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Franciscan Influences: Learning With Missioners

This is one of a continuing series by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last, written by a staff member of Holy Name Parish in New York City, appeared in the March 27, 2013 issue of HNP Today. Here, a former participant in the Franciscan Mission Service program shares the impact that people she has met both in South America and in New Jersey has had on her. 

I am a relative newcomer to the Franciscan family. My first dance with the Franciscan life was in 2006 when Franciscan Mission Service director Megeen White-Testa drew my husband Richard and me to the FMS lay missionary program by her humility, simplicity, openness, and loving presence, and then by handing us maracas, a tambourine and a rainstick to make music at a Mass with just three people, in the tiny chapel at Casa San Salvador in Washington.

During the 12-week FMS formation, Megeen invited various returned missioners to share stories. Their lessons rise up today from my memory, many times in a flash of stark contrast to this American lifestyle. The following excerpts are adapted from my recollections and are missioner tales as well as examples of Franciscan charism.

Stories from Abroad
“The poor have nothing to lose by asking you for what you have. It’s not a lack of respect. Many times, it is essential in order to survive. In the Sierra Leonean village where I lived, a woman who had many children asked me for my ration of rice almost every day. Sometimes, I gave to her and went without. Other days, I said no. There were no hard feelings.”

“A woman came to my hut every day, asking, “How are you?” Then we sat for hours, sipping tea without saying hardly anything else. After a few months of doing this and learning from her example of patience, I finally earned her trust and was welcomed into the village.”

“You are walking on sacred ground as a foreign missionary. God is already at work through his people. Look for him in them.”

“After attending the funerals of villagers who had succumbed to disease, I finally allowed the grief to overcome me. I sobbed aloud at the funeral of a child I had known. A man standing next to me said, ‘Sister, now that our suffering has become your suffering, we are one family.'”

“As young friars living abroad, we treated ourselves at times to golf at the country club. One day, as we left the country club gates in our car, a family was seated on the road, outside the fence, sharing what they had to eat. The image struck us. We were inside at a place of privilege and the poor were outside. Where did Jesus stand? We, as friars, are called to choose which side of the fence to stand on. My brother friar and I canceled our club membership and sold our car soon after.”

Colorful, Dedicated Friends
The lay missioners and friars told of quiet moments of conversion via the radical joy and deep pain of the poor, humbly standing in solidarity, learning to receive gifts, choosing less material comfort, and recognizing brothers and sisters in the least expected places. Our hearts and minds carried these stories to Bolivia in January 2007, where and when we met an array of colorful and fraternal friends from the Franciscan family. I will highlight only two of many.

Don Pavel, a Third Order Secular Franciscan, worked every Friday cutting vegetables and meat and served the meal on Saturdays to the 200 poor who stood in line for soup. Once a year, Don left Cochabamba with one change of clothes, a bar of soap and his Bible, in order to travel for several weeks throughout the Bolivian Amazon to evangelize among the tribal peoples. He ate what was offered, sometimes monkey or snake, and slept on woven mats in open air pahuichis (huts). Don Pavel radically walked in Francis’ footsteps.

Ignacio Harding, OFM, the FMS supervisor in Cochabamba, has served for over 40 years in Bolivia. He worked hard to learn the indigenous language, Aymara, one of the many languages of the most disenfranchised in Bolivian society.

Always in a habit, Iggy arrived at our community dinners on his motorcycle with ice cream strapped to the back and pockets full of treats. He’d encourage us, “Go for the gold!” and never left without an abrazo de oso (bear hug) for everyone. He was our Don Quixote, whisking us up the winding cliff roads to see the San Lucas diocesan clinic in action in its service to the isolated mountain pueblos; sending us 16 hours by bus plus three hours upriver to a Franciscan Eco-Spiritual Retreat with his friend, environmental crusader Rosa Maria; planting trees on Franciscan properties in both tropical and desert climates; and promoting brotherly, sisterly and lay Franciscan fraternal gatherings through a convent and monastery crawl.

“Brother Iggy,” as he insisted he be called, is truly a Friar Minor, at the service of others, dreaming the impossible dream of Justicia, Paz y Integridad de Creacion in Bolivia. Don Pavel and Iggy brought Francis to life for me in Cochabamba.

From Bolivia to Camden
But part of the purpose of the Franciscan Mission Service is to send missioners back to the United States for lifelong mission to American society. We were to bring the lessons of Franciscan charism and radical Gospel inspired choices back to evangelize the U.S. Feeling lost in a fuzzy dream sequence of reverse culture shock, a friend sent me in March of 2010 to Camden, N.J., to check out St. Anthony of Padua Parish. There, Jud Weiksnar, OFM, described a Catholic parish with an HIV/AIDS community, a community garden, and justice in action through grassroots community organizing, while speaking Spanish! Justicia, Paz y Integridad de Creacion in Camden? Si, se puede.

Fast forward to May 2013. Fr. Jud is now my pastor and my boss. Like Iggy, Jud also dreams the impossible dream of justice, peace and integrity of creation. He envisions a transformed Camden by empowering kids to become change agents in their local world and empowering families to grow their own organic produce. He humbly invites the laity, women and Franciscan Volunteer Ministers to become partners-in-ministry.

Jud chooses to live simply, saving energy and consuming less, in environmental consciousness and in solidarity with the poor he serves. He answers the doorbell for Gary, Willy, or Anthony, the usual people who ring multiple times to ask for coffee and a sandwich. For eight years, Jud has chosen to live on the Camden side of the fence.

My current dance with the Franciscan life incorporates steps from Megeen, Pavel, Iggy and Jud as instructors, among many other partners-in-ministry along the way. They’ve taught me that the poor should always remain at the center of my dance. The continuing steps must repeat – Jesus’s and Francis’s radical choices of love, inclusivity, solidarity, humility, hospitality, simplicity, all movement towards the impossible dream of justice, peace and integrity of creation (JPIC), one part of the reign of God.

— Kristen Zielinski-Nalen, a native of Bucks County, Pa., has worked at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J., as director of two ministries — Hispanic and JPIC — since 2010.