by Susan Feeney, Skillman, NJ, who participated in the Maryknoll Lay Missioner’s Friends Across Borders (FAB) program in Tanzania.
My journey to participate in the Friends Across Borders trip to Tanzania began in Jerusalem in July 2014. I had begun to process what I might do when I “retire” from the practice of law. In the Church of the Resurrection at the Tomb of Christ, I received a message from Jesus to go serve others. Immediately upon my return, Maryknoll Father Mike Snyder showed up at my parish, Saint Charles Borromeo, in Skillman, New Jersey, for Mission Sunday: After Saturday vigil Mass, I was invited to be part of a small group who took Fr. Mike to dinner. Hearing his stories of the many years he spent in Tanzania doing mission work intrigued me and led me to the Maryknoll Lay Missioner website.
Lay Missioner Cecilia Espinoza, who directs the FAB trips, made the process very easy and
answered any questions I had. Not only was Cecilia accompanying us on this trip but we also had Fr. Bill Vos, a veteran Maryknoll Father who spent 19 years in Tanzania going with us as a guide. Fr. Bill believes in the central role of lay Catholics in all ministries and, therefore, in mission – the very heart of being church. Prior to traveling, Cecilia and Fr. Bill prepared us well with packing advice and other relevant information. Packing for two weeks in a carry-on and knapsack was an easier challenge than I originally envisioned.
So, on August 6, 2015, I left for Dar Es Salaam flying through Zurich. Upon arrival in Dar Es Salaam, I met Fr. Bill and three Iowans, Dale, Dave and Michelle, along with Deacon Peter from my own Diocese in New Jersey, who would become my friends that week. Four others joined us at various times that evening. After spending the night in Dar, we left the next morning for Mwanza, a busy city on the shores of Lake Victoria. Once in Mwanza, we met Kristle Bulleman, a young Lay Missioner, who would be our guide for the week. She gave us a crash course in the Swahili language to which we responded “Asante” or “Thank you.” Natalie Kadio, a friend and partner of MKLM in Mwanza, provided a wonderful presentation on life in Tanzania, including historical and cultural information about Tanzanians and the Sukuma tribe. She also discussed the major needs of the people and the country – something we would see ourselves as the days unfolded. Most Tanzanians live without running water, plumbing and electricity. Adequate healthcare is difficult to find. The challenges of everyday life can be overwhelming.
In Mwanza, we were exposed to the work of a number of the Lay Maryknoll Missions. First was Mass in Mabatini Parish where we met Maryknoll Brother Loren Beaudry. We were greeted by “Karibuni” meaning “Welcome.” The Mass was lively with a wonderful choir. On the altar were “gifts” including a live rooster and chicken brought for Brother Loren and Father Lam Hua. All the Tanzanians welcomed us warmly.
We then had a tour of Mwanza and a welcome dinner at the home of Maryknoll Lay Missioner Joanne Miya. The rest of the week went by quickly. We visited Constancia Mbgoma, a MKLM affiliate, who works with a group of women who care for orphans. We watched, and helped, as the women made beautiful patterns on cloth that would be turned into khangas. I learned a khanga has many uses as a skirt, baby carrier, headdress and tablecloth, just to name a few. It was a simple yet productive manufacturing process. Deacon Peter had some lively shawls made for his vestments. The proceeds went to support the women and their extended families.
We visited Lubango Center in Nyanshana where Richard Ross works with children in the preschool and supervises the making of jewelry, soaps and other handcrafts which support the program. The Lubango Center was created mainly to address poverty in the area and is made up of a girls’ home craft school, a kindergarten and a library for secondary students. I enjoyed speaking to Richard about his experiences as he worked in corporate America and is doing mission work in his “retirement.”
We visited Education for a Better Living Organization (EBLI) where Michael Leen coaches young mothers from all over Mwanza who had to leave school because of pregnancy become entrepreneurial so they can support themselves and their children. We visited Michael’s wife, Ashley Leen, who runs the Lulu Project. Lulu has a number of groups of young girls and mothers who meet around Mwanza to continue their education and to learn and practice handcraft skills which crafts they sell to contribute toward HISA, their savings and loan program.
We spent a day in the small village of Ibindo where we visited a girls’ school where girls come from all over Tanzania to receive a good education under the guidance of African priests. Back in Mabatini, we observed Kristle Bulleman’s health ministry where she works with local Tanzanian women to grow various plants which, when dried and packaged, become natural healing remedies. This ministry aims to educate the community on effective health practices as well as encourage the use of natural medicine to prevent disease. We climbed high in the hills of Mabatini to visit a paralyzed friend of Kristle’s whose mother welcomed us with sweet potatoes and tea. Kristle arranges for physical therapy services for this young man. The paralyzed young man was a very good artist and many of us purchased art from him that day in the hopes he would be able to buy more supplies. My artwork now hangs in my home as a reminder of the challenges that young man faces.
We also visited the Uzima Center run by Joanne Miya which provides needed services to people living with HIV/AIDS and to orphans and vulnerable children. “Uzima” means “Well ness” in Swahili. We had an interactive session helping local boys and girls making beaded necklaces, earrings, crafts, pillows and crosses. The money the children make helps to pay school fees and living expenses. Needless to say, we bought Joanne out of stock that day! We then had lunch at Joanne’s home and her husband, Martin, prepared a delicious Tanzanian stew for us.
We also traveled to Musoma where we met veteran Maryknoll Lay Missioner, Liz Mach. Liz welcomed us to her home like a true Tanzanian and cooked us quite a feast. She shared with us her ‘stories working as a nurse in various capacities over her almost 40 years in Tanzania. Liz works with women’s health issues, including maternal mortality, obstetric fistula and gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation which she is working to alleviate. We then visited with the street children of Jipe Moyo and Sister Cha Cha. The transitional housing facility is a home for street boys and girls running from gender-based violence. The children put on a wonderful dance and song show for us. We also heard firsthand the stories of gender-based violence committed against some of the girls. I will forever remember the vibrant personality of one small five-year old who was found on the streets and brought by the police to the school where she is now safe and thriving. We shared a wonderful dinner with the students and this five-year old was so excited to have her favorite rice dish with us!
We then spent the last two days in the beautiful Serengeti on safari. I have to admit I felt a bit guilty doing this after visiting so many who did not have adequate food or shelter. But the beauty of seeing God’s creatures in their natural environment had a certain spiritual side to it. You can see God at work in the natural order of it all in the Serengeti.
Throughout our visit, we had morning and evening reflections which really brought us together as a group. Our reflections frequently included the writings of Pope Francis in the “Joy of the GospeL”. His words came alive as we witnessed the everyday struggles of the people we visited. Fr. Bill was an insightful spiritual leader for these discussions. The thoughts of my fellow travelers were also helpful to me in my faith journey. I think we would all agree that our immersion trip touched our hearts and changed us in many ways.
We encountered Jesus among the Tanzanians we met and had new hope and renewed faith during our trip. For me, I intend to continue my discernment process to determine if missioner work is my true vocation. I am grateful to Fr. Bill, Cecilia, Kristle and all the missioners acting as our “boots on the ground” in Tanzania, and especially my fellow immersion travelers. I know I made some new friends, both in Tanzania and in the U.S.
As we continue to reflect on what we saw, heard and experienced in Tanzania, we will carry these experiences in our hearts and continue to reflect how we can support the work and lives of the Tanzanians and Maryknoll Lay Missioners on our return home. To my new friends, “Saki Salama” meaning “Stay in Peace.”