Commissioned by Christ

Sometimes, daydreams can be life-changing.

Take Jessica Aldrich, for example. In 2007, she was getting ready to graduate from George Mason University in Fairfax. One day while she was trying to pray in the university's Bellarmine Chapel, she couldn't concentrate. Instead of thinking about prayer, her thoughts kept drifting to the idea of missionary work.

Her first taste of missionary life had come freshman year on an alternative spring break trip to the diocesan mission in Banica.

"It really changed my life," she said. "I was going to become Protestant and hated the Catholic Church and it completely changed everything for me, got me back into the Church. It was really good."

She went on a few more missionary trips during college, including an alternative spring break trip to New Jersey and a two-month stint in Banica in 2005.

With graduation and the "real world" closing in on her, Aldrich knew she wanted to do more missionary work, but the idea of being a full-time missionary just didn't seem possible.

"I knew I couldn't do a long-term mission because I had to work full-time when I graduated, but I really wanted to do it," Aldrich said.

Aldrich had heard of Protestant short-term mission organizations, but not Catholic. Maybe she could start one.

After receiving encouragement from her friend Ryan Woodard, a business major she knew from campus ministry, Aldrich decided to put her daydreams into action. Just like that, Commissioned by Christ (CBC), a new organization that would plan short-term missions for Catholic adults and families, was created.

It took some time, but last spring, the organization was granted nonprofit status by the internal revenue service. Aldrich became president and chief executive officer, Woodard became chief of finance and public relations, and another friend from George Mason, Joseph Coyne, was named chief of operations and informational technology.

Today, CBC has grown tremendously. The organization is completely volunteer-run with four staff members, four people serving on a board of directors, six advisers and an ever-increasing number of helpers - mostly friends, but also people who became interested after stumbling upon the organization.

Aldrich spent last year working as a missionary in Peru, and thanks to biweekly meetings over Skype, an internet video phone service, CBC kept growing. Aldrich and Woodard say they have learned a lot about the nonprofit world in the past two years.

"We've done a lot of learning as we go in a lot of things," Woodard said. "(Aldrich) has experience in mission trips, but planning them is a different game. I have experience in business classes, but starting a business is a different story."

Now, Commissioned by Christ is planning its first mission trip - seven days in the Banica mission this July.

Some 33 adults and families applied for the 15 spots on the trip. The CBC staff spent almost eight hours narrowing down the applicants.

"Initially, we thought this would be a primarily young adult trip, but we ended up having families, retirees and middle-aged people," Aldrich said. "We really looked for people who were passionate about going on a trip and hadn't had much opportunity to do something like this before."

The group includes people of all ages and stages of life including teens, a family of six, young adults and retirees. Most have full-time jobs.

While in Banica, the missionaries will do everything from dig latrines to small church repair work. They will teach and hang out with the local youth group. The missionaries will attend daily Mass and can receive the sacraments and have time for silent prayer and reflection.

"Spirituality will be incorporated into the work we'll be doing," Aldrich said. "It'll have a very Catholic focus during the day."

Missionaries will attend a three-part spiritual orientation program before the trip, as well as a post-trip retreat on how to incorporate what they learned into their daily lives. Both programs will be led by CBC adviser Father Jamie Workman, parochial vicar of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Alexandria.

Aldrich hopes that within the next few years, CBC will grow into a full-time organization, with trips running year-round to multiple locations in the United States and abroad. The staff is organizing four trips - two to Banica, one to Northern Peru and one to Appalachia.

"We want to offer different options with how far away and what kind of work we'll be doing, to appeal to everybody," Woodard said.

In coming years, Aldrich hopes CBC will be able to form lasting relationships with mission sites, allowing them to go back year after year to the same places. This will allow CBC to learn about each community's specific needs and desires, so they can help provide the kind of changes needed most.

"We're growing fast. That's exciting and by the grace of God, we'll keep growing. Our goal is to eventually be a national organization," Aldrich said. "Our biggest challenge now will be controlling the growth, making sure we're doing it in a responsible way."

And, of course, Aldrich and Woodard think the trips will have a positive effect on the missionaries who participate. Aldrich hopes that by giving more people the opportunity to experience firsthand the mission life of the Church, CBC will be able to help them grow spiritually.

"The mission life of the Church is usually thought of as for priests and religious, but really everybody in the Church is commissioned to do mission work each day," she said. "It's important for adults and families to be involved so it becomes more holistic, where the body of the Church is involved."

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