“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 have a special post from USCMA Associate Director Stephen Scott, sharing his recent experience on a short-term mission trip to Bolivia.
Mission Moving From the Mind to the Heart
Stephen F. Scott
USCMA Associate Director
When I applied for the open Administrative Assistant position at USCMA several years ago, I was asked, “What does mission mean to you?” Little did I know that I would soon find out that being a Missionary Disciple meant far more than I originally imagined.
Over the years, I have read about what mission means and how all who are baptized are called to be missioners to the people they encounter. My own understanding of this culture of encounter has progressively deepened as I have connected with members and friends of USCMA, most of who have served in missions around the world. However, my understanding of mission was still incomplete.
Earlier this year an opportunity arose for me to go on a Short-term Mission and Global Awareness Trip with Franciscan Mission Service. This trip came at a period of the year where I could take the time away from the office and, in one of those moments of happenstance, was also a year after my Master’s Commencement ceremony. Thanks to the generosity of some friends and USCMA, I found myself on a plane heading toward Bolivia where I met my fellow short-term missioners.
On my way to Bolivia, my mind felt that the training webinars, readings, and my time at USCMA prepared me for my journey, but my heart was a different story. For the first time I landed in a new country, without my family or chaperones, and my heart’s reaction was that I was the stranger in a new land. The feeling I had of being a stranger while on mission would accompany me throughout the mission trip, though its potency would decrease as we journeyed to the various mission sites. Although I felt like a stranger, because I did not know the people or speak their languages, there was some solace in sharing this feeling with my fellow missioners. Soon after our journey began I was reminded of how Jesus sent his disciples in pairs and it struck a chord (that would sound again and again) on the importance of journeying together, a journey that I am now sharing with you.
Our mission trip began with an opening prayer and session in which I met my fellow missioners: Jennifer, Joyce, Laura, Mariam, Natalie, and Stephen. Though I knew Natalie and Mariam from Franciscan Mission Service, it was great to get to know everyone and learn a bit about each person. While we each came from different regions of the US, over the course of our mission we would build new friendships that we have brought back with us.
Our next activity was a walking tour of the town of El Alto down to the city of La Paz, followed by a flight from La Paz to mission sites in and around Cochabamba. After visiting these sights, we flew back to the airport of La Paz and then drove to Coroico and Carmen Pampa. Each day we experienced all the beauty and vibrancy of Bolivia’s natural landscape, from breathtaking mountains and valleys to the bright and multicolored fruits and vegetables. All of this beauty was the back drop to our mission and helped us to follow the mandate we were given upon our arrival.
The mandate of our mission trip was clear: we were to listen, to serve, and to share in the lives of the people we encountered. Each day our journey of encounter called us to follow the examples of the many missioners who have gone before us. We were blessed on our trip with the participation and leadership of the Franciscan Mission Service’s lay missioners who are active at the many missions in Bolivia. Our eyes were opened by the local organizers and the missioners as we learned more and more about the people of Bolivia and the struggles that they face today culturally, politically, and spiritually. As a group, we found there was so much to take in that our brains felt full from all of the information we were learning along the journey, but more importantly our hearts were opened by each person we met.
St. Francis de Sales wrote about the importance of speaking with the heart, because the heart communicates in a way that it allows one to listen and to open one’s self to God, resulting in one’s openness to be transformed by God’s love. Likewise, St. Francis of Assisi advocated for the importance of speaking with action and witness, while only using words when necessary. During our journey together, we shared many encounters that touched my heart deeply. However there was one encounter that was unique and it is one that I am still reflecting on. Let me share that encounter with you and follow it with one of our group encounters that was heavily influenced by the personal encounter.
The encounter that broke my heart open took place not at a mission site, but at the La Paz airport. While we were in Cochabamba, I picked up an unwelcomed infection. I had a running fever, chills, and some other unpleasant ailments that made my day more than miserable and were a cause for concern for my fellow missioners. However, the next day was our travel day from Cochabamba to Coroico via a flight to La Paz and a bus ride on the narrow and curvy mountain roads. I was still in some considerable pain and feeling rather lousy, but I survived our trip from Cochabamba to La Paz. After landing in La Paz, I needed to sit for a while, but then I got up and began to walk over to where our bus was parked with the help of one my fellow missioners.
As I walked a woman saw me, left her family and friends, came over, and began to speak with me. It was clear from the faces of her family that her action interrupted the conversation they were having and they watched on as she came over to me. She was a slender grandmother who appeared to come from a successful family. Though I did not understand what she was saying at first, I could see that she concerned about my illness. Without hesitation, she opened her purse handed me some coca tea, and told me to drink the tea to feel better. Then she embraced my hand tightly before returning to her waiting family and smiled gently as I thanked her. This was truly a moment when I felt my heart burn, as told in the story of Emmaus, but even more so it was a moment when her heart and mine were speaking to each other.
