National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

35 years on 'the prophetic edge'

Lay missionary movement takes on world's inequities


“Our task,” said Edwina Gateley, “is to be faithful idiots in a world that seems to many to be abandoned by God.” The Gospel is not for reasonable people or respectable people, she said. “It is for fools willing to place themselves in places of pain and poverty.”

Gateley and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit provided sobering presentations June 24 at a gathering in Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago. The occasion was the 35th anniversary of the Volunteer Missionary Movement, founded by Gateley in England.

She spread the independent, lay-run movement to the United States in 1981. More than 1,700 persons over the years have participated in two-year commitments, mostly in Africa, Latin America and impoverished communities in the United States. The mandate of the movement, she said, is to stand on “the prophetic edge” -- a narrow edge -- between the world as “the realm of God” and the world as “the place of pain and suffering.” However, she added, anyone who believes in the Gospel can be a radical witness by doing “whatever you can to stand against violence and poverty.”

Gumbleton, episcopal adviser to the movement, talked of the scandalous inequalities that bedevil the human race. In a world of some 6 billion people, he said, more than 1 billion live in absolute poverty, while another billion hold 87 percent of the world’s wealth. Every day, he noted, 40,000 children die of hunger-related illnesses. While many live comfortably in “willful blindness,” he said, Christians are called to witness to the fact that “the reign of God is here,” current events notwithstanding.

At a reception afterward, Tracy O’Heir, a 30-year-old social worker, told NCR she became a volunteer in the movement after working with African refugees in Chicago, including some of the Lost Boys of Sudan. “I was struck by their strong faith despite being forced to practice a religion that was not theirs and then having to wander around hopelessly in a country torn by violence.” O’Heir, who had returned from her two-year assignment in Sudan only three days before, worked as a supervisor in child and adult education programs for displaced persons. “I discovered I can handle situations where fighting is going on and not get freaked out,” she said. “I won’t say I wasn’t afraid some of the time, but I learned what to do with my fear.”

The Volunteer Missionary Movement is a “faith-based operation rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition,” said Sandra McCabe, executive director. It currently has some 50 volunteers, ranging in age from 23 through the 70s, serving two-year terms in a variety of jobs, including program administrators, business developers, health care specialists, social workers, teachers and tutors.

“We go where we’re invited,” said McCabe.

Because the movement is ecumenical, it can be flexible, she said, but because it is independent, it is always in need of funds.

It frequently works in cooperation with the volunteer programs of established religious orders, she added, and has had no problems with institutional church leaders.

“The church spends millions trying to recruit vocations to the priesthood and religious life,” noted McCabe. “If we had just a little bit of that money, we could do so much for the lay vocation. Our people come back transformed by their mission experience, committed for life to work for peace and justice.”

Tracy O’Heir, who will be working toward a master’s degree in international studies in the fall, said she would consider returning to Sudan to develop humanitarian projects when she finishes.

Robert McClory writes from Chicago.

Related Web site
Volunteer Missionary Movement

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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