Mission work has long been a draw for students on spring break, but STEM programs…
Student trips provide space for conversion
The Catholic faith is a tactile, incarnational faith. It is a faith of long memory, including the memory of physical things: relics and books, and places for pilgrimage. It is also a lived faith, one in which we are called by Jesus to works of mercy, to love our neighbor as ourselves, even to care for the “least of these” (cf. Mt 25:31-46).
In this spirit, the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center at Minnesota State University in Mankato hosts pilgrimages and mission trips for students each year.
“Pilgrimages and mission trips have been going on at the Newman Center as long as I can remember,” said Joe Bakken, director of campus ministry at the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center. Bakken has been at the Newman Center for eight years and said that the trips started well before he did. He leads one every year.
The last several years have included trips around the country — to Los Angeles, New Orleans and New Jersey — and abroad — such as Rome, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Leaving the comfort zone
“What has prompted these opportunities is that we want to provide a holistic experience for the students here at the Newman Center,” Bakken said. “Corporal works of mercy and experiencing the richness of our Catholic faith in a more tangible way is very important to the formation of our students.” Bakken wants to ensure that students do not become insular and navel-gazing with their faith, but that they be directed toward service.
“Providing these opportunities to go out and experience serving the poor through mission trips helps students to see the reality of poverty in the world and the need to serve those who have less. We often feel so detached from what life is like for some people. I think this really helps us encounter Christ,” he said.
These are meant to be eye-opening experiences that take the students out of their comfort zones.
“Every day we take for granted the simple comforts of a shower, going out to eat, sleeping in a warm bed,” Bakken said. “I think when students see how much of the world lives on so little, it opens their eyes.”
Short-term mission trips are more about internally changing the students, inspiring them to go home and continue the work, including inspiring others.
Called to conversion
Pilgrimages, on the other hand, serve a similar but distinct purpose for the students. “They are also a journey that exposes us to something that we wouldn’t see unless we were there,” Bakken said. “It is a journey of spiritual significance.”
Students have the opportunity to visit the holy places where Jesus was condemned by Pilate, or where Peter was crucified. “These holy sites and experiences bring to life the richness of our faith. Having the opportunity to see and to learn helps create a deeper connection with Christ and his Church.”
The purpose of these trips, essentially, is conversion.
“The Catholic definition of conversion is a ‘lifelong journey,'” Bakken said. “If we want to grow in our faith, how are we encountering Christ throughout our life?”
Bakken strongly believes that mission trips and pilgrimages are opportunities that provide a rich encounter with Christ.
“We experience things we never have before, and we get to see things that we never would have before,” she said. “When we encounter Christ in this way, it brings our faith alive and it draws us closer to him. It is a point of conversion and an experience of beauty.”
Working with locals
Lillie McDermott is a sophomore at Minnesota State, pursuing a major in biomedical sciences with minors in chemistry and nonprofit leadership. She plans to go to medical school and ultimately to work as a medical missionary. During spring break in 2018 she went on the Newman Center’s mission trip to Guatemala.
“Every morning we would start off the day by celebrating Mass and then head out to a work site that we were assigned to for the day,” McDermott said.
She worked at the mission school, laying a foundation for a new building and at multiple houses that were built for families in need. At every mission site the group worked alongside local people who would direct them in the projects.
“This set-up was very important to the mission, because it not only employed many locals, but it also gave us the opportunity to learn from them,” she said.
The experience changed her life forever, she said. As a college freshman, she constantly was being asked what she wanted to be. “Guatemala helped me answer the question of who do I want to be,” she said. “While being able to interact with, talk with and work alongside the local people, my heart was constantly humbled.”
‘Called to do more’
Working so closely with the local people had a profound impact on her. “The people showed me a simpler way of living,” McDermott said. “These simple lives allow them to not get attached to and obsess over worldly possessions like we do. This detachment allows room for the joy of God to flood into their lives. The reverence they had for the Lord and their constant thankfulness to him was beautiful and inspiring.”
She said she now strives to be a person who is grateful and rejoices and gives thanks in all circumstances, “one who lives in the joy of the Lord.”
“The Lord spoke to me in so many beautiful ways during my time in Guatemala, but it was there where I knew I was called to do more for these people,” McDermott said.
This trip was her first time traveling outside of the U.S., as well as her first mission trip. “I have always had the love for medicine and the desire to be a doctor, but the idea of working with medical missions was only a small whisper in my head.”
McDermott feels specifically called to care for impoverished women through medicine, to spread awareness of women’s health but also to ensure the safety of the unborn children many of them carry.
Thanks to the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center, the opportunities afforded to students at Minnesota State allow them to live their faith and to go out into the world and bring the Good News.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.