My Christian Superheroes

Last week I had the chance to speak to a group of local women — and my mother, who had never heard me speak in public until then — about a group of women I’ve come to regard as my spiritual mothers: Women whose example led me, as surely as Moses led the Chosen People to the Promised Land, to where I am today. They (clockwise from upper left): My confirmation namesake, Amy Carmichael; Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers, widow of Oswald Chambers; Gladys Aylward; Mother Teresa; Elisabeth Elliot; and Corrie. ten Boom. (I’ve linked each of their names to my favorite books by or about them, in case you’d like to learn more.)

Like Moses, most of them did not “cross over,” as I did, into the Catholic Church (Mother Teresa is the only professed Catholic among them). And yet, each of them left an indelible stamp upon my spirit through their lives and writings.

Tonight mom and I finished reading the book about Gladys Aylward, the British missionary to China (1902-1970), whose story was retold (with great liberties) in the movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. After twenty years preaching the Gospel to teems of people suffering under Communist oppression, she felt the Lord call her back home. At first she was incredulous — she had by that time become a Chinese citizen, dressing like them, eating like them, even thinking like them. And yet, she said,

“England, seemingly so prosperous while other countries passed through terrible suffering at the hands of Communist domination, had forgotten what was all-important — the realization that God mattered in the life of a nation no less than in that of an individual…. I knew that I must go back to the land of my birth. I must return to do what I could to dispel the spiritual lethargy that had overtaken so many. I must testify to the great faith of the Chinese church. I must let people know what great things God has done for me” (The Little Woman, 136).

This was nearly fifty years ago, and yet not much has changed. The “underground” Church of faithful Christians continues to suffer and to struggle, and even to die.

Pray with me for the Holy Father, for the Christians in China … and for all those on the front lines, who seek to ease the suffering of the “least of these” who continue to suffer simply for naming the Blessed Name. Mother Gladys, pray for us, that we might not be afraid to stand with your beloved people.

Another much admired figure, from the Civil War era at Notre Dame, I’d like to write about one day: Sister Angela Gillespie.

“How Was Your Trip?”: Back from Costa Rica

It’s a question we’re getting a lot these days, now that we are home again from our family excursion to Costa Rica. The truth is, the effects of this trip will stay with us a long time. The friends we made challenged us, blessed us, and made us look at the world — and ourselves — in new ways.

Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo…

"Angie" at midwife'sOur experience at the Center was eye-opening. One fifteen-year-old girl, great with child and terrified of the pain of labor and delivery, had a healthy baby girl … and returned just days later with a dehydrated infant whose umbilical cord had become infected. “Angie” did not want to be a mother, she wanted to go back to school. But the hospital sent her back to the Center to learn how to care for her infant, and to care for herself, and to take up the mantle of maternity. Another mother, “Patricia,” seventeen with two children, came alongside Angie and empathized with how hard it was, and how important.

Benedita tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y benedito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

In a few days, Angie’s smile had returned, and her daughter’s cheeks began to plump. I had not touched the baby, except to smile at her in passing — it was critical that the mother bond uninterrupted with her child. But there were others in need of holding, in need of changing, in need of singing. There were older ones, too, who needed to be reminded of how much God loved them, too. We colored and sang and read aloud in my deplorable Spanish. Soon ten-year-old Lola was reading, too.

Labor room - before

Labor room – before


Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores,

When my own family joined me and the Spanish-speaking volunteers who had started the trip with me left, things took a different turn. Susana, the woman in charge of running the Center, a no-nonsense “Tico” (as they call themselves, native Costa Rican – as opposed to the indigenous Cebecar who come from the mountains to have their children) had very different ideas about how much babies should be held. Susana was of the mind that there was too much house-cleaning to be done, that they should be left alone to go to sleep.

At one point just before I left, we were all getting ready for the new bishop to visit the Center, to give his blessing to the women there. Susana had everyone busy scrubbing and tidying the common areas; after doing the breakfast dishes I went out on the porch and tended the children so the others could work undistracted. Around noon lunch was served, and Susana told me to put the baby I was holding in his crib so I could eat my lunch. I had just gotten him to sleep, and the moment his head hit the pillow, he started crying. So I picked him up again … and Susana grabbed him from my arms, took him to the sink, and doused him in cold water. Above his screams, she lectured me in Spanish. Even if I could have understood her, I doubt I would have listened. At that moment, I just wanted to grab the baby and run. Instead I stood there, rooted to the floor, as she wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him off to his mother to nurse. Gradually his sobs relented and he drifted off to sleep.

