Treat them Kindly and with Respect
Lay Missioner Vicki Simon in Nairobi, Kenya
Q. What drew you to mission?
A. As far back as I can remember, I have always had a fascination for people of other cultures and foreign languages. When I was only 8 years old I sat spellbound listening to Maryknoll Missioners who came to visit and speak at my parish about their work and told incredible stories. Later, the opportunity to live with a Mexican family and to study at Universidad Iberoamericana, deepened my interest in people of other lands. However it is 32 years later, and after knowing the joys of marriage and motherhood, that I began to have some of those old feelings and interests calling me again- this time to Kenya and the urban poor children of Nairobi.
Q. What made you choose the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful?
A. I chose Maryknoll after reading and researching Catholic missionary groups that needed lay volunteers and that were open to a "mature" single women; many such organizations preferred individuals under age 45. I also wanted to be sure that the group I applied to was not still holding on to the old missionary concepts of "converting the heathens"! There were also several other criteria that were important to me in applying to Maryknoll. First, after reading their literature, I found I believed in their core values and felt I could commit myself to them. Secondly, the importance that Maryknoll placed on preparation and orientation for mission, the emphasis on learning the culture and the local language of the people we would serve, were also so important to me. Finally, as much as I dreaded saying good-bye for almost 4 years, my travel experiences had taught me that a duration of at least three or more years would be necessary to really know and understand the needs of the people and to possibly address some of those needs.
After 3 years, I can confidently say that I made the right choice in choosing Maryknoll. Its selection and orientation process was the best one I could have found in the area of lay missionary work.
Q. How did you find your current ministries?
A. I am not sure if I found my ministries or if they found me. I knew that I wanted to do some "hands-on" work with youth and children, especially disadvantaged or street kids. My teaching, counseling and training background had prepared me well for such work…and I had always enjoyed it so much. But, I also knew that my many years of experience in human resource management, marketing and fund-raising could be helpful here. I think that is how I ended up in two distinct projects- but both of them are really oriented toward the same ministry of helping and developing youth.
I work at the Kibagare Good News Centre three days a week as the Assistant to Sr. George Mumbua, the Director, helping with mostly administrative work. I am helping her by developing personnel policies and practices, which means I am writing some job descriptions, formulating staff performance evaluation procedures and training staff in such things. Since the Centre is across from the Kibagare slum, we have also become a social welfare referral base for those who are sick or emergencies that seem to erupt everyday in the village.
I also assist Cecilia Muthoni, who has been with the Centre since its inception in 1980, with our fund-raising and development activities.
Fr. Carroll Houle, Maryknoll priest, had spoken with me during my orientation in NY about a street kids program in Nairobi called Ukweli Home of Hope project that he had begun in 1995. Tuesdays and Thursdays find me with "my boys" from the streets of Westlands. I work with two social workers - we meet and talk with the kids, counsel, play games, share some food and tea. On other occasions we respond to emergencies – usually medical, arrests or accidents. During the morning hours I now teach a class for those boys who have expressed interest in getting off the streets and who are serious about trying to change their lives.
Q. How has being a lay missioner impacted your life?
A. It has had an impact far greater than I could have anticipated. I’ve never known such poverty- mothers who wake up everyday worrying about how they will feed their children that day. I grew up in the States with a real and wonderful sense that if you work hard enough you can make it- you can change your life. But here, that doesn’t work- no matter how hard one works…life doesn’t change much except for a lucky few.
I try to help these kids and some of their families with where they are…. try to listen and treat them kindly and with respect. That has become what mission is for me most days. Some days I do this well; others not so well.
What I hope to leave these kids with is a skill, some self-confidence, an ability to make some income (no matter how small), peace and reconciliation with family members, less dependence on drugs and alcohol as an answer, less violence in their lives, a sense of self respect, a glimpse of hope for their future, and a sense that this "Mzungu" really does love them.
I also want them to know how valuable what they have given to me is.
What they are giving me is a real sense of hope that comes from within, deep faith in a God they see little tangible evidence of in their lives, joy in worshiping together, relationship as prayer, beautiful smiles that come so easily, an awareness of family as the anchor and cornerstone in their lives, how to live in the present. They have shown me that people and their feelings always take precedence over projects and results. They have reminded me daily of the importance of hospitality and a good handshake.
Their gifts to me have been precious and have impacted my life forever.
Q. What is it like living and working with other Maryknoll Missioners? How do you support each other?
A. The Maryknoll community- Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and especially other lay members of the Maryknoll Mission Association- have been my family here. Some of us live together and work together in the same ministry. And as in all families, I have my "favorites" with whom I socialize, we walk, go out to eat and take in a movie. And when there are too many "ER" moments in my life, they sometimes provide a shoulder I can lean on for a good cry.
Recently, those of us in Nairobi have begun a Pastoral Theological Reflection group that meets once a month. This is a collaborative effort where all Maryknoll missioners come together to pray, share some of our concerns and frustrations, and celebrate the joys together. Overall, I have felt welcomed, supported and have much respect for the Maryknoll community I have come to know here. I am grateful for that and especially for those who have become very good friends.
Q. What advice would you give to someone considering a program like Maryknoll?
A. "Do it for yourself" not for the sake of others…. meaning don’t come with expectations of anyone or anything except yourself. You won’t accomplish much…. but you will learn so much, especially about yourself. It has been like a roller coaster ride for me…you will know joy and much sadness in mission…. hope and despair…. you will feel needed, sometimes too much…. you will love until your heart breaks. And what have I gotten out of all these ups and downs? I think I am just now beginning to understand God’s unconditional love for all of us and why "blessed are the poor".