As I turned and headed toward the bus, all I wanted to do was cry because here I was a complete stranger who was visibly sick and in pain, and she came up to me, comforted me, and did what she could do to heal me. Here I was a stranger, and she welcomed and comforted me in same action. Our interaction with each other and exchange of words and gifts opened my heart to the Gospel passage of Matthew 25: 31-46 in a way that my mind could not have anticipated. That story, recounting how we would be judged based on how we treat others, took on flesh and blood through this experience and challenged me to go beyond my personal comfort. This simple encounter taught me more than any homily or scripture course had about this particular Gospel passage. True missionary discipleship calls us out of ourselves and is lived out when we act with charity and care for others, especially people we do not know.
We made it safely to Coroico and I was happy to get some more rest. The day after our trek, I was feeling a bit better (even if I was still moving pretty slow). It was also a special day for me personally as it was my 35th birthday, and my first birthday outside of the United States. On this day we would go to Carmen Pampa University, part of the Catholic University of Bolivia, and learn about life at the university and its impact on the region. Carmen Pampa University was founded by the communities in the surrounding area with the help of Sister Damon Nolan. While we traveled to Carmen Pampa University, my mind and heart were still reflecting on my encounter with the woman at the airport. My time with the woman helped me see how we are called to live in service for others, but I would soon learn from the students about importance of living together in community as the Early Church in Jerusalem had.
As we met some of the students at Carmen Pampa University, I saw how students and faculty thrived while working and living together in community. Unlike in the United States, where a university usually has a large number of staff to care for the various aspects of university life, the students did the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance on the campus as part of their collegiate service. Every aspect of campus life was integrated in such a way that each person’s needs were taken care of by the community and that service to the campus community and to the surrounding community was a way of life for the students. In our conversations with various students I was struck by how their work to help one another was joyful because they saw how their service to each other benefitted them and their community. At the end of the day, we were able to share in the community through our own service.
After a long day of hiking, we went to the cafeteria and joined the student leaders of the kitchen to learn about their experiences at the university and serve dinner to the university’s students. The meal we served was simple: tea, white rice, and a medley of meat and vegetables. The looks of surprise, amusement, and wariness on many of the students’ faces as they came up to the window and saw us serving them showed us how our witness to their needs by serving them was an action they had not expected. After everyone else came through the line, we joined the students at the tables for dinner and conversation.
For some people, their 35th birthday is a great celebration that would usually involve gifts, a large meal, and perhaps a party of some kind. However, my birthday was one where I was able to serve at the students table and join in their only meal option. Though it wasn’t a big celebration as we have at home, it was an amazing birthday. I was able to serve others, share in the joy of the students as they were being served by strangers, and become friends with them by swapping stories and laughter together.
Our time at Carmen Pampa University showed me how the students’ lives were truly interconnected with each other, the region they live, and with the entire country because the community they form at the university doesn’t end when they leave, but it grows and embraces the people they encounter after they leave. The interconnectedness that I experienced, and the suffering I saw when that interconnectedness was broken, reminded me of the Communion of Love and the unending cycle of giving and receiving love that we describe when we discuss the Mystery of the Trinity. My experiences that day are a challenge for me to live in solidarity with and care for all people whether they are in my community, my country, or the world.
As I hope you can see, my encounters and experiences built on each other as gentle, though clear, reminders that (as St. John Baptist de La Salle taught) I am always in God’s holy presence and that my life is called to be a life of witness not only to God’s presence in our world, but of God’s loving action through Jesus and His mission. Before this mission trip, I followed my daily routine which lacked a true understanding of how I was called to be a Missionary Disciple. Yet, during this journey, I was plucked out of my old routine and found that I was part of a far greater communion with all people and the earth. As our journey together in Bolivia came to a close, the Franciscan Mission Service bestowed on each of us a Tau Cross, which St Francis used during his life and is worn by the Franciscans (religious and laity) to this day, and prayed that the Spirit of Mission that we encountered during our journey would continue to bring forth good works throughout our lives.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has returned time and time again to the importance of our baptismal call to missionary discipleship. Before I went to Bolivia, I kept thinking that being a missionary disciple was a calling because of our baptism. However my time in Bolivia helped me to see that by our baptism we are missionary disciples, and the “call” that Pope Francis speaks of is to live and act as witnesses to Gospel. While in Bolivia, my heart learned that as missionary disciples we are called to use the gifts we have received to deepen our relationship with God, to help the people we meet, and be of service to society as a whole. We are called to step out of ourselves and to help our neighbor, to care for the sick and those in need, to work for true justice, and to bring forth the Kingdom of God in our world. When I reflect on my life I can see now how many times the encounters I had while I was on mission were crying for my notice here at home, but I did not recognize them for my daily routine blinded me to the Lord’s call.
Like the disciples who left Jerusalem and headed toward Emmaus, my mission trip to Bolivia was an encounter with the Lord through the people and missioners I met. Their stories, examples, and actions revealed the living Jesus to my heart and, just like those disciples, I left Emmaus with a heart burning to share my experience of the living Christ with others. My first mission trip, though brief, opened my heart up to what was locked in my mind and I now find myself called to live a life of true justice as proclaimed in Matthew 25. This trip also reawakened the words of St. John Baptist de La Salle that I spoke every day in high school: “Live Jesus in our hearts, Forever.”
I hope that my story may help you reflect on what it means to be a missionary disciple whether you are at home or as a stranger in a foreign land. I also pray that one day we will be able to share our stories together and, just as Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, we may work together for justice and in service to those we encounter.