I realized at that moment it was time for me to go home. A journalist from the diocesan paper came ahead of the bishop, to do a story on the Center. I chatted with her about my visit, about setting up the laboring room and sharing about the Center with people in the United States. At that moment, my daughter came up cradling a kitten, who was rapidly declining from the combined factors of not enough food (his mother had run off, and he had to subsist on whatever the dogs didn’t eat from the mealtime scraps) and too much rough handling from the older children. Animals serve a utilitarian function in Costa Rica, something Sarah had a hard time understanding. “Why don’t you take him to the vet? He’s going to DIE!!!” she sobbed. Seeing the cat’s neck was nearly devoid of fur, I wondered if he had mange. Gently I took the animal from her grasp and set it down so I could give her a hug. “I know. It’s hard. Life here is harder that it is in the States, honey. We can’t really change that. All we can do is love them as long as we are here.”

She looked at me, accusing. “You don’t care about that cat! You’re mean!!!”

Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

Her words rattled me a bit. Yes, her teenage outburst wasn’t unprecedented. And I knew it would be impossible to explain to the satisfaction of her tender heart why I was not taking a more active role in saving the kitten. Just as I had not been able to persuade Susana that the babies needed the stimulation I had been giving them, that I was not just spoiling them. When two worlds collide, there is always the risk of misunderstanding. But it is also at this crossroads that transformation can occur.

It had been years since I’d been engaged in any kind of missionary work. Frankly, I should have learned more Spanish before undertaking this trip … though I quickly learned that not all the indigenous women were fluent in the language. I saw these women sit at the back of the church, unable to go forward to receive the sacraments, and wished I had been able to teach them. I saw the mountain of suitcases containing baby clothes from previous volunteers, and realized that they didn’t need more onesies. What they needed was for someone to tell them, in their own language, how much their Father in heaven loved them and their children.

Saida and KennethThese young mothers could not count on the support of husbands, or even the financial security of a job back on the reservation. Based on what I had seen, it was very likely some of them would be back the following year, with another baby. Would someone be ready to teach them then?

During my time in Costa Rica, I was reminded of how short and hard life can be, despite its wild beauty. I saw that love does not always come wrapped in soft flannel and warm water. Sometimes it simply stays, bearing silent and prayerful witness to the longing of the human heart. And sometimes, love cries along.

Why Go? Thoughts on Short-Term Missions

IMG_2105As an Evangelical Protestant (the first 30 years of my life), I went on several short-term mission trips, one for nearly a year (as a teacher’s aide at Dakar Academy in Senegal, West Africa) and others for periods of just a few weeks or months (Poland, Mexico). I will always be grateful for these experiences, which deeply affected my worldview and shaped my values. And this week, my children will get just a taste of these experiences, as we spend time with St. Bryce Missions here in Costa Rica.

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about how they will do in a world without television, without pizza, without electronics, where they will eat beans and rice several times each day (and be thankful) and have to remember not to flush the toilet paper or walk around without shoes. Where they have to work to make themselves understood. I am hoping that it will give them a taste of how the rest of the world lives, and a desire to share more of themselves with those who have less.

These lessons are not easy ones, of course. It’s been almost thirty years since I was last on a mission trip, and it’s been harder than I thought it would be. My body doesn’t take kindly to such a rustic environment, and I was grateful when my friend Colleen opened her home to me so I could get a real shower and sleep under  a fan for a few nights. We even got to watch an English language movie … I never laughed so hard at Princess Bride. “You keep saying that, but I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Ironically, the hardest part of the trip also occurred at Colleen’s house, when we came home to find that the dog had torn apart, limb from limb, four of their month-old kittens. “We were not going to be able to keep them, but I didn’t want it to end like this,” Colleen sighed as we cleaned up the mess, unable to salvage her favorite blanket. It was horrible, a stark reminder of how harsh life can be. Back at the Center, another kitten battled for survival — the two dogs cornering her on a semi-regular basis, battling for food. I thought of my two dogs at home. These dogs would have made a snack out of Gretta.

Yesterday at lunch, one of the volunteers — a med student with fluent Spanish skills — admitted she wasn’t sure her summer internship was going to be what she thought it would be. This was her second time in Costa Rica, and she had decided to volunteer this summer to see if she might be interested in becoming a missionary doctor. But she wasn’t sure whether this was going to be a good test, since she felt she hadn’t done very much, apart from cleaning and holding babies.

