(Photo courtesy of Franciscan Mission Service)

Building Community with Living Stones

Megeen White Testa Features

This installment of Franciscan Influences, a series published by HNP Today since 2010, is written by a former missioner with the Franciscan Mission Service who spent three years living and serving in Africa. The author, who feels grateful to the friars and Franciscan-hearted people who have influenced her faith, family and life over the past 30 years, reflects on experiences and lessons.

The author with her husband, Russell Testa. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Mission Service)

My first encounter with St. Francis of Assisi, besides the birdbath in the backyard and the peace prayer on the wall at home, was the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” the 1972 Franco Zeffirelli movie portraying Francis and Clare as radical disciples of Christ giving up everything for the Gospel. It seemed so simple to let go of everything after seeing their commitment and ability to abandon the lives they knew for ones that were unknown and immersed in the world of outsiders, relying on faith and the kindness of strangers. Their faithfulness to rebuild the Church, live authentically, and to call out hypocrisy in the community or in the Church when they saw it, sparked in me a strong desire to learn more about these saints and their approach to living. I learned quickly that this type of letting go is not simple and that developing a Franciscan heart takes grace, prayer, and hard work.

Although I went to a Jesuit college, my interest in St. Francis’s approach to living the Gospel stuck with me; after discerning a call to international mission service, I sought out the newly-formed Franciscan Mission Service. The FMS team comprising friars and a Franciscan sister led us through a rigorous and exciting formation program, preparing us with pastoral and liturgical skills and practical cross-cultural knowledge and aptitudes. They grounded us in Franciscan spirituality, prayer, and theology, and the Franciscan approach to mission known as Build With Living Stones (taken from 1 Peter 2: 4-6).

Members of the team brought their expertise and mission experience to every encounter. The director, Anselm Moons, OFM, and Charles Finnegan, OFM, presented to us a vision of the Vatican II Church: inclusive, participatory, and radically committed to social justice and peace as well as an outward-facing faith community, embracing the world community with all its challenges, struggles, hatred, and love. Charlie shared stories of his participation in the Second Vatican Council and how the experience informed and challenged his mission in Brazil. I was in awe of his experience as well as his insights and wisdom regarding Franciscan theology and the Franciscan approach to mission. We would sit silent — amazed at his humility, gentleness, and incredible knowledge on so many topics.

The author with young people in Dete, Zimbabwe, where Megeen served. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Mission Service)

Challenged by Faith and Friars to Walk with Saints
Standing on this foundation, in 1990 I journeyed to Zimbabwe and Zambia to live the Gospel in the Franciscan mission tradition. I served for one year with Marist Brothers and two years with the Conventual Franciscans, utilizing my FMS formation to teach scripture, prayer, and music to Franciscan postulants, lead worship when there was no ordained minister present, facilitate youth groups focused on prayer, social analysis, theological reflection, and action for justice and listening to the journeys of women in the parish. Together, we built with living stones renewed hope in these poor and oppressed communities by addressing challenges, strategizing solutions, and supporting those most vulnerable and marginalized.

My FMS formation also affected my role as a high school science and religion teacher, encouraging students to recognize God in all created things, even those which sometimes threatened our livelihoods and/or lives with challenges such as lions, elephants, and drought. Francis saw beauty, goodness, and God’s love in every person equally, and I strived to live this in my relationships with every person I met, including fellow teachers, the friars from six countries, the women I lived with, the youth/students who walked miles each day for a chance to learn and worship, individuals who came daily to ask for help, and those we visited in remote villages. As I sat with elders in uncomfortable silence, played with children in the dirt, or witnessed the most beautiful sunsets, I thought of Anselm’s journey with the Pakistani people or Charlie’s sharing about the radical theology of Francis and Vatican II. These reminders along with a committed Franciscan prayer life sustained me when my faith in my mission was wavering.

The author with Katie Eberhard Mulembe, a lay missioner, during a visit Megeen made to Zambia as a FMS staff member. (Photo courtesy of the Franciscan Mission Service)

When I returned to the United States, God continued to put Franciscans — “living stones” — in my path to encourage, challenge, and support me. While studying at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago I met Franciscans from all over the world and listened to their experiences of the Franciscan life. Depaul Genska, OFM, a funny, down-to-earth, and engaging friar, introduced me to his ministry to women in prostitution and the home he founded with Edwina Gately called Genesis House. He took students on nightly ministry walks to meet and listen to the stories of these women. Acceptance, unconditional love, and suspending judgment were lessons I learned from “living stone” Fr. Depaul. While studying at CTU, I met Mike Perry, OFM, now the Order’s Minister General, who had a heart for the African continent and for social justice, both central to my spirituality at that time. His integration of faith, culture, and justice into living Franciscan mission increased my understanding of the Franciscan approach to the complex issues of economy, cultural identity, and theology. He helped prepare me for my mission in the U.S.

