Russel Murray, OFM, Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, and students from three schools where friars minister — Siena College, St. Bonaventure University and the University of Georgia — recently traveled to South Africa on a short-term mission trip through a program run by the Franciscan Mission Service.
Led by Paul and chaperoned by Russel, the trip lasted from May 22 to June 4, giving eight students a taste of mission and helping them develop a deeper understanding of mission through the ministry of presence, according to Paul.
Exploring South Africa
The group visited Cape Town, where they saw Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment. They also visited Johannesburg’s training school for disadvantaged students run by friars, and spent time at an AIDS hospice, also run by friars.
“While at the hospice, we spent the day visiting with patients and 30 children ages two months to seven years who have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic,” said Paul. Until this spring, he had served as development director for FMS. “We also visited Soweto, hope of the Apartheid struggle, and the Nelson Mandela House museum. Lastly, we ended our mission trip in the Northwest Province, where we had a chance to experience rural life, spend time with a local Catholic youth group, and go on a day safari to experience the natural wonders of South Africa.”
South Africa was chosen for the trip for several reasons, most notably the ease of travel — American citizens don’t need VISAs to visit — and because keeping students healthy is easier in South Africa than in other African countries — food and water are all safe and there is no threat of tropical illnesses like malaria. Also Paul has several contacts in the country who were willing to host students.
“Also, South Africa is a mix of modern, developed places that resemble the United States, as well as the most dire poverty in Africa,” he said. “The contrasts can be extreme and very moving.”
While most overseas mission trips are organized around a project of some kind, this trip was designed to give participants a “taste of mission, a chance to see what Franciscans and other religious are doing to bring about the kingdom of God in South Africa, as well as a chance to share ourselves and our lives with South Africans through the ministry of presence,” Paul said. “For many students, this chance to connect with people and to share their lives and struggles was the most important and meaningful part of the trip. We did not leave behind a building or some other project, but we did leave our hearts and our solidarity with those we encountered.”
Growing as Franciscans
The short-term mission trip focused on “personal growth and development in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, that is, coming to understand yourself first and foremost as a sister or brother to the people around you by entering into their lives in a way that empowers them to recognize and own their dignity as daughters and sons of God,” according to Russel. He serves as director of the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy at Siena College.
“Everything we did was rooted in a lived experience of lesser sister-and brotherhood in the spirit of St. Francis,” he said. “It was from this context that we reached out to the people we met and entered into their lives. We went among people as their lesser sisters and brothers: humbled to be welcomed by them and entrusted with their stories, grateful to offer whatever we could, even if only our presence, for the betterment of their lives.”
Throughout the trip, the students’ experience of being a Franciscan community “was both fostered and nourished by simple living, common prayer — which the students organized and led — and daily communal reflection,” Russel said. “This was not the norm for most of the students on the trip. Nevertheless, they all took the risk to embrace it with an open mind and heart and, for lack of a better word, it simply ‘worked.’”
The journey provided an occasion for students to see themselves and their world in new ways, according to Russel. “I have never returned from a trip abroad, especially an extended trip, and looked at the world I live in — the nation, the Church, the Province, my relationships with friends and family and myself — in the same way. It was the same for the students, with many of them beginning to do so even before we left South Africa.”
Paul agreed. “The students were clearly affected by what they saw and experienced. I spoke with most of them when I came home and each of them said that they were changed by the experience and have a desire to do more to help people in their home communities where they live and go to school,” he said. “All of them said they have felt a greater call to service and remaining true to the principles they learned through practicing the ministry of presence.”
For Russel, the trip reemphasized the importance of fraternal life as friars for evangelization.
“The students were taken with the way that Paul and I related to one another as brothers and, even more so, with the effective value we placed on visiting each evening with the brothers hosting us in Johannesburg,” he said. “Far more than anything we do, who we are as lesser brothers with one another, humbled by our vocation and expressing our gratitude for it by joyfully making time for one another, speaks volumes to people about the life and beauty of the Gospel.”
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.