I assured her that God would use this experience for whatever he had in mind for her. It wasn’t until years after I returned from Africa that I fully appreciated what God was trying to teach me there: Important lessons about detachment, about gratitude, about simplicity, about trust. I had my eyes opened about what life is like for other people, and a chance to take on that experience in solidarity. While I had grand visions of saving souls, the reality was very different: I could not greatly change their circumstances, no matter how many baby blankets and onesies I brought with me. They will still struggle. They will still have enormous needs that are not easily met.

But for just a few weeks, we can love. I hold six-month old Axel, whose mother struggles to care for her child with cerebral palsy and other special needs. Each time he cries, I cuddle him close, grateful that he has not given up hope that someone will comfort him. They say Axel is “slow” because his mother neglected him. But I see a mother doing the best she can, despite impossible odds, to care for her two boys and her sister, whose mother died and who had no one to care for her. I understand the isolation and stress of parenting special-needs children, and I encouraged her as best the language barrier would allow. “You are a good mama. This is difficult,” I tell her. Later that day, I see her playing on the floor with her children, laughing and clapping as Kenneth walks several steps on his own. She catches my eye, and I laugh with her.

Love really is the most powerful force in the universe.

Day 4: Blessed Abundance

Missionary life, like motherhood, is not a 9-5, M-F proposition. The tiny routines of our lives — the feeding and tending and being fully present — are part of each day’s experience. They are part of us.

For the past few days, my tiny routines have changed. As a mother of two teenagers, I’ve swapped out nagging and exasperation for the gentle rhythms of swaddling and rocking, of returning to a kind of childhood where I struggle to make myself understood, as the adults around me patiently try to figure out what it is I want. It’s humbling, yet a bit liberating — I’ve had more sleep these past four days than in the last four years.

marketToday we took a break from sorting clothing donations to go into the city to the farmer’s market. The stalls lined a city block (both sides), with multicolor produce of every imaginable shape and color. I counted six kinds of fruit I could not name (in English OR Spanish), plus one kind of green vegetation that looked a bit like collard greens and smelled exactly like cilantro. Locally made cheese and meats (the slaughter house is just down the street from the Center), and roasted coconut completed the shopping.

While it is possible to buy the chips and chocolates and fast food that is so freely available at home, somehow I just can’t bring myself to eat it — not when so much of this good stuff is readily available. It’s too hot to eat vast quantities of food — I just keep chugging the agua con limone. Oh, and today at lunch we had lemonade with ginger. Yum.

Back at the Center, it’s nearing naptime. I assemble a fruit salad and make a cheese plate – the perfect lunch after a day on the town. No sooner have I had the last bite, I hear the cries of an infant who does NOT want to sleep, thank you very much. Tia Heidi to the rescue. Runny nose and teary eyes, the little one smiles through his tears as he looks up at me. He, too, has discovered the joy of simple abundance … of the new lady with the ample bosom who never tires of taking him in her arms and rocking him to sleep. Once I have him finally settled, the next one decides it’s his turn … and a third smacks himself in the head and starts wailing at my feet, determined not to be left out of the besos.

adorationNow, I’m not saying that life at the Center isn’t without its challenges – the on again, off again plumbing; the lack of electrical outlets to charge my cell phone, the language barriers, the stifling heat and mosquitos. But there is blessed abundance as well — the new friends, the delicious sleep under the mosquito netting, the daily Rosary (a ten-year-old girl named Lola is teaching me), the early mornings when I venture by bus to the center of town to offer prayers for the work of the Mission, and watch as local Christians gently stroke the tabernacle like the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment. Above all, the opportunity to slow down enough to breathe and sleep and revel in the gentle simplicity of life. And I thank God for the blessings of such blessed abundance.

Day 3: Adventure!

For the third day in a row, a mysterious cell phone woke me up at 4:30. I had expected crying babies … phantom technology, not so much. At first I thought it was my upstairs neighbor, until I met her, carrying a flashlight, on the stairs. “Oh, I thought it was YOUR phone!” Turns out, the phone in question was in a locked apartment that belongs to the woman who runs the Center … who was on an outreach and would be back the next day.

First Mass 052617Ah, well. I decided to try out the public transport system in order to make the 8:00 Mass at the church near the town square. I grabbed a handful of change, my dictionary and Spanish-English Bible, and a water bottle and headed out. The gate was locked, but one of the mamas offered to let me out if I’d pick her up some diapers. Seemed like a fair exchange.

