Most of us have some idea in our heads about what it means to be a missionary. Maybe the word conjures up an image of someone heading to a foreign country, perhaps Africa or India to spread the Gospel while providing some sort of basic relief or service to those living there who are in need. Or maybe we think of the building of religious infrastructures like churches, schools, and hospitals in poor communities overseas. Or domestic missions may come to mind where groups of young people build a house for a family in need or work on an Indian reservation or in a rural setting where there are limited resources.
Our daughter, Annie, who graduated from a Catholic college in 2020, was prepared to go to Tanzania for a year of missionary work to which she had applied and been accepted. Excited and eager, her hopes were dashed when Covid-19 prevented her group from traveling overseas.
As that reality became clear and Annie learned that she would not be able to make the trip even in 5 or 6 months (as they were told at first), tears were shed. But a few weeks later I received the following text from her: "I think God is asking me to consider a different kind of mission work. I think part of the appeal of service work for me was that it would also involved travel to a new part of the world and that was exciting. But maybe God is asking for less glamorous work closer to home. I don't know, but as long as it is God's will it's better than any dream I could ever come up with anyway." I didn't realize at first what she meant by this so I waited until I had an opportunity to speak to her. The next time we were together she explained that after praying and asking God what He wanted she began to have a strong sense that there were those who needed her help in her own community - even her own family.
Annie's grandmother (my mom) had recently had shoulder replacement surgery and her macular degeneration in both of her eyes that limited her sight made it even more difficult to recover. Annie told me she could be more available to help with her grandmother's needs. She also began volunteering with a local organization called Neighborhood Hope as a weekly tutor for those whose parents worked and they were doing virtual school.
I was proud of her. It can be difficult to let go of our own dreams and to sincerely seek God's will, especially if it doesn't necessarily fit into our own sense of what is "glamorous" or "exciting".
Annie has always had what I would call a generous spirit. Even when she was young, she loved making pictures and bringing them to our elderly neighbors or coming along with me to drop off a meal at someone's home after the birth of a baby. When each of our older children turned 17 or 18, I've taken them on a weeklong mission trip to Jamaica to work alongside the brothers of the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP). The experience is inevitably a profound one (I look forward to taking our 15 daughter and 12 year old son in the future), and it made a deep and lasting impression on Annie. In fact she returned two more times as a college student, even helping to lead one of the trips.
Today Annie is serving as a summer missionary with St. Isidore Corps, (a new mission started by The Catholic Company and named after the patron saint of farmers and rural life). She and two other missionaries traveled to Maine in late May to work with Father Paul Dumais who serves as the pastor for two rural parishes - one in Jay and one in Farmington. Their duties change weekly but include helping to run a food pantry, leading a Bible study with the youth of the two parishes, teaching faith formation classes, visiting with the elderly of the parishes, and even baking bread (something Fr. Paul has been doing for a long time) to place in the food pantry or sell at a local farmer's market to help bring in funds for parish needs.
My husband and I have often laughed at the the many differences in our children's personalities and unique talents, but we both believe in the importance of trying to instill a love of service and a heart for charity in each of them. While I might desire for all of my nine children to have Annie's giving spirit, the truth is that for some that spirit is, let's just say a little less pronounced! I've talked to other parents who have told me that in some of their children, like Annie, it comes naturally, but for others a little prodding is necessary. If I am honest when I think back at my own childhood I know that I needed a little prodding myself.
Lately I have been thinking about all of this. Are there ways that we as parents can help to foster a missionary mindset in our children? How do we instill in our children (or grandchildren) a generous spirit and a desire to serve others?
One of the missionaries currently serving with Annie said something interesting the other day. This young man has served in many places including Honduras, Peru, and Jamaica. He considered joining the Jesuits and after a discernment process, felt that God was not calling him to that vocation. He told me in a recent conversation that it has taken him a while to understand that it isn't so much our mindset as it is how we set our minds. When our life is oriented toward service, even if it is not traditional mission work but the work that we do every day that is our "mission", we are more apt to understand that God is pleased when we serve Him through others. Yet he was quick to tell me that without prayer as the foundation of service, it will end up simply as volunteerism.
After some thought I have come up with the following simple things that we as parents (and grandparents) might do to help our children develop a missionary mindset:
1. Start small. Start young.
While we might desire our children to be inclined to serve others, the opportunities to serve are not always immediately obvious. In fact it is easy to let those opportunities that do come along to pass us by in the midst of our very busy lives. Yet we should take advantage of the fact that most children love to do nice things for others, and we should start small and start young. Especially when it involves a little creativity, like making a craft or baking goodies, kids can be easily convinced and encouraged to do little acts of charity. As I mentioned, Annie loved drawing pictures and walking them over to our elderly next door neighbors homes to present them... and this was true for all of our children. We have been fortunate that until recently we lived in the same house for 24 years and throughout that time we always had some elderly neighbors on our small street. These amazing individuals provided us with ample opportunities to help with yard projects, walk dogs, or just stop by to say hello (usually with pictures or goodies that the kids had made).
