A Road Trip to Glenmary Mission Areas

Posted: 6/14/2016

Wilmar Zabala, vocation counselor

Welcome back, road warrior” was the note Brother David left on my desk! I found it when I returned recently from a 10-day vocation road trip. My first stop had been at Joppa Mountain in Tennessee, the site of the Glenmary Volunteer Program, for a weekend service project with a vocation prospect. Then I traveled to southwest Georgia, where I visited the Glenmary missions in Blakely and Cuthbert. And finally, I went to Atlanta, where I attended the Eucharistic Congress to promote Glenmary vocations.

I've learned that long drives provide me with clear moments for reflection. Driving on the roads of Mission Land, USA, amid the seemingly endless stretch of farmlands and mountains, I found myself asking the recurring question that has dogged me since I started working at Glenmary: “How can we share how attractive and exciting our mission work is to someone discerning a Glenmary vocation?” My experience on this trip may have provided me with an answer. I now think that we need to encourage someone who feels called to the priesthood or brotherhood to see Mission Land, USA, as an attractive, exciting and adventurous place rather than a gloomy place of isolation and deprivation, for these reasons:

Because there’s a tremendous spiritual and material need! True, there is a need everywhere, but the difference is that larger cities have resources at their disposal, while small towns in rural areas do not. On the weekend service project at Joppa Mountain—site of Glenmary's Group Volunteer Program—members of the youth group from Glenmary’s Erwin, Tenn., mission enthusiastically worked on the property of two elderly siblings who have lived on their land for generations. They painted the house. They collected garbage scattered around their yard. They cleared out overgrown weeds. And afterwards, a student reflected on the day’s work: “I never thought someone in the United States could live in a place like that.” She didn’t mean it as negative remark, but it captured the debilitating poverty in that part of Appalachia. Our Catholic faith that teaches us preferential option for the poor cannot ignore the material needs in these rural areas. Glenmary is in the trenches with the poor.  

Because working for God is not about the glamour or numbers. At the Eucharistic Congress in Atlanta, I asked people how big their parishes are. Most said their congregations had hundreds or thousands of members. Yet, just a three-hour drive to the south in Blakely is Father John Brown, pastor of Holy Family mission parish, faithfully celebrating a weekday Mass with just four people in attendance! One evening I went with him to pick up students one by one at their homes for their youth group meeting. One student lives 15 miles away. There is nothing glamorous about driving 15 miles to pick up one teenager for a youth group meeting! But afterwards, when we dropped him off at home, I realized that he had learned something about his faith and connected with his faith community because of the generosity of a missioner. Glenmary’s impact is on individual lives.

Because Mission Land, USA, is sacred ground. For many Glenmary missioners, it is a place where their hearts are formed to be more like the heart of Christ. It is a place where they have learned to be compassionate and generous. It is a place where they are encouraged to be creative in their ministry and to appreciate and be good stewards of the limited resources they have. It is in this rural area that they can find their true selves, and it might be a place where a discerner can find his vocation.

As I drove back to Cincinnati, reflecting on my experiences on this road trip, I couldn’t help but think of a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:  “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15)

Those verses are a missioner’s clarion call. Reflect on it a few more times and ask God if you are being called to be a Glenmary missioner to Mission Land, USA. The missions need faith-filled men to respond to their call to be missioners in this attractive, exciting and adventurous place.