Now the thing you need to know about roads in this area is that they are not for the faint of heart. They are serpentine and narrow, and the “shoulder” is an abrupt drop-off; a truck coming from the other direction could startle you into making a turn that would take out your undercarriage. No joke. At night this is particularly scary, since the fog flares at regular intervals, obscuring oncoming traffic and the hazard cones that they erect in the middle of roads in lieu of actually, you know, repairing them.

But if it was my turn to go, at least it would be on my way to Mass. So I got on the bus, sat next to a nice young woman, and attempted to ask if I needed the same bus on the way back. Judging by the horrified look on her face, I must have said something like, “Can I have your firstborn child?”  So I sat quietly until I saw the church spires, then got off the bus and hoped for the best.

First Mass 052617The Eglesia de San Benedicto offers adoration before Mass in a side chapel. I went in and found a seat, and watched as each person who entered the room went to the tabernacle, gently stroked the front, resting their hand on the vessel for a moment. Some approached the tabernacle on their knees. One white-haired old gentleman got as far as my pew before spotting a tiny white stone in his path, the size of a lentil. “Phht,” he snorted, swiping it out of his way. It made me smile … apparently piety has its limits.

Feeling self-conscious about not having properly (culturally speaking) reverenced the tabernacle on the way in, I made my way to the front as I prepared to leave. I knelt and stroked the lower edge of the ornately carved tabernacle. At that moment, I thought of the woman who clutched the edge of Jesus’ garment, desperate for healing. It is the gesture of one who is utterly convinced of her own dependency, and unwilling to bypass even the tiniest chance for healing.

EMPANADASAfter Mass I ventured out to find diapers, then some galletas (cookies) to share at lunch, chocolate chip and mango-flavored empanatas. Seeing these little pies reminded me that I had not yet found the local specialty, cheese filled pies made from Turrialba cheese. So I fixed that.

As I ate, I composed one of those letters an editor hates to send: a rejection letter to an author who had worked hard on her proposal, but I had been unsuccessful in getting it through committee. The Gospel today spoke of a woman laboring to give birth, the joys and sorrows associated with that experience. In a certain sense, authors labor, too … And its always hard when the labor doesn’t produce a real, live book. And yet, I also knew that God’s plan for that author is not foiled by one closed door. I simply had to detach, and trust.

I made it back to the Center (via taxi, which was only slightly more than bus) around lunch time, tired but happy with the outcome of my first solo adventure here.

Home. Safe. Thanks be to God.






The Circular Mercy of God

An old Portuguese proverb (sometimes attributed to Thomas Merton), reminds us that “God writes straight with crooked lines.” While God cannot be accused of pointless meandering or false steps — his ways are perfect, after all — the same cannot be said of us. And because he has given us free will, God sometimes allows us to take detours, taking us in circular routes to accomplish his purposes in our lives.

prince of peaceBy way of example, I was twelve when I got my first organist gig at this little country church, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hamburg, NJ. It was my first taste of liturgy, and the people there (particularly the longsuffering Reverend Richard Izzard and his lovely wife Eileen) were so kind to me. It was a small but necessary step in my spiritual journey, and these dear friends supported me when it came time for my first short-term mission experience. I think it is one of God’s little jokes that, thirty five years later, my family now belongs to Queen of Peace, a homey little Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Although you can’t tell from the picture, this church can be seen for miles, lying at the top of a hillside along U.S. 94. And one wintery day in January 1983, just a short distance down that hill, my life took another unexpected turn … a car accident in which I was badly injured and hospitalized for more than a month. As a result, I was no longer able to have children. But in his circular mercy, God redeemed even this sorrow. That accident took me on a circuitous route through missionary training, into the Catholic Church, and prompted us to adopt Chris and Sarah. In the words of Thomas Merton, “There is no earthly sorrow heaven cannot heal.”

mitchell familyIn just a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Costa Rica to help a dear friend of mine, Colleen Mitchell and her husband Greg. Colleen is the author of a wonderful book, Who Does He Say You Are? in which she shares the story of her own motherly grief, in which the loss of her infant son Bryce and four subsequent miscarriages led her and her husband Greg to create a maternity home for indigenous women and their children in Costa Rica. You can read more about it here.

