Franciscan Influences: Appreciating Our Neighbors

Sharon Danner Features

This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that partners-in-ministry find compelling. The previous reflection was written by a staff member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina. Below, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Triangle, Virginia, describes the impact that nine visits with a community of people in Lima, Peru, have had on her, describing what she has learned about the ministry of presence.

In 2007, I and three other parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in northern Virginia were invited to join Bob Menard, OFM, on a visit to the missionary friars in Lima, Peru. After meeting friars Paul Breslin, OFM, Chris Dunn, OFM, Tony Wilson, OFM, and Carlos Sarmiento, OFM, we returned from that trip with the desire to do something that might help them with their work there and truly benefit the people we met. What we did not realize at the time was how we ourselves would benefit even more.

Sharon Danner, right, with other participants in this year’s trip to Lima – Michelle Nicolai, Grace Nicolai, Angela Reza, and Kerry Danner-McDonald. (Photo courtesy of the author)

In 2009, we established an annual pilgrimage of our parishioners at St. Francis to visit our Franciscan brothers and sisters in Peru. We call this a “Mission of Presence.” Through the years, many people from our community have participated in these experiences. Fourteen of us have traveled there more than one time and 10 meet regularly to plan the trip and to do fundraising for the friars. I have been there nine times, most recently in July.  In total, 110 individual visits to Peru have been taken by our parishioners over the last decade.

Why have I returned to Peru year after year? It is to share in some small way in the lives of the people we have met there – in the many lessons they have taught us. Coordinating this ministry has, for both my husband Terry and me, become the center of how we try to live out our faith. Because of the poverty and lack of resources there, I am much more aware of the need to not be wasteful of what we have and of respecting all of creation.

Compassion for All

Some of the participants in the 2019 visit to Peru. At left is Ignatius Harding, OFM, and at right is the author. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Danner)

St. Francis taught us to be “simple and pure, in all humility and charity.” It is in our visits to Peru that I see this so clearly because the people we have come to know there are living their lives in just this way. Their Franciscan hospitality is so evident. We share a love with one another that transcends our inability to speak the same language, holding one another in prayer and with great hugs when we do see each other. This work, which is truly a pleasure, has shaped my life in many ways.

Several recent participants in this mission trip have shared what they learned from this experience. They all spoke how aware they were of the poverty and inequality balanced by generous hospitality and love.

Kerry Danner-McDonald shared that the take-away for her was “the importance of living and working amidst those one hopes to serve. Fr. Tony showed us so many creative endeavors to help support the community. The friars were clearly beloved and they loved the people with whom they worked. That love was contagious and empowering for all of us.”

“As a teacher, I was so blessed to spend time in the classrooms at Santa Ana. What surprised and humbled me was learning so much from the teachers. They were doing wonderful things with bare minimum resources,” said Michelle Nicolai, who went for the first time this year. “As people of God, and Franciscans in particular, we are called to have compassion for all we meet, as everyone is made in the likeness of God. I had the privilege of meeting Fr. Tony, Fr Carlos, and Sister Dolores, and they are doing just that. They live among the people of Santa Ana and provide an example to us of literally walking alongside those people that others may have forgotten. I agree with all those who told me that this mission trip was life-changing. My spirit has changed, my faith has changed, my compassion has changed, and my perspective has changed. God willing, I can take the experiences I have had in Peru and affect change in my own community.”

Shifting Perspective
Michelle’s daughter, Grace, who is a college student, also was on this year’s trip. She offered these comments “Since I have been home, things have been different. Peru has shifted my perspective on life and taught me to look at situations differently. There is no doubt in my mind that this trip will play a role in shaping the person I am to become.” I think she said this well; it certainly has played a role in who I have become and who I have yet to become.

Tony Wilson with Santa Ana parishioners in the Nuevo Progresso neighborhood of Lima, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Danner)

Anne Tunney, who has made four trips says, “All I can say is that these experiences are life-changing. We can accomplish little to change lives in our short visits there but it can be enough to change us forever. Since my first visit over 12 years ago, I’ve been unable to turn on my faucet without thinking of the millions that struggle daily for the gift of clean water. I wish every parishioner – actually every American – could have the opportunity!”

Geoffrey Thome, who also made the trip this year, said, “In Santa Ana, I saw a strong and vibrant church with remarkable and effective outreach to the community, and I came away with a renewed desire to support their work in any way they need.”

On this recent trip, we were gifted with a slide presentation from Santa Ana School that expresses something of our mutual relationship. “We want to thank you for your presence among us because with it you show us the appreciation and love that you have for us. Thank you for coming to our community and sharing the bonds of friendship and fraternity. We are from different cultures, but we have some things in common that unite us as brothers and sisters, the same faith, and the same Franciscan charism. You and we, and many other people around the world, share the feeling of being children of Francis, the poor brother.”

It seems this pilgrimage affects all who participate, in some way — both those who travel there and those who live there, as we are neighbors on this fragile planet. The well-known Fred Rogers once said, “in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.” I can honestly say that all of us who have been on this mission have felt our lives enriched by that. The mutual appreciation of the people of Saint Francis and Santa Ana is indeed sacred. We are thankful to have been a part of this.

Sharon Danner, a native of southern California, has been a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., since 1987.  She and her husband Terry are members of the St. Francis of Assisi Sister Parish Committee.