When I first left my homeland of the Fiji Islands after six months of preparation in 1997 to be a lay missionary in Chile, I had no idea what to expect or what specific task I was going to do. What basically motivated me was the urge to share my faith with others wherever it may be. I am the youngest of six siblings, and my only dream was to become a teacher like my father. After eleven years of teaching I was convinced that I was being called beyond the boundaries of classroom walls! My interaction with the SMSM Sisters (Missionary Society of Mary) in the school where I last taught probably awakened my missionary calling, and although I was one of the favorites for their “Come and See” programs, I chose to be a missionary as a lay person, and not as an ordained religious Sister!
I believe there were three significant pieces of advice I received during my preparation for mission that helped me in my process of becoming a missionary. The first was by a Vincentian missionary who taught Evangelization and Culture. “When you arrive into another culture, do not rush into opening your ‘tool box’— meaning your skills, gifts, knowledge— but stop, look and listen in order to know and learn from the people and their needs.” The second was by Archbishop Emeritus Petero Mataca at our sending Mass, “You are going to build Christian communities and if you find that the community you accompany is breaking apart, do not blame the community but reflect on yourself!” The third was offered by a Columban friend, “To be a happy missionary, you need to have a little cynicism and a lot of humor!”
As I inserted myself in the life and culture of the indigenous Mapuche (“people of the land”)tribe in the south of Chile, it did not take long to discover that I was entering into some sacred and almost mysterious reality where the people lived so much in harmony with nature and with all of God’s creation. At the same time there was a sense of fear of darkness as people did not venture out after the sunset. This is when I realized that my role was to learn and not to teach! “A life unlike your own can be your teacher,” St. Columban. I learnt that cultural values are non-negotiable. Up to this day, the Mapuche continue in their struggle and even lost lives defending their forests, lakes and land from the manipulation of business andgovernment leaders whose interest lies basically in their own gain.
The bone-piercing cold and wet climate and the long walks to connect with families living in their farmsteads scattered across various acres of land were the toughest challenges I encountered with my two Fijian lay mission companions. We had to have a good supply of firewood to keep our wooden house warm, enough supply of candles for light when the lamp gas ran out and had to have enough energy to draw water from the 18 foot well for our everyday use. Many times during my three years there, I asked myself “what am I doing here?” especially when the going became tough. I suppose it was the openness to these challenges and the trust in the God who calls us to mission from the moment of our own baptism that helped me persevere and made a difference in my life forever.
In our efforts to build relationships with the people by visiting the families, trust was established, and we received their love and acceptance. We joined them in their harvest, cultural and religious rituals and festivities and this opened up more opportunitiesfor mutual engagement at both the life and faith level. This was how we went about building the Christian community beginning first by building relationships with the people and their families. As I look back, it amazes me that among the Mapuche people I discovered the God of the Old Testament, who was distant, sacred and silently present in all forms of nature and one who was a punishing God if we were not perfect in how we lived our lives.
After the death of my dad and some time at home with mum, I moved on to continue my next assignment in Peru. In the midst of extreme poverty and social violence there I discovered the Jesus of the New Testament who portrayed a suffering God and one who oversees our actions and was to be feared if we found ourselves in situations of sin. I soon learnt that my role in Peru was to offer hope and empower people in the face of their suffering. Apart from liturgies and supporting projects to help women and children improve their livelihood, organizing basic training programs in the area of emotional and spiritual accompaniment of the sick and suffering for leaders in my former parish gave me a lot of energy and fulfillment.
Interestingly, it was the women more than the men who actively participated in the Christian communities and who were the pillars of moral strength and faith in their own homes. Having journeyed with people from these two cultures has been the greatest gift to my life where I have received so much more then I had given. It has been a life transforming experience. As one of my mentors says, “The first to be evangelized is the evangelizer.” I learnt that the greatest gift to any missionary serving abroad or in your own home country, are the people who help one discover oneself and discover the face of God!
After Peru and some months of family ministry course in the Philippines, leadership ministry with the Columban lay missionaries led me to spend three years in Ireland. It turned into a gifted opportunity of getting in touch with the roots of the Society. One highlight during my time in Ireland was listening to stories of mission shared across the meal tables with senior and retired Columbans in Dalgan Park residence. My initial culture shock occurred when I attended Mass in Dalgan for the first time with the retired Columbans. Seeing aged, stooped and fragile figures staggering to and from their seats, some in wheel chairs and some more weaker members wheeled in by the staff, I could not help the tears of gratitude watching those individuals who had given their life for God’s mission and continued to live the call through community prayer and worship. As expressed by one of the residents during a regional gathering in Dalgan, “You may think we are old, retired and sick, but I want you all to know… we continue to live out God’s mission praying for you all and our missionaries around the world.”
As I left Ireland after three years, I came to see Dalgan Park retirement home as a powerhouse of prayer, and I imagine it is the same for any other missionary retirement home in any other country.
In connection to my work in Columban lay mission leadership, the encounters during official visitations with lay missionaries engaged with the faithful as well as non-Christians in diverse cultural backgrounds and hearing from Columban leaders from different countries in international meetings, still leaves me in awe and wonder when I think about how this mysterious God continues to carry out His mission and transform lives in ourselves and others, through the little ways we share our faith, love and compassion to people we serve.
Now I find myself continuing this missionary journey in the U.S. region, particularly focused in the area of mission promotion. Being based in a very multicultural Los Angeles area, once again I began by stopping, looking and listening in order to learn from the people. At the same time, my missionary experience helps me to be more sensitive to the new reality here particularly in engaging with people of different cultures. I am once again reminded of the “burning bush story” in the Old Testament where God says to Moses, “Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground…”
If there is one thing that I have learned about being missionary to this day, it is about relationships: my relationship with myself, my relationship with others and my relationship with God. We are challenged daily to keep our antennas tuned into life’s events, whether they be blessings or mishaps; that nothing happens, even as insignificant as it may seem, without a message from the Divine. Our task is to discover what the message is. Life is about nurturing our inner journey and discovering our purpose in life. I believe our greatest challenge as baptized Christians today is to continue to integrate, to weave in, our spiritual life into our daily living.
Columban lay missionary Serafina Vuda passed away unexpectedly in May 2014.