It kind of takes my breath away, thinking of the way God orchestrated all this. Who would have thought, when I was lying broken by the side of the road, that God would use it all to change the lives of two children who had not yet been born? Who would have thought that, after I left missionary work and became Catholic, God would resurrect that desire to serve as a Catholic missionary? Who would have thought that, in his infinite mercy, God would redeem the brokenness of another family, using it to reach a group of people who might otherwise never have known about his infinite mercy?

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds….
You are the God who works wonders.

What’s your story? How has God’s circular mercy been at work in your life? Please consider how you might help to support the work of St. Bryce Missions, and please pray for us as we prepare to go and volunteer — holding babies all day. I can scarcely wait!

Summer in Senegal

The heat of the day was still steaming in waves off the sand as the plane descended, touching down upon the Senegalese countryside. I was barely twenty, and was about to begin a year of internship at a mission school. By day I taught ESL and helped as I could around the school. Nights and weekends I studied French, explored the city, and became active at the mission church, Mission Uni Mondial (United World Mission).

The leadership of the small cement-block chapel had within the past few years transitioned from mission to national control. Pastor Jose and his wife Frans-Lise, along with the associate Pastor Timothy, had been asking God to send them someone who could play the electronic keyboard for worship services. It seemed that I was to be the answer to that prayer.

And in a funny way, they were the answer to mine as well. Six college students — two women from Nigeria, plus four men from Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Camaroon — made up the rest of the band, and together we traveled out in the bush from time to time for evangelistic concerts. (I couldn’t say much, but managed to keep up with the driving percussion section.) The songs themselves were French translations of the hymns I knew by heart … though they sounded nothing like the reverent vespers I sang as a child. A full percussion section drove the strings and bass, with vocalists swaying and carrying the tune with a high-pitched falsetto that initially grated on my ears … and I’m sure would have assaulted the sensibilities of the original composers. But it was the sound of Africa, plain and simple.


That year was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Later, I majored in international studies and communications, and came to understand some of the sociological nuances of cross-cultural relations. I learned first-hand how deeply held convictions can be shaken to the core when confronted with those who do not share the same assumptions. Even more significant, I learned how cultural biases color religious sensibilities. While Jesus came to save the whole world, each culture tends to interpret that message through the lens of their collective experience.

For example, shortly after I made friends with these college students it came to my attention that each of them were able to attend the University of Dakar because their respective countries had fronted the money for their education with the understanding that they would return and work off their debt in service — those who had received a medical degree would work for a government clinic, those who had studied foreign languages in the diplomatic corp, and so on. I also saw that, at least in Senegal, manual labor was considered demeaning, and so it was often the women who were forced to support their families through domestic service. This inequity bothered me. Weren’t the men ashamed to force their wives to tie their children to their backs and scrub floors on hands and knees, while they lounged at home?

I was commenting on this to my new friends, who happened to be at my home one evening for dinner (I introduced them to the wonders of spaghetti). “Tell me, Rene,” I said to the one who was usually most amiable and patient with my linguistic faux pas. “What is it that motivates you to study so hard and try to better your situation, when you will be forced to support a large number of idle relatives, many of whom are perfectly capable of working but refuse?”

He looked at me sharply, and hesitated. I could see he was trying to give me the benefit of the doubt … but could not find the basis for it. Finally, he sputtered, “How can you call yourself a Christian and be unwilling to take care of your own family? I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

How I wished at that moment I could slurp my words back into my mouth as readily as those noodles. I was grateful when someone else turned the conversation, leaving me to ponder what I had just learned.

L’Estranger… Encore!

Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself on the edge of bridging yet another cultural divide — this one even more complex than what I had experienced in Senegal because it involved changing not just cultures but allegiances. Intellectually I was confident that I was making the right choice; emotionally, I was back on the plane, looking out the window at the unfamiliar landscape as I prepared to walk away from everything that was familiar and safe. It was the right thing to do … still, I lingered at the edge of my seat, a lump in my throat. And in the stillness, I remembered the haunting little melody based on Psalm 23 that had become especially dear to me while tinkling the ivories out in the African bush.

L’Eternel est mon Berger ! De rien je ne manque;

L’Eternel est mon Berger, de rien je ne manquerai….

(The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need.

The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing more I want.)

And so, today when I came across this rendition of the “Our Father,” sung by Father HoLung and the Missionaries of Charity, I understood that the images of the exuberant singing, and of the joyful procession all the way up to the altar would be disturbing to some.

But when I read of this priest’s work among the poor and marginalized, I couldn’t help it. I just had to sing along. (For those who are interested, here is more about the Missionaries to the Poor. Here is also a link from EWTN on a related story.)