As a Columban lay missionary, I have been working and living in a community in Puente Alto near Santiago, Chile. I worked in a parish named after St. Andrew Kim, the first Korean saint. I lived in a house with two other lay missionaries, Kata from Fiji and Jenny from England. Every day I took a short, five minute walk from where I lived to where I worked but that five minute walk was what made the difference for me each day. I walked alone, but as soon as I stepped into my community I was suddenly surrounded by people from all sides shouting out from windows as I passed by, “Good morning Marguerite, how are you today?” and the children ran over and greeted me with the words “Hello Auntie.” It was the most uplifting and life –giving experience, and it happened every day. The longer I lived there the more I loved the community and felt that the people were not only my friends but my family in Chile.
I was involved in a women’s group that meets once a week for two hours. The first hour was spent reading a piece of Scripture and then sharing what it meant to us and how it related to our lives at that time. In the second hour we did some talents so each week a different woman was the teacher. In this way we shared our talents with each other and learned something new.
Most of the women lived in very crowded spaces, with houses on top of each, or in crowded apartments, so getting a chance to come out of their home environment and getting to know each other in spiritual and creative ways was a wonderful experience. I saw God at work in this women’s group, and I joined them on the walk home listening to their friendly conversations with the parting promise and commitment of meeting one another again the following week.
The majority of my time was spent visiting people in their homes. The people opened their hearts to me and shared their lives with me, and I did not want to leave but wanted to stay and hear more. I have discovered that my presence and being there was important, and we shared our stories and dreams by giving each other time. I have realized that being fluent in Spanish was not immediately essential as speaking was only a small percentage of my communication with the people. My time was the greatest gift that I had to share and this is what missionary work was for me at that moment.
When I first went there in January 2003, there was no church building, and the community gathered in a shed every Saturday night for Mass. We also held our meetings and gatherings in this humble but beautifully decorated shed, and it is a place where we shared our spirituality and the stories of our lives.
However, in 2000, the people planned to build a new church and a lot of people were involved in fundraising and preparing the site for the building. Finally, the work has finally begun. We completed the foundation of the church in October 2003, and we celebrated by having Mass on the site. I was proud to be asked to bring up a picture of St. Andrew Kim during the offertory procession. It felt good to join in this celebration, and I felt very much part of the community that day. I thank God for this work toiling to build and grow.
I often get asked the question, “How can you be a lay missionary?” and I answer, “I cannot but God can.” The best I can do was to be there and to live and work with the people of Puente Alto and to let God do his work in me. I am not here to do my work but God’s work. This is how I am and can be a missionary in Chile.
Columban lay missionary Marguerite now lives and works in Ireland.