The Lay Missionary Program’s Beginning in Fiji
“I’ll give it a try.” For most new initiatives, someone has to step forward and say “yes.” The year was 1993, and the initiative was the newly formed Columban lay missionary program. The person who said yes was Father Ed Quinn, an Omaha native, who at that time was working in Fiji. The Columban Society had agreed to start a lay missionary program, but each country was to begin implementing the program when it was deemed appropriate. Fiji was anxious to start, so Fr. Ed, a veteran missionary who spent twelve years in Korea before arriving in Fiji in 1973, volunteered to serve as the first lay missionary coordinator.
There was no handbook and few guidelines. It was a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach in the early days. The word went out to Fiji’s 33 parishes; applicants were interviewed, screened and accepted. A house was rented behind the Suva market, and basic furniture was acquired to fill it. The 99 steps from street level to the front door of the house provided an ongoing fitness test.
An orientation and training program was developed, calling upon the generosity and expertise of Columbans and other priests and religious teaching in the regional seminary and elsewhere in Suva. Basic courses were developed and adapted. Scripture, theology, anthropology, cross-cultural experiences, training in personal growth and counseling skills were some of the components of the initial preparation. The first team of four young women and two men was commissioned by Archbishop Petero Mataca in early 1994 and assigned to Ireland. In the ensuing years, teams were assigned to Chile, Peru, Philippines and most recently Korea and Pakistan.
As one could imagine, the Fijian lay missionaries’ arrival in Ireland caused quite a stir. One writer wondered if they might be the first Catholic missionaries to go to missionary sending Catholic Ireland since St. Patrick in 432. After a period of orientation, they were assigned to three different parishes staffed by diocesan clergy.
They found plenty of missionary work awaiting them, particularly in visitation of families and the elderly and engaging with young people. Meanwhile, back in Fiji, the other arm of the Columban program, the incoming dimension, was up and running. Shortly before the Fijians departed for Ireland, a small team of lay missionaries arrived from Korea. The group included two young women, Yean Sin and Yean Han, who had already become good friends before they were accepted for the program as they had taught kindergarten together in an impoverished area in Korea where hepatitis had been endemic.
Providentially, Fr. Quinn spoke Korean fluently so he was most helpful in their orientation and adjustment. The two women were completing their initial study of the Hindi language as they prepared for their first parish assignment in Ba, an area of Fiji that has many Indo- Fijian communities. At that critical moment, Yean Sin, just 23 years old, was hospitalized. It turned out that she had advanced hepatitis but had told no one of her symptoms.
The staff at Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital provided the best possible care, but Yean Sin died on November 4, 1994. Yean Sin’s parents arrived from Korea and were with her during her final days and hours. As non-Christians, (Yean Sin was the only Catholic in the family) they just assumed that she would be cremated, and they would take her ashes back to Korea for burial.
However, when they witnessed the outpouring of grief and devotion to their daughter at the wake and funeral service, held at the Columban parish of Tamavua, they readily agreed to have her buried in Fiji saying, “This had already become her home.” A year later, both parents were baptized in Korea and more recently, a younger sister was baptized as well. In her short life as a lay missionary in Fiji, Yean Sin touched many people by her smile and good humor, her pleasant manner and above all, by her example and enthusiasm for mission. Despite their grief and sadness at her death, the Columbans were proud that such a dedicated missionary would await eternity alongside some of the Columban priests who died in Fiji. From its early fragile and sad beginnings, through God’s grace, the lay missionary program in Fiji has gone from strength to strength in the past sixteen years.
On the mission sending side of the program, eight teams have been sent overseas since the first group left for Ireland. Many of these young Fijian and Tongan men and women have served a second, three-year term abroad and several have become long-term (more than six years of service) lay missionaries and are still engaged either in the overseas missions or in leadership capacities.
One long-term Fijian lay missionary, Serafina Vuda, who served in Chile and Peru, is now coordinator of the Society-wide Central Leadership Team for the entire lay missionary program which at present involves 67 missionaries working in eleven different countries. On the mission receiving side of the program, Fiji has received teams from Chile, the Philippines and most recently Peru. The assuming of leadership roles within the program by the lay missionaries themselves is most encouraging.
In Fiji, I succeeded Fr. Quinn as the coordinator of the program. After six years, I was replaced by a young woman who had served in Ireland. She, in turn, was succeeded by a Tongan lay missionary, Losana Ve’ehala,
who had been missioned in the Philippines. Three years ago Losana was succeeded by the present coordinator, lay missionary Katarina Mukai, who had worked for ten years in Chile. Most of the other national programs have similar developments. It bodes well for the future.
Of course there have been physical developments as well. In my six years as coordinator, we rented five different houses to serve as residence/training centers depending on the need at the time. Eventually we were able to acquire a simple, small, three bedroom house right next door to our Columban seminarians’ formation house. The lay missionary house recently underwent a small extension to accommodate larger numbers. The current coordinator, Katarina, and the community decided to call it the “Yean Sin House,” so that is its official name.
As the candidates in training look out the front door and windows, directly across the narrow frontage road are Suva Harbor and the blue Pacific Ocean. The view is a constant reminder of that commission of Christ: “You then are to go and make disciples of all the nations…and, remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
The journey for the Columban lay missionaries is starting from a very special departure point. We think that perhaps Yean Sin has a hand in pushing off the stern of the canoe, the bili-ni-mua, or final part of the traditional Fijian departure ceremonies as we continue to send Fijian lay missionaries forward to “…make disciples of all the nations….”
Fr. Charles Duster lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
This article first appeared in Columban Mission.
Columban lay missionary Serafina Vuda passed away unexpectedly in May 2014.