn’t even know. Each day my team (there are four of us) prays a Holy Hour, goes to Mass, and spends the rest of the day leading Bible studies, meeting for coffee dates, and finding any excuse to spend time with students.
Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity through FOCUS Missions to direct the Dominican Republic mission trip that transformed my heart over three years before. Six USC students and I met up with 18 other students and FOCUS missionaries from across the nation to work on mission alongside two priests from the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. These holy men serve 10,000 poor people in the rural area of the Dominican Republic on the border of Haiti. The men, women, and children they serve live on the edge of extreme poverty. Most live in sub-standard housing and approximately 25% do not even have the “luxury” of an outhouse.
Prior to the trip, our mission group met for the first time in Miami at a retreat center to prepare for departure to the Dominican Republic. In celebration of the announcement of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and as a send off gift for our mission, the priest at the retreat center gave each mission trip participant a Good Shepherd pendant — the same pectoral cross that Pope Francis wears. The cross includes the image of Christ, as the Good Shepherd, and a dove above his head, symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The Shepherd is carrying the “lost and now found” lamb around his shoulders as He leads a flock of sheep. Adding this pendant to the chain around my neck, I got on the plane to the Dominican Republic praying that the Lord would show me what it means to be a witness of mercy in reflection of the Good Shepherd.
Our group of 22 spent a week digging three, ten-foot deep latrines, repairing a rundown chapel and praying with families during the day. Then, we facilitated youth ministry programs in the evenings. At our departing Mass, we prepared to leave the place and people that deeply moved our hearts. During the homily the priest said, “The people of Bánica did not choose their crosses, and we are not here to take them away, but to do what small things we can to help them to carry their crosses well.”
One who looks through the lens of the world may feel very uncomfortable by that statement. Suffering is the worst thing that can happen in a secular world view. It is not comfortable to see someone suffering. How often are we inclined to turn our eyes from a homeless person?
Often, the American approach is to escape suffering by doing everything we can to eradicate it. However, the reality is that there will always be poverty, pain, and heartache.
The Christian approach to suffering is to live in compassion and solidarity with suffering. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians writes, “If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it…”. From its Latin roots, the word “compassion” literally means to “suffer with”.
As Catholics we understand that every human person has God-given dignity that cannot be diminished or taken away by circumstances of life. A person’s worth is not in physical things, but in the fact that they were created in the image and likeness of God.
There was a woman in the Dominican Republic who invited a group of our mission team over for lunch one day. She lived on a dirt floor in a hut made of mud and sticks, but she desired to serve us. Her words of incredible wisdom still resound in my heart. She said, “I have spiritual richness. Many Americans live in spiritual poverty”. In the eyes of the world, this woman has nothing, but she carried the Joy of the Cross because she has her eyes set on the joys of eternal life.
As missionaries in the Dominican Republic, our service of digging latrines and repairing a chapel was not life-changing for the people. We did what little things we could to help alleviate their pain, but the greatest gift we could give was to acknowledge their dignity as human persons and to walk with them in the midst of suffering.
Each day I meet students on campus who are carrying extremely heavy burdens. The weight of their crosses becomes apparent as they share with me the pain from a broken family, the loss of their purity, the pressure to perform academically, and their attempt to build their identity around image.
As a FOCUS missionary on a college campus, I am doing what small things I can to alleviate the pain and pressures of college by simply being present and pointing them to the mercy of the Cross of Christ. It doesn’t seem like much, but the fruit of the seeds we sow is revealed when a student says, “If it weren’t for Jesus working through you, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Our crosses take many forms, and we are all called to do what small things we can to help one another carry our crosses well. As brothers and sisters, when we look beyond the surface and extend a loving hand to those we encounter, we unite our crosses, becoming the Body of Christ – the Good Shepherd – helping to carry one another in mercy to freedom in redemption.
The faith of those I encountered in the Dominican Republic, the simple people who live off the land and mean it when they say, “Si Dios quiere…” (“If God wills it…”) taught me what it means to be a witness of mercy in reflection of the Good Shepherd and to find joy in uniting our sufferings with the Cross of Christ.