Start with small acts that the children can easily accomplish. And start when they are young, even just a few years old...
The important thing is to start!
2. Find creative ways to serve with your children.
Shortly after the birth of our sixth child, a friend of mine called me to ask if she and her two children (who were 7 and 9 at the time) could come and help around our house so that I could get some rest. I couldn't help but resist at first, after all would this mean more children to try and entertain? Besides I felt uncomfortable saying yes when others asked to help. But on second thought I agreed, and as soon as they came over I was happy they were there. My friend immediately asked if she could gather whatever laundry I had and do a load of wash while her children entertained my younger ones and occupied them for an hour or so. When the laundry was finished she gathered the kids (hers and mine) and each of them took some of the folded clothes and put them away. After that she brought them to the kitchen where they all helped to prepare a meal, the ingredients of which she had brought with her. To the other children she gave a list of cleaning chores and told them whoever did the job the best would get a treat.
This whole time she insisted I remain upstairs so I could rest and spend some quiet time alone with the newborn. I heard the sound of laughter drift upstairs the entire time they were there.
When they finally left about three and a half hours later, the house was in order, dinner was ready, and laundry had been done, sorted, and put away. I was amazed. Not only had she provided a wonderful service, she had given her children and mine a hands-on example of how to be charitable and love your neighbor. I have never forgotten this and in fact have offered my service (with a few of my kids) to others after a child is born.
3. Invite another family or some of your children's friends to join in on a service project.
Let's face it, kids are social creatures. While it can be fun to do service work with a parent or with siblings, it can be even more fun if a friend or two comes along. Our family helps each month at the Missionaries of the Poor warehouse not far from where we live. I often call a friend to see if we can pick up a few of her boys who are close in age to my youngest to join us. Whenever they are able to come, they have a lot of fun measuring out rice or beans, writing dates onto canned goods, or filling bags with the weekly grocery items for those whom the Brothers serve. The brothers gather everyone serving, both before and after, to pray. They say that in serving God, we must always include Him.
After these visits to the warehouse we often stop to get an Icee on the way home, and this two-hour monthly service trip is now something my 12 year-old son Sam always looks forward to (especially when his friends come along).
Making service work fun is a great way to entice kids to have a missionary mindset.
4. Find a trip (it doesn't have to be far) where you can serve with your teenaged children away from the younger ones.
I have loved the opportunity to take my teenaged children to Kingston, Jamaica to serve for a week alongside the brothers of the MOP. Taking time with just one or two of the older kids has given me insight into who they are and helped me to witness their strengths and to encourage them if they struggle. It has become a favorite tradition of the family. But this kind of trip is not always feasible. It can be costly to fly there, and to take a week away from school or from other duties at home is not always a possibility.
Of course in this past year, Covid-19 prevented us from traveling there to work. Yet we don't have to get on an airplane in order to do mission work. There are many things that we can do, especially with teenagers, that are right "at home". Because they are a little older, they can do work that younger ones are not able to. Spending time with just your teenagers doing some kind of service work is a great bonding experience as well. Habitat For Humanity and Meals On Wheels are nationwide organizations which you can tap into, but there are plenty of opportunities right at your own parish or in your diocese.
Your church bulletin is a great source of information for service opportunities within your parish, diocese, or local community. Where we live in Charlotte, North Carolina we have the Missionaries of the Poor and the Missionaries of Charity nearby, and they often have service opportunities for teens. Operation Christmas Child is another local organization in our area where groups can put together shoeboxes to send to those in need for Christmas. Look around your own area for ways to serve with your teen. No matter where you live you will find them.
5. Be generous in your prayers.
Even when we cannot physically serve others, we can always pray for them. We learn from scripture and from the saints that a prayer often comes with more power than anything we can physically do for others. "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7). Armed with this knowledge we can also teach our children at a young age to pray for others. With nine children, I have a lot to pray for on a regular basis. If I just listed all of my own family's intentions I could be at it for a long time! But a few years ago, after reading a little bit of the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, I realized that I had been a bit stingy with my prayers. In her diary, St. Faustina mentioned the tremendous need for prayers - not only for the poor souls in purgatory - but also for all of the "poor souls", even those who are still living. In fact, St. Faustina, and other saints too, tell us that we are all poor souls in need of God's mercy. Since reading that I have tried to expand my prayers and especially to pray for souls in the world who are in special need of God's mercy.
One way to be more inclusive of others when we pray is to have a list of intentions that we add to when someone asks us for prayers or when we hear about someone in need. A friend of mine told me not long ago that her family has a basket, and inside are lots of slips of paper that have written on them prayer requests. Any time those in her family are asked to pray for someone, they write it on a slip and place it in the basket. She said they have even had to get a bigger basket to accommodate all of the slips of paper. She told me her children loved the idea of getting a new basket for all of the prayer intentions. The basket has gotten so full, in fact, that they no longer read off every name as they used to, but they pray for all of the intentions "of those in the basket" every time they gather for prayer.
What a wonderful image that conjures up in my mind. In fact, that is the image that I would like to imagine each time I consider what it means to have a missionary mindset.
What image comes to your mind?