“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 Brother Bernie Spitzley of the Divine Word Missionaries who has been a missionary in Jamaica for the past fifteen years.
As a young boy in the Midwest, Bernie Spitzley was always fascinated by the stories of missions and missionaries. The idea of going to Papua New Guinea and living on a plantation captivated his imagination. His hometown, Westphalia, Michigan had deep German Catholic roots, and his parish priest advised anyone interested in missionary activity to visit the Divine Word Missionaries, whose founder was German. As Bernie grew older and was introduced to the Divine Word Missionaries through his parish priest, his idea of mission developed and grew into something more tangible and real; no longer living in the world of fantasy and romance, he saw that mission was difficult and required real, hands-on work, and he looked forward to the challenge and to the promise. Through the witness of the Divine Word Missionaries, Bernie saw that “there is something fulfilling about working with other men and trying to live Gospel values.” With this in mind, he began discerning with the Divine Word Missionaries and eventually decided to become a Brother.
Reflecting on this vocation now, Brother Bernie notes that his understanding and appreciation of the vows that he took long ago has deepened with time. From his idealistic boyhood dream has grown a profound understanding of these vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity as counter-cultural signs of true freedom. “This is the age of iPhones and iPods,” he says, noting the emphasis on “I” and “me.” It is in this world that he has taken a vow of obedience, “listening to God and my community to decide what I am going to do.” Furthermore, Bro. Bernie says, “in a world that likes big cars and bling, I can live a simple life of a vow of poverty. In the world that is so caught up in sex and using other people, I see the full person… Because of my relationship with God, I can see and relate to all as my brother and sister.”
Divine Word Missionaries
The freedom so evident in Bro. Bernie’s life flows from his vocation as part of the community of the Divine Word Missionaries. It is a unique Society with a rich, multi-cultural history in America, celebrating 140 years in 2015. Their Society founded the first seminary for African-Americans in the 1930s. In 1975, with the fall of Vietnam, the Divine Word Missionaries opened their college to Vietnamese refugees. With members from many different countries and backgrounds, the Society reflects “a microcosm of what the reign of God is all about. Jesus prayed that all may be one.”
Bro. Bernie’s vocation within this Society as a brother is an important aspect of how he approaches his missionary work. He says that to be a brother means that “I am an equal with you. I am not above or below you. That is what Jesus did… Almost every miracle, he asks the people to do something with him. Jesus is always inviting people to put their faith into action. As a brother, he works with them as an equal.”
Experience of Brotherhood
For the past fifteen years, Bro. Bernie has worked with others as an equal in Jamaica, accompanying them as a brother as he helped to build homes with Food for the Poor as well as helped to form Bible sharing groups to introduce people of all ages to Jesus, their brother.
One of these Bible sharing groups was particularly memorable for Bro. Bernie. It consisted of a group of very small children, along with a few women who helped him with the class. These women wanted to give the children presents for Christmas. Bro. Bernie was hesitant, because he did not want to be known as someone above them, bringing gifts, but someone who shared the Bible and Jesus with them. However, with Food for the Poor, they were able to provide some small gifts. The thirty children who came regularly received bags of goods with their name. As soon as they opened the bags, they immediately began to share with those who were not there regularly and did not have a bag. Before he knew it, the children had asked the women and Bro. Bernie to sit down. The children danced with joy. “Whenever I hear the ‘Little Drummer Boy’ at Christmas, I think of that story,” says Bro. Bernie. “These kids had nothing to give us but they could dance. That’s probably the best Christmas I ever had.”
To Bring the Kingdom of God on Earth
Bro. Bernie remembers an experience in the fields of Jamaica, where he was confronted by a sugar cane cutter named Sylvester, who told him that the Bible sharing was a waste of his time. Sylvester drew a line in the sand with a machete, saying that it represented the first line of the Bible – God created, and it was good. Then he began to draw successive lines, each one smaller than the next, representing the next stories in the Bible. Adam and Eve sinned. Cain killed Abel. Each successive line in the sand grew smaller, as Sylvester explained that with each of these actions, the good had diminished until now, here in Jamaica with crime and extreme poverty, the good had not only diminished, but was now nonexistent. “You’re wasting your time with these kids,” he assured Bro. Bernie.
Reflecting now on the importance and relevance of mission in today’s world, Bro. Bernie recalls Sylvester’s diminishing lines in the sand, and observes that Sylvester saw only part of the story. In the Bible, there were many stories of the People of God being unfaithful. But Sylvester’s diagram of how bad it was left out an important part of the story – the fact that Christ came into the world and drew many people to himself, especially after the Resurrection and Pentecost.
This is the world that we are part of, Bro. Bernie says. There are many things wrong with the world. But now we are called to accept the invitation to follow Jesus and make our own marks, expanding and bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.
Bro. Bernie continues, “We need to be like glasses of water overflowing. Rather than just enjoying a good sermon or a song at Mass once a week, we must reflect on the experience of Christ in our lives so that we are overflowing with joy and ready to share Christ with others, ready to invite others into their experience just as Christ was always inviting others to share in his life and help to build the Kingdom of God.” This is what Bro. Bernie sees as his mission moving forward: inviting people to reflect on their experience of Christ and to bring that experience to others.