Lay missioners motivated by chance to serve, live simply, find challenge

Beth Griffin


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Lupe and Charlie Petro want their children to understand the depth of their commitment to living simply and serving others.

Tawny Thanh and Hiep Vu are eager to return to return to missionary life after a respite to address family and health issues. Stephen Pope hopes for growth, challenge and a worthwhile experience.

They are among the members of the 2015 class of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners organization participating in a 10-week orientation program at the group's headquarters before heading to assignments in South America and Africa.

Maryknoll Lay Missioners, known for 10 years by its acronym MKLM, celebrated its 40th anniversary in August. It began as a collaborative effort of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and Maryknoll Sisters, but became a separate organization in 1994. Since 1975, more than 700 Catholics have served as Maryknoll lay missioners in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The current class ranges in age from 23 to 60 and reflects the organization's historical composition of single men and women, couples and families. All have previous experience overseas.

The Petros met in Lima, Peru, when Charlie was a Christian Brothers Volunteer at the Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy) school where Lupe had a job as a social worker. They married in Peru and started their family in Colorado while Charlie worked in educational publishing. They have both been active in their parishes in the various cities where they have lived. Their children are now 5 and 6 years old.

"We're doing this because of the kids, not in spite of them," Charlie told Catholic News Service Nov. 10. "We want them to understand the depth of our values and found it challenging in the context of the upper middle class."

The Petros hosted two foreign exchange students, including one who moved with them to Wisconsin when Charlie was transferred there.

"We always had it in mind to do mission work," Lupe said, adding Maryknoll Lay Missioners is one of the few groups that accepts families.

"Developmentally, this is a good time for the children. Their world is the four of us, and at the same time, they're old enough to tell us if something's bothering them," Charlie said. "We wanted them to have the experience of being missioners with us."

The Petros will arrive in Mwanza, Tanzania, in East Africa in time for the children to begin classes at an English-language school Jan. 4.

Thanh and Vu met in Vietnam, a country they left separately in 1975 as refugees. They met again at a transit camp in Guam and married five years later in California. Vu is an engineer and Thanh a teacher.

They volunteered with youth in their local communities and parishes, became Maryknoll lay affiliates and were accepted as lay missioners in 2000.

For more than 10 years, they served in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Thanh worked with children with HIV/AIDS and developed income-generating handicraft programs for adults.

Vu trained youth and teachers in computer skills. He said they were able to move easily in the area along the Thailand-Myanmar border because they looked like the people they were serving.

They left Maryknoll Lay Missioners when their program closed during an organizational restructuring. Vu and Thanh cared for his aging father in Switzerland and helped Thanh recover from Bell's palsy; Vu served as a court interpreter and volunteer tutor for college-bound students.

Now, the couple who felt such a powerful need to get back to mission is Bolivia-bound. They hope to use their considerable experience to help children.

"We're going in solidarity with the poor. God is already there. We and the people will discover God together," Vu said.

Thanh said she is happy to return to the strong, supportive community of priests, brothers, sisters and laypeople that is vital to life in mission. "We'll serve as long as people can use our help and we have the energy," Vu said.

Pope graduated from Boston College in 2015. At the Jesuit university, he was steeped in service and spent a semester in South Africa, studying and volunteering at an orphanage for children with AIDS. Most recently, he taught middle school history and coached football and baseball at his alma mater, Roxbury Latin, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

"I've had a small glimpse of the power of other cultures and their rich diversity. This experience will hopefully transform me in a different way," he said.

"In the past, as a volunteer, I'd get back on the bus at the end of program. Now, I'll be one of the people who gets off the bus and stays," Pope said.

He will attend language school in Musoma, Tanzania, before selecting a ministry opportunity within Maryknoll Lay Missioners' longtime program in Tanzania.

The annual orientation is "the tip of the iceberg" to give the newcomers the tools they need to succeed in a cross-cultural experience, according to Debbie Northern, MKLM's training and educational programs manager. It combines organizational history and values with spiritual development necessary to thrive in the missions, and practical knowledge about living overseas, she said.

Orientation is a continuing exploration of a candidate's call to mission, said Joanne Blaney, director of mission services. The program addresses living with ambiguity and helps to develop openness to new ways of living and using skills, she said.

Northern served in Tanzania and El Salvador, and Blaney recently returned from 18 years in Brazil. They said the orientation process begins with candidate selection and country placement in July, continues through the formal program at headquarters and extends beyond the "sending ceremony" in December to in-country language training and acculturation.

"The objective is to match the needs of the people in the country with the skills of the people we send," Blaney said. "The goal is to get everyone started in a ministry site and continue their orientation meetings so we can accompany people to do well."

Maryknoll lay missioners commit to an initial contract of three and a half years.

Elizabeth Donnelly spoke to the orientation class Nov. 10. A returned Maryknoll lay missioner who served in Peru, she is a trustee of the Mary J. Donnelly Foundation and a frequent speaker and writer on international Catholic issues.

Donnelly briefed the group on the Catholic Church's advocacy for debt relief for poor countries, care for creation, economic justice, and the role of women in the church.

She urged the candidates to make a connection with their local dioceses, "inform people back in the U.S. of the realities of life and see if there are areas of interconnection."