LANSING — On her contract for performing mission work in rural West Virginia, Katie Brown was asked to state her desire for making the journey.
“I want to get away from today’s crazy society and live simply, work hard and get closer to God, as well as meet a few new friends,” she wrote.
Katie, 17, was right at home spending a week in April at Nazareth Farm, located near Salem, W.Va. The ministry — a Catholic organization of volunteers that assists area poor — lists community, simplicity, prayer and service as its four cornerstones.
Clario Menezes of Cornell University experienced a similar appreciation for humble lifestyles after a one-week mission trip in March to serve poor residents of San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala.
“They were extremely appreciative. They offered whatever little they could; they cooked for us and made fresh food. I think that’s all they could have done for us,” said Menezes, 23.
Both the West Virginia and Guatemala trips were part of a growing tradition established by All Saints Parish, where people willingly travel great distances to be of service.
“Yeah, it’s caught on,” said Andra Benson, the parish’s religious-education coordinator, who also organizes the trips.
The overseas excursions began at All Saints in the early 1990s, when teens took service trips to Puerto Rico. In 1996 Benson arranged the first trip to Guatemala. Since then the mission projects have continued at a rate of one or two per year, involving adults as well. Many projects have been done in conjunction with Lansing United Methodist Church, and more recently with Cornell. Benson noted that All Saints Parish is extremely supportive of the mission effort through fundraising, especially for the teens.
The March journey to Guatemala included three adults from All Saints and seven Cornell students. Their chief initiative was to build special stoves designed to minimize smoke inhalation.
“There are children with respiratory problems and women who are blind by the age of 40, because they’ve been cooking over an open flame all their lives. But these stoves last 30, 40, 50 years. It’s amazing,” said Benson, who has been on all six trips to Guatemala and formerly served in the Peace Corps with her husband, Chuck.
“What’s so wonderful about this project is, you get to know people on a very personal level,” she added. “This widow with nine children was in tears (with gratitude).”
Menezes interacted with the Mayan natives by participating in their Holy Week activities, even helping to design a float for a religious procession.
“Just the level of devotion — they were very proper, they definitely made sure they stuck to their tradition,” he said.
For Menezes, the trip marked his first-ever mission project.
“To be honest, the group of people I went with — I had a fantastic experience with them; I knew none of them beforehand,” he said.
Menezes was due to receive a master’s degree in engineering this month from Cornell. However, due to his experience in Guatemala, “I realize now that I have a strong interest in social justice.” He said that “in general, every government has some form of corruption, and it usually has to do with money,” observing that in Guatemala 94 percent of the land is owned by 2 percent of the population.
Benson said the struggles of Guatemalan people can’t easily be grasped in our culture.
“I don’t think Americans have any concept of what people in Third World countries have to do to eat,” she remarked.
Back in the United States, the Nazareth Farm trip was attended by seven teens and two adults from All Saints. They worked on such projects as siding, roofing and gardening, in keeping with Nazareth’s goal of eliminating substandard housing in a spiritual setting.
Katie was joined in West Virginia by her sister Hannah, 16, and her father, Dan. This marked her third mission trip with All Saints Parish; she served the rural poor of John’s Island in South Carolina in 2002 and traveled to Guatemala last year.
One day at Nazareth Farm, Katie’s group picked up residents along a roadside and brought them to an evening event where they played checkers and prayed together. It mattered little to Katie that the natives were dirt poor and there were no modern conveniences where she stayed.
“They just have so many stories to tell. All the things they’ve been through, and their faith is so strong,” she remarked. “It was really weird coming home. (Nazareth Farm) had become like my home.”
Katie hopes to major in social work or elementary education when she begins college at SUNY Geneseo this fall. She’s also considering the Peace Corps after college, saying she “definitely would not have felt like that” if not for the service trips.
“It’s the most amazing thing ever to help people,” she said.
Katie said she knew where her heart belonged after returning from her April trip and observing her peers getting upset over tiny matters.
“All the things people were worrying about were so ridiculous, even schoolwork,” she said. “I’d rather be back at Nazareth Farm.”