I had an amazing experience recently at the 2015 Mission Congress in Houston, Texas. Unlike the usual yearly conference of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association (USCMA), every five years USCMA coordinated a Mission Congress which brings together a large variety of other national groups who focus on mission. Each year USCMA presents their Annual Mission Award. At the award ceremony Fr. Jack Nuelle, MS, the executive director of the USCMA, explained that this was the last year they would be giving this specific award. The final recipient of the USCMA Annual Mission Award is Pope Francis. Then Fr. Jack went on to explain that henceforth the annual USCMA award will be known as the “Pope Francis Mission Award” …and I was to be the first recipient!
This was a very emotional moment for me. I was flooded with memories of discerning my call to mission right out of college. I was filled with gratitude for the leaders of the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM) and how they helped me to understand mission in a way that not only impacted my years in Zimbabwe and St. Kitts, but my whole life. I kept thinking of my students in Zimbabwe and the parishioners in St. Kitts and all that they taught me about what matters in life and about a God I didn’t know until I met them. I laughed to myself when I thought that the goofy Julie, who had barely been out of Illinois and just wanted to help people, was now getting an award for mission.
I still don’t have words to express how it feels to receive such an award. To be recognized by USCMA is a great honor. To be the first to receive an award named after Pope Francis is pretty overwhelming and humbling. What have I done to be worthy of an award named after Pope Francis? As I went to the podium to receive the award I kept thinking about the interview the pope gave on the plane back to Europe following his visit to the United States. He reminded the reporters that he’s not a media star but the Servant of the Servants of God. Me too!
From Mission To Mission was started 35 years ago by a group of returned missioners to help others returning to the U.S. who struggle with the difficult transition called re-entry. Over the years we have expanded to meet the changing face of mission. We serve lay, religious, and clergy who serve long-term and short-term, domestically and internationally, from preparation to re-entry.
After being presented with the award I was given the chance to say a few words. Throughout the conference I kept seeing people I had served over the years who represented the different faces of mission. So, I asked them to stand, one group at a time. I began with my partners, those who have served on our board of directors. Next were those for whom our organization was created – the returned missioners who had attended one of our re-entry workshops. I went on to include those programs and congregations I’ve worked with, and those I’ve helped prepare for mission. It was powerful to see the number of people standing, scattered throughout this large gathering. It was an important witness to see who was standing – young and old, lay people, religious and priest, those who had served 40 years and those who serve one week at a time. This is mission…and From Mission To Mission serves them all!
I asked these missioners to stand so that I could publicly thank them for the impact they’ve had on my life. I have been the director of From Mission To Mission for 14 years. I’m sure you can imagine the stories I’ve heard over the years. I’ve heard the most amazing stories of the power of love, faith and compassion. Unfortunately, many of the stories have also been about pain and suffering. Friends and family love to hear the positive stories of life in mission. From Mission To Mission was created because not everyone understands or can listen to the difficult things that missioners experience. We understand because we have lived it ourselves. From Mission To Mission is a safe place where missioners can come and tell the real, unedited version of their story. We are that place where missioners can talk about what happened to their spirit as they witnessed suffering, experienced disappointment or felt guilt for leaving. That place where missioners tell the truth about their fear in the midst of war or natural disaster. That place where they finally share that they themselves were attacked or assaulted. That place where they can admit that returning to the U.S. has been the hardest part of their experience. This is what I thought about when I looked at those standing throughout the hall. So, my tears in receiving this award were partly because I know the difference that From Mission To Mission makes in the lives of missioners. I have seen how burdened or broken missioners have been when they came to us; and later I watched them leave with new energy, hope and direction to continue to serve God and God’s people. My tears were also in gratitude for the connection I feel for those I have served. It’s a privilege to care for and support those who have done so much for the people of the world. To be given an award is wonderful, but the honor I am most grateful for is servant to the servants of God.
By now From Mission To Mission has served hundreds, if not thousands of missioners and volunteers. I celebrate our history and the community of support that has gathered around this work for thirty-five years. As I continue to reflect on and celebrate this important honor I received, I invite you to help this vital work continue. To contribute, please go to our website, www.missiontomission.org and click on How You Can Help. Thank you.