“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Janice England, Program Director at Lay Mission-Helpers. After serving as a Lay Mission-Helper in Sierra Leone for four years in her twenties, Janice is now responsible for the recruiting, formation, and support of current lay missionaries.
Searching for More and Finding Mission
Discovering the Possibility of Mission
When she was 25, Janice England says she had something similar to a midlife crisis. She had thought she would be married with children by that point, and even though she had a good job, her own apartment, and was involved in her parish, she still “felt like there needed to be something more.”
By chance, on the way to speak with her parish priest regarding this crisis, Janice saw an edition of The Tidings, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ newspaper. On the cover that week was a picture of ten new Lay Mission-Helpers about to go on mission. Janice remembers thinking to herself that this was something she could do. “I knew I wanted to do more,” she says, “but I didn’t know mission was a possibility.” A year later she was in Sierra Leone on mission with the Lay Mission-Helpers.
The Lay Mission-Helpers were founded in 1955 by Msgr. Anthony Brouwers, the director of the Propagation of the Faith Office in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles at the time. Msgr. Brouwers went to Nigeria for the Marian Congress in 1954 and spent several months afterwards visiting different countries in Africa to discover what their needs were. He had assumed the dioceses in Africa would need money, materials to build churches, or similar things. And while they did need money, they also expressed their need for lay help with tasks that the priests and religious there were not trained for. To fill this need, Msgr. Brouwers founded Lay Mission-Helpers and the first group of missionaries was sent in 1956.
The Lay Mission-Helpers go on mission in a professional capacity, Janice England says. They are teachers, nurses, accountants, computer technicians, and others who, while on mission, work in Catholic institutions witnessing to their faith. While Janice was on mission in Sierra Leone for four years with the Lay Mission-Helpers, she worked as the Bishop’s secretary in the Diocese of Makeni.
These lay missionaries are not tied to a specific religious community, so they are free to work wherever there is a need and with anyone who needs their services. Over their long history, the Lay Mission-Helpers have worked in 36 different countries, going at the request of bishops or religious communities. Depending on the changing needs or political situation in a given country, the Lay Mission-Helpers’ involvement or presence in that country also changes. For example, they worked in Tanzania in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the 1970s the needs of the country changed. The Lay Mission-Helpers recently returned to mission in Tanzania five years ago.
Making a Difference through Relationships
As mentioned above, when Janice was on mission in Sierra Leone, she worked as the secretary for the Bishop in the Diocese of Makeni. While there, she recognized the work she was doing was important because the bishop was new and not yet well organized, but she also thought that others were making more of an impact than she was. However, when it was time for her to leave Sierra Leone and return to the United States, Janice had a conversation with one of the diocese priests. She remembers he told her, “You know, who you were is what made the difference here. It’s not so much what you did.”
Janice says that this conversation made her realize that “it’s not just what I did, but the relationships I built with other people. They changed me and hopefully I had some influence on them.” Sometimes missionaries go into a country, she says, thinking that they are just going to change people, but then they realize they have also been evangelized and changed through the experience. Janice believes that “it was the relationships I had with people that made a difference” in her mission work.
Janice sees a variety of reasons for the continued importance of mission in today’s world. She believes it shows the people of the world that “we are a global Church, a universal Church”. When witnessing missionaries from a Church in one part of the world create a loving relationship with people from a different Church, it opens both of them to the understanding that “we do really all care about each other and everyone is important.”
She also sees the importance of mission for the missionaries themselves and for the people in the United States. Janice explains that it is essential for people in the United States to have such cross-cultural experiences. When they have that experience, they “see the world through different eyes” and will “make a difference and hopefully change minds and attitudes here.” Even if other places eventually do not need missionaries, Janice believes “we need them.”
Janice sees the mission work of the Lay Mission-Helpers as a “mutual exchange” in that “what we can bring to them as people and what we bring home after the experience is making a world of difference.” And while the context in which Lay Mission-Helpers are working is changing, there remains a constant need for the work these missionaries are doing around the world. As Program Director of Lay-Mission Helpers, Janice England continues to work and prepare lay missionaries to fill these needs.