When I first began working for Maryknoll, it became clear that my job would be difficult to explain to other people. Unlike the priests, brothers, sisters, and lay missioners in the Maryknoll family, I cannot easily identify myself as a "missioner" to others. Unlike the Maryknoll employees that develop our magazines and videos, I do not have a readily-identifiable job title. (Mission Promotion Coordinator is not exactly illuminating to the outside world!)
I ran into this dilemma about a month after beginning my current position. I was returning home to Seattle from our regional office in California, about to board a flight. The man sitting next to me asked me why I had been traveling, and explained that it was for work. He then asked me what I did, and I explained that my job is to educate and inspire people in the United States to mission. I am sure that I explained, somewhere in there, what is meant by "mission." Even then I knew that it is a term that few understand in a modern context, and that many may even challenge. But the man look directly at me and asked, rather skeptically, "What qualifies you to inspire other people?"
I'll admit that I was a little taken aback. I quickly ran through my list of accomplishments and accolades in the work world, but the man was unimpressed. Sadly, the conversation did not go much further, beyond me asking a few questions about his work. Looking back on this now, though, it strikes me that both his question and my response present the limitations of our modern outlook. What qualifies you to inspire others? He required some sort of "stamp of approval," indicating why I deserved the position that I held. And I, foolishly, fell into the trap of believing that I do somehow deserve this position. I wish that I had answered, truthfully, "Nothing, but here I am."
Indeed, this could have been the response given by any of Jesus' disciples. The Gospels are ripe with evidence of their ineptitude, their doubt, and the undeniable conclusion that these were ordinary people responding to an ordinary call. The idea that we must be uniquely qualified may be one of the greatest obstacles that many of us face in answering that call. We leave great works to "great" women and men. We admire and we adulate, but we do not participate.
I was struck, though, this afternoon when Fr. Tom, the director of our Seattle Mission House, and myself were struggling to get a new table into the house. Working our way up the steps, a young man on his way to work came running up and offered to help. He helped us get the table into the basement, and I spoke for a few minutes with him. I learned that he worked for an after school program, and that he was on his way to meet a group of the kids at a different school and walk them to the program, which he did every day. His unprompted kindness certainly inspired me, but I did forget to ask for his credentials.