The rewards of being a Lay Missionary

Gerry Merkx writes of her experiences as a lay missionary in a number of countries around the world.

Have you ever thought that you would like to share your skills and talents with those in the world who have not had the chances that you have had? Would you like to experience first-hand how others in the world live with fewer resources than yourself? Have you ever felt lucky with the life you have and would like to share that with others?

In 1975 I was fortunate to get a chance to do just that by joining a lay volunteer programme. You do not earn a salary but you experience the world of others and learn so much that you are rewarded in every other way possible.

I am a Canadian and a member of Volunteer International Christian Service (VICS). I grew up in a family with Christian beliefs and strong family ties. My parents were immigrants to Canada so they knew what it was like to struggle with learning a language and starting to adapt to a new culture. I guess I inherited the challenge from them!

In 1985, I volunteered for two years in a women and young girl’s development programme in Arramo, Ethiopia. Sister JoAnn Mullen, MMM, asked me if I would consider joining Sisters Lydia, Dina, and her as a lay missionary in Dadim, a village in the south of the country. My tour was ending in Arramo and the ladies that the volunteers had trained were ready to run the programme. I traveled home and returned to work in the women’s programme in Dadim with MMM. 



Years in Borana

I spent three years there. The Borana elders had to give permission for the women to attend school because this was a new concept in their culture. We consulted the women about what they wanted to learn. We taught them how to prepare nutritious foods that they could grow or find in the market. They were used to living on milk and corn because they had been pastoralists and nomads.

We also worked with the people in building a different style of house. They had only used branches and grass loosely tied when they traveled so often from place to place. Now they were living in more permanent settlements around the school and clinic. Sister Lydia helped us teach them to build a traditional African hut with chica (mud) walls and a proper thatched roof. The women wanted to be dry indoors in the rainy season to prevent illness.

While sharing my skills with them I also learnt a lot. With few resources, the people of developing countries show much more faith that God will provide for them than we do in North America. If you smelt coffee being prepared while traveling to the village you (as well as everyone else around) could drop in. This idea of always being welcome is a far cry from our having to call ahead if we are going to visit someone. What they had they shared among all.

After the local women took over the major running of the programme with supervision from the Sisters, once again I returned home.

Part of the MMM story

My next tour with MMM was two years with Sisters Carol Breslin and Nuala Horgan in Addis Ababa. I lived in the community and helped out when possible. I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in their home for the destitute. I worked with the MMMs as they prepared to hand over their programmes in Ethiopia.

Now I am finishing my second year working in administration with MMM in Faraja Centre in Tanzania with Sisters Catherine, Marian and Nuala. We have a community-based home care programme for people who have HIV/AIDS, support for children orphaned because of AIDS, voluntary counseling and testing for HIV, and support to start income- generating activities. We also continue with community education about malaria, TB, nutrition, and prevention of HIV. This year we also started home-based palliative care. It became obvious that there were many people without HIV who were dying of cancer and other chronic illnesses. They died in great pain because there was no programme offering care. They were sent home from hospital with the diagnosis but with no preparation for them or their family about what was in store. With this new programme we are able to help the person come to terms with what is happening and to be pain free. We can also teach the family how to care for the patient and to access their local community resources.

A wide range of experiences

I have had the chance to work in Trinidad with SERVOL, a community programme founded by Father Gerry Pantin, CSSp, and Wes Hall, a famous West Indian cricketer. I lived with a local family and taught young women to become instructors in a school for children and adults with learning disabilities. After four and a half years the teachers took over the running of the school and I was able to move on to Haiti.

In Port-au-Prince I worked with the Episcopalian Sisters at Saint Vincent’s School for the Handicapped. We had developmentally challenged and blind students. There were physiotherapy and, medical clinics, an operating room for eye and orthopedic surgery, a nursery school, and a shop to make prosthesis. In this shop three deaf mute men prepared artificial limbs for people who had had amputations. I worked in the medical clinic and post-op because I lived at the school and the nurses went home at night. Again, I learnt a lot from the people who showed living faith in God.

This time when I returned home I went back to school to study social work. This was very useful when I worked for a year in the refugee camps in Zaire with Concern (an Irish NGO). I worked in Rwanda in community re-development and the feeding of prisoners. The Red Cross had asked Concern to start feeding prisoners because many were starving. This was after the genocide and many families did not know they had members in prison. We also re-united children with their families.

What is a lay missionary?

So you see that offering to share your skills and luck with others can become addictive but it is very rewarding. You get to experience what the real priorities in life are and not what our consumer society wants us to believe. We have forgotten that our brothers and sisters should be our first priority and not ourselves or what we have.

I am very grateful to all the communities that have allowed me to share in their life.