Facing leukemia after many years in religious education, youth leader prepares to ‘wait for God’s will’ in Mexico.“I got here with one suitcase and now I’m leaving with two,” 69-year-old Martha N√∫√±ez smiles as her sister Bertha Yolanda N√∫√±ez and three other women diligently move around her apartment packing some of her belongings.She does not need to carry much in her trip to Mexico; she likes traveling light, she admits. What she does not mention is that she will bring with her many memories and love of the people she helped build up during 27 years working for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles at the Hispanic Ministry Office and at the Office of Religious Education, where she led the Pastoral Juvenil (youth pastoral formation groups), the Elemental Catechism Formation in Spanish and the Biblical Institute for Adult Spanish speakers.In fact, the women in the apartment were part of the numerous youth groups to whom N√∫√±ez catechized and in whom she left an “indelible footprint,” they said.The weekend of Jan. 11-13 was closure for N√∫√±ez. Closure of a stage in her life.About a year ago she was diagnosed with leukemia and after receiving alternative treatment, the symptoms returned. Recently she decided to decline further treatment and to return to her native Guadalajara, Mexico, to be with a sister, a brother and extended family — and “wait for God’s will,” she said.On Jan. 11 hundreds attended a two-hour liturgical service dedicated to her at St. Michael Church in Los Angeles. N√∫√±ez was absent, but those who were there spoke warmly of her commitment to God and to the Church.‘Education is a process’The youngest of five children, Martha María Evangelina N√∫√±ez was a very active girl who grew up watching her parents “contemplating and listening to the Gospels.”And, “I was a controlling little gal,” she smiles, “who felt loved by her family.”That feeling pumped in her enough strength that helped her become a leader later in life, she said. “I wasn’t shy of asking my parents or other relatives for whatever I wanted.” She kept that attitude for all she did later on.That, combined with the generosity of her parents that she witnessed on a constant basis when growing up (“At home there was always an extra bowl of soup for anyone who could show up unannounced”), helped build her character.But it was at school where she got the “calling” to become a teacher. Her English teacher at the Catholic school she attended in Guadalajara showed her, by her actions, how to be a dedicated, caring teacher who is “genuinely interested in her students’ growth.“She [the teacher] was strict, straightforward, but she offered us all the elements to grow. I learned then that education is a process, and it’s up to the teacher to make it a positive process for the people in their charge.”At 13, “I knew very well who I wanted to become,” said N√∫√±ez. At 15 she enrolled at a Catholic school for teachers, but before she graduated at 18, she experienced a “faith crisis.”“I learned later that this is normal at that age, but back then it was a big deal for me. I started questioning the story of Jesus: Is this just another little story they’re trying to tell me? Did he really resurrect? Did he really exist? I fought with God for about three days.”She sought answers from her spiritual director, Father Benjamín Sánchez, with whom she built a close friendship throughout the years until he died. He helped her reach her own conclusions.“Deep down, I knew God loved me. And then I thought about the passage in the Bible about the seed that falls on the ground, and I started thinking about His deep love for me, how He even sent His son Jesus.”Months later came thoughts of becoming a nun, which she also fought. “I was dancing at a party and these ideas of becoming a nun came back; it was like a persecution. I repeatedly heard the words, ‘I want you for me.’”When she told her spiritual director, he started laughing. “Nun? You?” he asked. To help in her discernment he sent her to daily Mass for the next six months, then she became a catechist for children at her parish. Finally one day she got the courage to send a letter to the Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, a Mexico-based religious community whose main ministry is teaching.The following 25 years she pursued a teaching career as a nun with the wealthy and the poor, including the Tarahumara, Native American people from Northwestern Mexico who still to date live in natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs in the high sierras or canyons.She lived with them for four years until she fell sick.“It was a very very poor community, the environment was contaminated, and food was not very healthy. This could have been the origin of the cancer.” She was diagnosed with anemia and bronchitis and had to leave. The experience, nonetheless, helped her to “adapt to all cultures and circumstances.”She went back to school to study theology at the Pontifical University of Mexico, where she met a friend who later asked her if she could move to Los Angeles to work with the Hispanic community.‘A difficult decision’She arrived in L.A. in 1986 and started working with young Latinos at Holy Rosary Church. Soon, she was invited to work for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to help reinvigorate the Hispanic youth ministry.But her religious community “unauthorized” her petition and instead asked her to return to Mexico. She decided to stay, which meant leaving the congregation.“It was a difficult decision,” she said, “but I felt my vocation was to work here with the Hispanic youth.”The first three-day archdiocesan youth congress in 1988 drew more than 2,500 from youth groups at the many parishes. And, after participating in the formation of thousands of young leaders, she was offered a leadership position in adult catechism and the building of the Hispanic Bible Institute with the Office of Religious Education.“I’ve seen so much solidarity from co-workers throughout the years,” she said. “It’s so satisfying to see the fruit of the harvest, so many lives touched, so many lives transformed. I am not the same Martha anymore. What I’ve done is what the Lord has done with me.”Then she reflects on her decision to decline further treatment for her illness.“I have a lot of peace, although there are nights when I’m in a lot of pain and I can’t sleep,” she admits. “I don’t know where this will lead me, but I’m open to wherever God wants to take me. Death is another mystery, like many other mysteries in life. I’m not afraid of death because I’m sure there’s another life, even richer than this one.“I have been so used to delegating tasks, but this time I can’t. This is my own personal task, another breakthrough in my life journey.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0118/martha/{/gallery}