During that time, I also met Joseph Nangle, OFM, who had become the new director of FMS. I eventually joined Fr. Joe on staff at FMS, serving for seven years as co-director with him. This incredible opportunity, to be a part of the formation of new FMS missioners, preparing to serve in solidarity in countries across the globe also further cemented the influence that Franciscanism has had on my life. The privilege of witnessing transformations and growth in these amazing individuals humbled me and reminded me how much more I must learn about what it means to walk with Sts. Francis and Clare.

Working and praying with Fr. Joe was a huge blessing during this time. Fr. Joe lives an authentic Franciscan life – the stories are too many to tell of how he has inspired me – his witness of faith, solidarity, and social justice in Bolivia, Peru, and Washington, D.C. – beckons me to join struggles for justice and to stand on the side of those who are oppressed, poor, and marginalized. Every time I join a protest, sign a petition, call a member of Congress, or meet with people who are suffering and walk with them to find hope and solutions, Joe is there — maybe not in person, but in my heart — motivating me to not give up and to resist cynicism despite the challenges that surround us. His simple lifestyle, deep faith, and liberating spirituality challenge my complacency, calling me to live out those Franciscan values of relinquishment, mutuality, humility, peace, conversion, solidarity, prayer, and mission.

The author with George Corrigan, who served with FMS before joining the Franciscans. (Photo courtesy of Megeen)

Through my time with FMS, I also met wonderful lay missioners who joined HNP as friars after their international service, George Corrigan, OFM, and Paul O’Keefe, OFM, both of whom have educated and encouraged me in my Franciscan journey.

Serving as a Builder in the Reign of God
The other major Franciscan influence in my life is my husband Russ Testa, the justice, peace, and integrity of creation animator for Holy Name Province, a position he has held since 2000. His ability to examine and to interpret complex local, national, and international justice and peace concerns through a Franciscan lens and translate them into concepts that many can understand continues to influence my life — not only by our prayerful reflection and animated analysis and discussions on these topics but also through the conscious choices we make. I think specifically of our decision to farm using sustainable practices at a site that hosts a nonprofit for at-risk young men and to share part of the harvest with those in need. Russ engages with lay JPIC ministry leaders throughout the Province and friars from across the globe with curiosity and interest. He has a keen desire to learn from and appreciate the experiences and perspectives each person brings to a dialogue about Franciscan approaches to addressing complicated problems. As I accompany individuals and families with various health conditions through the complexities of their diagnosis, treatment, chronic illness, or end of life in my career as a nurse, followers of St. Francis of Assisi like Russ inform my approach to these difficult encounters and conversations.

Russ and I belong to St. Camillus Parish in Maryland, a dynamic intercultural Franciscan parish near Washington that has been staffed by many servant friars over the years: Larry Hayes, OFM, Michael Johnson, OFM, Erick López, OFM, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, Jean-Marie Kabango-Lenge, OFM, and Christopher Posch, OFM — all of whom have consistently lived and preached the message of inclusion, mutuality, diversity, and justice in one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington. Our involvement in parish activities has enriched my life for years. It stretches my mind and heart to grow as I recognize my own shortcomings, sins, and biases and learn how to tackle them with the help of new friends, great preaching, inspiring worship, and opportunities for service and engagement.

Dialogue with individuals who think, pray, live, look and act differently from us is central to the architectural design of FMS’ Build with Living Stones approach to mission. Dialogue was central to Francis’s encounter with all living things – from the Sultan to the wolf of Gubbio – approaching in humility and mutuality, deeply listening, and sharing with authenticity. As I continue my Franciscan mission, I am reminded that we are co-builders in the reign of God.

I am grateful for the more than 30 years that HNP friars and Franciscan hearted people have journeyed with me and influenced my faith, family, and everyday life.

— Megeen White Testa, a native of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, is a program manager with the Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Since 1989, she has been an active part of the Franciscan Mission Service family, serving with FMS from 1990 to1993 in Zimbabwe and Zambia, on staff in 1995, and from 2001 to 2008, a board member from 2008 to 2013. She currently serves on the Lifelong Mission Committee and facilitates several workshops during the international lay missioner formation program each year. She and her husband, Russ Testa, were honored with the Anselm Moons Award in 2009.

Editor’s note: Through the years, several former missioners have contributed essays. They include Amanda Ceraldi, Jeff Sved, and Kristen Zielinski-Nalen. The most recent installment in the Franciscan Influences series was written by an alumnus of Siena College, Robert Porcelli