Mission life in Peru

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Recently, I spent a week at Santisimo Sacramento, a parish located in an impoverished section of Piura, Peru, about 600 miles north of Lima. I was there with a group of 18 other Catholic adults as part of a mission trip with Commissioned by Christ (CBC), a local organization that plans short-term Catholic mission trips for working adults and families.

During the trip, I learned many lessons while working with the other missionaries to serve the local community. I learned about poverty and gratitude by distributing food and clothing to nearby villages. By teaching English and vacation Bible school to Peruvian children, I learned how humbling language barriers can be and how children everywhere crave attention in the same ways. By meeting families and sitting with children at the nightly Spanish Masses, I learned relationships can start simply with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. And while helping to build houses with my fellow missionaries, I learned the importance of teamwork and, more practically, exactly how to build a house out of bamboo.

Through it all, I learned about hospitality as all of us were welcomed into a friendship with the people of Piura, who took us into their lives with open arms and taught us the importance of family and faith.

The trip was organized according to the vision of Jessica Berrada, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, who founded CBC in 2007 with her friends Ryan Woodard and Joseph Coyne. At the time, Berrada was a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, trying to figure out a way to dedicate herself to mission work while also pursuing a career.

CBC gives a solution to that problem by short-term mission trips abroad and around the United States, giving working adults and families an opportunity to experience the mission life in a Catholic setting without sacrificing their responsibilities at home or in the workplace.

Today, Berrada is president and CEO of CBC, with Woodard working as chief of finance and operations, and Coyne as chief of information technology. The organization was incorporated in 2008 and has held nonprofit status since 2009.

In July 2010, the organization took its first group of missionaries to Bánica in the Dominican Republic. Since then, it has taken more than 80 people on four more trips locally to Floyd, Va., and Washington and internationally to Bánica and Piura.

The organization's staff has grown from three to 12, with more people involved on the board of directors and the board of advisers. Through all the growth, Berrada says CBC's mission has remained the same.

"My main objective is to bring my fellow Catholics into a deeper relationship with their faith, with Christ and with the mission life of the church," she said.

Berrada believes mission trips are valuable because they allow Catholics to take time away from their regular routine and immerse themselves in service.

"We can always send money and show our support in many ways, but being physically present and sharing our talents and spending the time with other people is a way to serve like no other way," she said. "It's important because it allows us to take time out of our busy lives to focus on Christ, focus on friendships and relationships, and have a time to put Christ first while serving others."

Those rewards certainly have helped Berrada grow in her faith over the years. So far, she has attended every mission trip but one.

"I definitely feel with every trip that I deepen my faith and come back to a basic understanding of what is important in life," she said. "This renews me in a way that my normal everyday life just can't with all of its work and responsibilities and obligations. Each trip is a new and different experience that God has blessed me with."

St. Charles parishioner Maureen Rohn felt similarly after this month's mission trip, her third with CBC. Previously, she traveled to Bánica in 2010 and Piura in 2011. For this trip, she was one of two leaders in charge of planning and organizing group activities.

"I felt very strongly that I wanted to be able to give people the experience I had on both trips, which were in different ways very transformative," she said. "I felt like both trips had been exactly what I needed at exactly that time in my life, that I was put on the trips for a reason and that they helped pull me through some difficult times and pull me closer to my faith."

For her, the most rewarding part was returning to Piura and seeing some of the people she had met previously, especially the family she adopted through Santisimo Sacramento's family-to-family sponsorship program. They came to welcome her at the Piura airport.

"The first time I saw them (at the airport), I just burst into tears," she said. "You always hear God loves you no matter what and you are loved just because you exist and that's a hard thing to understand. The lesson of Jesus just loving everyone, my family was really able to show me that and I felt completely unworthy of them. They were there for me just because I am a person in their life and they were supporting me, and it was one of the most beautiful examples of God's love being acted out in real life."

Rohn believes mission trips are important because they enable people to see how much they can learn and grow by serving others.

"I think that often in giving of yourself, you receive more from other people and it's a really important way to share the love of Christ," she said. "It's just a circle that keeps going. You sign up for a trip because you want to give, and you give and you give and then you get that back three-fold."

St. Charles parishioner Julie Erhardt said she went on the trip because she wanted to spend time with people living in poverty, to see for herself what their lives were like and what she could do to help. What surprised her was how much more she was given than she could give.

"You think you're going there to give and that predominately, you will be giving," she said. "Actually when you look at it, the opportunity to learn from other people there, to receive their gratitude and have time to discuss and pray with the fellow missionaries, I think I ended up learning more and having more opportunities to think about things and increase my perspective on things above and beyond what I was expecting."

She was inspired, she said, by how the Peruvians center their lives around faith and family.

"If you don't have a lot, it's harder to forget that your faith should be the center of (your life)," Erhardt said. "We have a lot more distractiions, a lot of things that would imply what we have is not really thanks to our faith. With those people (in Piura), they have a cleaner slate. While they do without some of the basics of life that we have, I think one thing that has been given to them is a real clear compass for where the faith is and the priority it should have."

Another St. Charles parishioner, Josh Goldman, said he had been thinking about taking a mission trip for a long time. He was inspired after hearing about similar trips taken by his father and sister. His favorite part of the trip was helping to distribute clothing in one of the village chapels.

"That was really the first time I experienced the poverty there, but also the first time I experienced the real faith the people there have," he said. "People were lined up, but they were all very calm and grateful. Nobody tried to take more clothes than we said they could take."

Returning from the trip, he said he has a deeper understanding of service.

"This has changed my perspective about the need for service, and given me the realization that you can't help every single person, but that's not often the point. The point is to give what you can to the people you give it to and spread the message for the service while you do it."

That renewed commitment to faith and service is something Berrada hopes for all of the people who go on the trips.

"It's important to take time out to really serve and strengthen that relationship with Christ and with our faith," she said. "Everybody has the capacity for it, but it's being able to take the time out to focus on it that a lot of people are missing."

Berrada is already in the midst of planning next year's trips. In February, CBC missionaries will travel to Jamaica. Next summer, they will return to Piura and Bánica.

"I would encourage anybody who is on the fence about mission work to at least give it a try," she said. "At least try to step out of the boat, so to speak, and give God the opportunity to work in their lives. Mission work is really a calling of the Holy Spirit, and no matter which way you answer that, you're going to receive so many graces from that that you would not even imagine."

(Click here for more about Santisimo Sacramento Parish.)

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012