Discerning with God

Donal Dorr writes that "mission is not just a matter of doing things for people. It is first a matter of being with people, of listening and sharing with them." When we begin to engage with our brothers and sisters overseas in response to that call to mission, this is often where we begin: we strive simply and profoundly to be with people. This past Saturday, I attended a conference in Seattle for parishes that have or are interested in having relationships with people overseas. In the keynote address, the speaker discussed her first trip to Malawi, in which she had to accept local customs that made her uncomfortable, like being the guest of honor at the funeral of someone that she had never met, after being in the country for only a day. Particularly difficult for her was accepting the offering of a chair to sit, even while others sat on the floor. This happened over and over again. She spent weeks with local women visiting the sick in their homes, always offered a chair. Eventually, one of the women said, "Oh, she doesn't need a chair. She's one of us."

(From left: Fr. Tom Marti, MM, with Fr. Jim Dalton and Deacon Denny Duffel of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Catholic African Connections Conference.)

This notion of "being with" rather than "doing for" is of course central to being in relationship with others in mission. I was struck at this conference, though, at how central it is to missionary discernment itself. Specifically, rather than starting with what we can "do for" God, we must begin by simply being with God, listening and sharing and letting God guide us into the world. This came up in a breakout session where many people representing parishes without twinning relationships or international outreach were asking questions about how to "get things going." Their questions revolved around the typical concerns that we would all have: budgeting, proposals, where to go, what to do, convincing the pastor and parish leadership, etc. But a few voices said that all of those concerns are not immediate. Instead, they said, parish should first engage in discernment about their calling to stand with their brothers in sisters beyond our borders - praying, reflecting on the scriptures, and engaging people with stories of those brothers and sisters overseas. They gave the example of a parish that created a small-scale replica of an African village in the parish for Lent, which led to reflections and discussions that transformed the parish.

This discernment, then, requires awareness of and openness to others in our world. One of the things that I find to be such a blessing about my work with Maryknoll is the opportunity to hear stories of people from around the world, and to share those stories with you. When I tell people that we will take nine Catholic school teachers from four different US dioceses to Guatemala this summer, I am often asked "What will the teachers do?", "Who will they help?", or "Why not take kids to do mission?" But our Catholic school teachers, like all of the people, lay and religious, that we send on mission across borders, are tasked with helping us here at home in the very discernment that we discussed at that conference. These teachers will have the chance to hear stories from new friends, and to share those stories with their students. They will also be offered guidance in tying those stories into our faith tradition.

The point, though, is not to encourage their students to "pity" anyone or merely to "appreciate what they have." It is to help young people, through their teachers, to see God in people that they otherwise may never have a chance to know, and to discern how God calls them to be in relationship with the world. Of course, this relationship will entail service to others, not out of pity but out of love. First, though, we need to be with God and God's people. And through the stories of a few, people young and old can be with someone half a world away.