It doesn’t take four plane trips and a ride in the back of a pickup truck down a gravel road to become a missionary. St. Thérèse is proof of that. But for some people (me), it takes that much to learn to live as a missionary.
With hours of prayer built into our daily schedule on mission in Alakanuk, I was confident that I would be able to hear God and see His presence very clearly on the trip. Yet, at first, all I perceived was a frustrating amount of silence. Without clear signs from heaven pointing out all the reasons that people needed us, I began to doubt that I could be useful in Alakanuk at all. Looking back on this period, it’s obvious to me that these thoughts came from the enemy, who whispers doubt into the sanctuary of our hearts.
Every night the missionaries would share the high and low points of our days. Listing the positive moments of our days lifted our spirits, but it was verbalizing the struggles of each day that served as a powerful source of grace for us. Scripture tells us that “when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph 5:13). When doubts and fears remain inside our head, their grip on us grows stronger; but this verse reveals that whatever is brought to light becomes a light in itself.
During the first few days, in the midst of my doubts, I encountered a young girl named Lily* who was initially very difficult to read. Lily was always near me and constantly teased me, which might seem like a sign of friendship, but her jokes often ran along the lines of “I’m gonna hurt you.” I couldn’t tell if she liked me or hated me.
In one of our nightly gatherings where we shared moments from our day, the struggles that the other missionaries and I voiced led Kaitlin to share with us some tips she had picked up on previous mission trips on how best to love children in the village. Because of Kaitlin’s talk and the dialogue it sparked, I realized that Lily’s actions were not reasons to be shy away from her but signs that she needed the most love of all.
I tested this theory. The next time I saw Lily, I intentionally struck up a conversation with her. I smiled, made eye contact, and listened for her response. Immediately, Lily’s behavior was transformed. Her negative comments were reduced to silence. I even saw her smile for half a second. From then on, wherever the missionaries went, Lily was there. We came to realize that she is a seriously cool kid. She is awesome at basketball, she loves Frisbee, and she can navigate the playground equipment like a ninja. Had the missionaries not talked and prayed through our questions together, I may never have gotten to serve Lily and be served by her. The darkness had become a light.
I wanted to believe that the hardest situation the young people faced was simply emotional poverty—nothing that a hug and a song about bananas couldn’t fix. However, the Lord provided doses of reality that reminded us not to rely on ourselves, but to constantly invite Him and His healing touch into this village. One day, a sweet woman told me that one of her grandchildren had been bullied into inhaling fumes—a popular pastime for many of the teenagers—and was sick for days afterward. I was in shock, and I promised to pray for her and her grandson. The next day I encountered her grandson, who was doing much better. I felt relieved, but it was far from the hardest news I received.
Over the course of the mission, a pattern emerged: almost as soon as I recovered from one reality bomb, God dropped another. I learned that different families we knew dealt with problems such as drug use, heavy drinking, or the suicide of a family member. These problems were far beyond any help I alone could provide. The Lord constantly called us not to rely on ourselves but to bring these people in prayer to His Sacred Heart.
While God revealed glimpses of brokenness within the people we encountered, He supplied an abundance of moments that inspired joy and hope. One day, as we closed a Bible study with some of the older children in prayer, I asked the kids who they wanted to pray for. A girl said that she wanted to pray for one of the missionaries who was sick in bed that day. Not only was it a sweet sentiment—her prayer was answered. The missionary felt better the very next day. At the time, I touched by the girl’s compassion, but when the missionaries shared this out loud, we realized the divine reality of her prayer.
One of the guys we encountered on the trip, Marcus*, was a genuinely kind teenage boy who looked after his young nephew. One night as we were praying a rosary during Adoration with the community, Marcus and his nephew came in and knelt down a few pews in front of me. It was the first time they had stepped in the church. A while later, a few teenage guys came in, sat next to Marcus, and started giggling about something. Marcus didn’t hesitate; he silenced them and made them all kneel. For a teenage boy, this is an incredible display of courage. But again, this moment of hope was lost on me amidst other distractions.
It was only when the missionaries brought our joys and our struggles to light at the end of each day that I was hit with the reality of God’s work around us and in us on mission. I had thought that God was watching in silence at the beginning of our mission because I wasn’t attuned to His voice. I came to realize that He had been shouting His love for us all along. To make His power known, we had to be missionaries to each other as well as the people we served.
For this reason, I feel as though the real mission has just begun. You and I are missionaries every time we share what He has done for us today. We are missionaries when we listen to a friend who has something weighing on his or her heart. We are missionaries when we take our everyday encounters to prayer. When we do this, God’s love letter to us looks less like Yup'ik and more like English, and we realize that He has been there all along.
*names have been changed to protect privacy