Missionaries answer higher calling
Having heard of the service performed in Brazil by members of her congregation, Sister of St. Joseph Jean Bellini thought she'd like to get involved in missionary duty as well.
"I said, 'About six years,'" Sister Bellini recalled with a laugh. She already has served in Brazil nearly five times as long as she originally estimated, and she's not done yet: Sister Bellini will return to Brazil in late August after completing a sabbatical.
Father Edwin Metzger made a similar miscalculation. In 1988 he committed to five years of missionary duty in Kenya and ended up staying twice as long.
"It was love at first sight. I loved the people, I loved the land," said the retired diocesan priest, who now serves as sacramental minister at Greece's Holy Name of Jesus Parish.
As the stories of Sister Bellini and Father Metzger illustrate, once the missionary spirit takes hold, it can be quite powerful.
Just ask Bill Cala, who last fall got a firsthand view of poverty in Kenya. That experience led to his impending early retirement as Fairport Central School District superintendent -- a role he said he cherishes -- to devote himself full time to helping Africans.
"There could only be one thing to separate me from Fairport and this (superintendent's) job. And it was a calling, a higher calling," Cala said. "There's a group out there that needs me more."
Many years of service
Sister Bellini, 62, took her final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph in 1971. She taught for a few years and in 1976 joined the mission begun in Brazil by her order in 1964. It is one of two longtime missionary efforts run by sisters with regional communities based in Rochester; the other mission is operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Chile. Both strive to provide pastoral care, social services, education and health care for natives.
Most of Sister Bellini's ministry has been spent in rural parts of Brazil. She said she has seen some modernization, such as more computer usage and greater access to higher education, but many of the residents don't own cars and roads are in bad shape. In addition, Brazil has a huge national debt that can't easily be erased because of the interest it must pay on loans.
Sister Bellini has been highly active in advocacy, often mediating disputes -- some of them violent -- involving impoverished squatters who are chased off the land they occupy by people who legally own the property but haven't developed it. Once, she recalled, she was making a pay-phone call on behalf of the squatters when she realized a representative of the land owners was using a nearby phone.
"How do you talk when the other (party) is listening?" she remarked.
Sister Bellini said her missionary experience has been "so rewarding to me. It's the solidarity that grows." She said missionaries and natives "both see they have something to give to the other," and that working with the poor makes it "easier to live our baptismal commitment."
Meanwhile, Father Metzger did his missionary service through the Maryknoll Associates, serving in three Kenyan dioceses over a 10-year period. His ministry ranged from obtaining prescriptions for those who couldn't afford them, to assisting with a lunch program for undernourished children, to arranging a funeral Mass for a woman who had died of AIDS.
He said it was "kind of corny" how he had fallen into missionary duty after many years as a diocesan priest. As he was nearing the end of his eighth year as pastor of St. Francis de Sales in Geneva, he came across a simple questionnaire in the mail.
"It said, 'Would you like to be a missionary priest in Africa, yes or no?' I checked yes," recalled Father Metzger, 76. Upon arriving in Kenya, he quickly realized that "it's really what I should have been doing all along."
Missionary service is newer, yet no less intriguing, for Cala. He has led the Fairport schools for nine years but will retire this summer to operate a new foundation, Joining Hearts and Hands, with his wife, Joanne, and retired Fairport teacher Jim Nowak.
They decided to launch the effort after visiting Mbako Oromo Primary School near the village of Maseno, Kenya, last fall. Cala said he was touched by the poetry-reading of two orphans whose parents had been lost to AIDS and by the 66 children whose first-grade classroom floors were made of cow manure.
"I'll never forget that Wednesday," said Cala, a parishioner at Fairport's Church of the Assumption. "There was no way I could come back here and do nothing."
These stories reflect the obvious cultural differences between the United States and other parts of the world.
"It's harder to fool yourself (in Brazil)," Sister Bellini said. "Up here, we live by appearances. Down there, you just kind of have to face reality. The poor have so many strikes against them."
She observed that Brazilians, despite their hardships, praise God vocally and often.
"It's amazing, the faith they have," she said, adding that this also was true among victims of Hurricane Katrina whom she and other Sisters of St. Joseph assisted in Louisiana last September.
On the other hand, Sister Bellini said, "People who were raised in comfort end up expecting comfort. When something bad happens, they say, 'Why me.'"
Father Metzger, also, became acutely aware of such contrasts upon returning to the Rochester Diocese in 1998.
"The shopping malls really turned me off, and all the ads on TV," he said, whereas in Africa, "just to see the kids at that lunch program with a bowl of gruel or whatever you want to call it, they were so delighted. These kids with rice, corn and beans -- they were delighted to get something in their tummies."
"I don't think a lot of people get the Third World," Cala remarked. "The definition of poverty here and there is two different dictionaries. Poverty here is wealth in Africa."
Anybody can do it
The good news, Cala said, is that some people don't to turn a blind eye to poverty abroad. He has been overwhelmed by the siege of calls, e-mails and cash from people who have attended one of his presentations on Joining Hearts and Hands or read a brochure or fact sheet about the organization. (More information on Joining Hearts and Hands may be obtained by e-mailing email@example.com.)
"I'm getting all these checks. It's so wild," he exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air. "I'm blown away. I'm truly blown away."
To Cala, being a missionary doesn't necessarily entail spending all of your time in a foreign land. He plans to make two two-week trips to Kenya each year, spending the rest of his time in the Rochester area, raising more funds for books, desks, school supplies and scholarships.
"We need our community to provide the resources," he said.
Cala also exemplifies that the call to missionary life is not limited to priests and women religious.
"Anybody can do it," he said.
Similarly, in response to a declining number of sisters available to serve there, Sister Bellini said that when she returns to Brazil, she plans to train lay volunteers to carry on her order's mission. Missionary service can provide an invaluable level of global compassion and awareness, she said.
"It's such a learning experience, it's incredible. It breaks down that invisible wall between 'us' and 'them'," she said. "Just imagine -- if most of the kids coming out of high school and college gave a few months of service -- what a world we'd be in. You're just open to a whole new experience of life."