Being Sent

“As the Father has sent me…”

Jesus-weptLike all experiences, mission has its own stages and cycles, its liminal moments when we are truly betwixt and between worlds, between what we think and how we see the world. Perhaps there are no more potent moments of being “between” than in the beginning of mission, the first moments away from all you knew (or thought you knew), people you cared for and held dear, and all that gave sure anchor to the way in which you engaged the world.

Like all experiences, mission has its own stages and cycles, its liminal moments when we are truly betwixt and between worlds, between what we think and how we see the world. Perhaps there are no more potent moments of being “between” than in the beginning of mission, the first moments away from all you knew (or thought you knew), people you cared for and held dear, and all that gave sure anchor to the way in which you engaged the world.

As in Luke 10:1, Franciscan Mission Service (FMS) had sent us in pairs out into the world. My classmates were sent to Brazil, Jamaica, Serbia, and Kenya. My mission partner and I were bound for Kenya. The year was 1996.

We had landed in Nairobi, the nation’s capital and, after a few days of acclimation, were traveling to an interim mission site in the west of Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria. Our local contact had arranged transportation for us and our few bags to the city of Kisumu and the house of the archbishop. It was there that our local contact, the bishop of Homa Bay, would collect us and take us to the mission site, a school in the small village of Rakwaro. Going by bus would have been simpler. There was little about Kenya that was simple in 1996.

The route from Kisumu to Homa Bay, around the eastern edge of Lake Victoria, is part tarmac but mostly rough, uneven, dusty, and rock-strewn dirt roads. The land, just meters from the lake, was parched, seriously in need of irrigation projects. Projects always promised but seemingly never a high enough national priority for this out-of-the-way corner of the nation. Later we were to discover we were between the short rains of December and the long rains of July and August—and in fact, at the beginning of a year-long drought.

As the late afternoon soon slowly baked the land and the inhabitants of our vehicle, we left Kisumu behind and traveled through several hours of isolated farms, small villages, and lots of dust. There were few people about—perhaps because of the time of day and the temperature. But soon enough we came upon a family at the side of the road—a moment that came and passed all too quickly.

In my memory it is painted as an African Pieta. The father was standing, bent toward the earth with one hand on his wife’s shoulder—for comfort or support, it was hard to tell. The other hand extended skyward partly in prayer, partly as an effort to wave us to stop. The mother was seated on the ground, face turned away from the road, full attention given to the child lying across her lap and cradled in her arms. The child was dying—arms lifelessly draped, hanging to the ground, head arching over his mother’s cradling arms, face turned to the heavens.

And we drove by, never slowing, not acknowledging the need. Another car no doubt that never stopped to help, to console, to heal, to do something, even if only to stop to pray. But we were not just another car. There was a bishop at the wheel and two lay missioners as passengers. If not us, then who?

My mission partner was in the front passenger seat, while I was sitting behind the bishop. As the scene passed, we exchanged glances, wondering what had so quickly happened, wondering about our shared assumptions that surely the bishop would stop and our mission would begin here and now. In that glance, we were 100 yards beyond the Pieta and heading away south.

It was in that moment that the bishop began to speak to us, perhaps sensing our unease and questions. He explained the reality of Kenya as he saw it. Western Kenya was at the height of the malaria season and the beginning of a drought. The poor families, already malnourished, are hit the hardest by these circumstances. There was little doubt that the child had malaria, and given that the child was not conscious, the disease had already affected the brain, so there was little to no hope of survival. The family would want the child to go to the hospital, still another two hours away. Once there, the inevitable death—if it had not occurred already. Then the family would be in the grasp of the culture of kitu kidogo, “a little something,” meaning they would have to bribe the nurse, the doctor, the morgue attendant, and a few others to be able to retrieve the child’s body. They would then have to rent a driver and a truck to bring the child home for burial. There were tribal obligations and customs to consider. However, alien to my sense of what was important, the family would have to rent a small herd of cows and professional mourners to accompany the funeral procession to the funeral plot yet to be bought. All of that would drive them deeper into poverty and debt.

Now we were miles beyond the family, still heading southward, somewhere between doubt and this new, hard reality. In time I came to learn that all the bishop had said was true. Maybe it was a mercy in the longer run, but again maybe that is what the priest and Levite said when they came upon the robbed and beaten man—and passed him by.

The bishop shared other details of the reality of Kenya that day. Those words have been lost in the ensuing years. But the visual memory of a roadside Pieta remains clear.

As we drove on toward Homa Bay, we prayed for the child and the family. And that is something, something good. Sometimes you never find peace with such things. As I came to know, there was a hard reality about life in Kenya, and there are indeed limits to the actions we can take in mission—even limits to how we can be present to others in mission. Knowing the balance is never simple. But I do know there is never a limit to compassion, never a quota for prayer.

That day I did not much feel like a missioner sent in the name of Jesus. But there were many other days. To go on mission and to continue in mission is to believe in the transforming power of Christ in the world and in yourself, and trusting that God can work all things to the good—even on the days when we fail to speak out, or pass by the moments when compassion is needed, or fall short of our baptismal vows. But there are many other days when redemption is practiced in a compassionate presence, a kind word, a helping hand, a voice in prayer.

Three years of mission and time in Kenya lay ahead. Time to remember again and again, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).

2 thoughts on “Being Sent

  1. Father George, with your compassionate heart, you would reveal to the world, the Kenya you knew, the people you administered, and how being there in mission shaped your life to become the priest you are today. It would be worth reading . . . you often have told us of “telling the stories over the backyard fence.” You need to write your memoir, to allow your heart to speak to others. To others, who may be discerning a life as a missioner or a priest. it would be an honor to read it someday. Maybe that someday won’t be too far off in the not too distant future. May God bless you always!

  2. That memory will never leave you, Fr. George.
    Please write the memoir or, at least, compile the musings. You have things to share.

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