To date the posts about Kenya have been about my time there. One regular reader inquired how I decided to go on mission, what was the discernment process, and other questions that pertain to “before Kenya.” In thinking about how to address the question it seems to me that the answer resides partly in the context of the life lived to that point in time, memories that persist with a certain clarity, and some measure of serendipity – at last in my case anyway.
When I was in 3rd grade at St. James Catholic School, a Maryknoll missionary came and spoke to the classes. The priest was stationed in a village somewhere in Central or South America. I was very young and it was very far away in a distance land. At that point in life my grasp of world geography was limited to my neighborhood and the playground. But the priest had photographs that we passed around – very exotic echoing the adventure and mystery of a National Geographic magazine.
The priest had been at a remote parish for another 10 year stint and it was time for him to have a sabbatical back in the United States to visit family, take a break from mission, and relax a bit. But only a bit. The expectation was that the missionary would also fund raise for Maryknoll as well as his mission parish. I remember that we were given envelopes to take home to our parents. And I remember one of his stories.
When he was preparing to depart from the village, there was a big celebration to wish him safe travels. The headman of the village effused praise for his missionary spirit, his work, and all the relationships he had established. The speech was part praise and part “make-sure-you-come-back.” There was also one request: to bring back a picture of his family. The priest had the knack of story telling and apparently many of the stories were about his parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, more cousins, and “uncles” that did not seem like they were actually family but were always around. The headman and villagers wanted to see this cast of characters from the storybook of his family.
While he was State-side, the family took the opportunity to have a family reunion with the whole “cast of characters” present to meet their favorite missionary, hear the tales of his life there, be drawn into his telling of life in a distant place, have moments of wonder at his command of a foreign language, and catch up. The missionary remembered his promise and had the whole crew assemble for the extended family photograph.
Upon returning to the village and the parish, there was again a large feast to welcome him back. What amazed him was the ability of the people to identify his family members in the picture based on the stories he had told. The priest was able to regale them with more family stories he had harvested at the reunion. At the appropriate time, the headman stepped up to make the closing remarks that would end the celebration.
Again he was effusive in his remarks. He was so happy to see the 30-40 people in the photograph. And he was so glad that they were all able to live together in the big beautiful house in the background of the picture. How fortunate they were. The missionary never told them that the picture was taken in front of the garage.
Even as a third grader I knew that there was something fundamentally askew in that our cars had better houses than the people in the village. I thought that was so unfair and I should go see the village and say something. It is some 60 years later and the memory persists.
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