Ever since her high school years, Robyn Jennings had dreamed of being a missionary.
“I was just trying to figure out in what capacity,” recalled the married mother of two. “One of my professors in college encouraged me to think about medicine. So that was the plan all along.”
A degree in medicine wasn’t the only part of that plan. Raised Baptist, Jennings went to Messiah College in Pennsylvania and studied biology and global Christian ministries. It was in medical school that she met her future husband, Brian, and she became Catholic.
This month, that plan is taking the Connecticut couple to Africa after a 3 1/2-month formation period with the Mission Doctors Association here in Los Angeles. Their assignment: Anfoega Catholic Hospital in rural Ghana.
The Jennings family spoke to Angelus News in a recent interview at the Mission House, a former convent next to St. John the Evangelist Church in South Los Angeles, where mission doctors and other missionaries affiliated with the Lay Mission-Helpers have prepared for their mission assignments for years.
While explaining their mission, Mission Doctors Association executive director Elise Frederick was interrupted by the family’s 4-year-old missionary, Emily, as she came running into the house.
“What’s going to happen in Ghana for you?” asked Frederick.
“There’s a lot of snakes, and I’m going to make new friends,” Emily informed her.
The latter is the hope of her parents, too, who are the third doctor couple to serve since the association was formed by Msgr. Anthony Brouwers in collaboration with the Catholic Physician Association in 1959.
That was four years after he had started the groundbreaking Lay Mission-Helpers, sending out laymen and laywomen, and their families, to mostly Third World countries in Africa, Latin America, and even the South Pacific. So the Jennings’ class of 2020 marks 60 years of medical outreach.
“It was Msgr. Brouwers. I just believe that he had the vision and the foresight to make it a program that could last,” said Frederick after Emily ran back to her parents. “That’s why I believe it’s still going, and this is our 60th anniversary. I think there are still Catholics who have a commitment to serve internationally, and the fact that we supply the kind of formation before they go and support. It’s preparing them to serve.”
Later, in the old convent’s cozy library, the couple recounted how their paths had brought them to their new mission. Robyn had taught biology, chemistry, and physics in a missionary-run high school in Bogota, Colombia, for two years. Both volunteered at a hospital in Honduras while in medical school. And both did their residencies in family practice, with an emphasis in obstetrics, knowing it would later serve them well.
“I think that having a common goal — trying to work toward working in the missions — was one of the biggest things that connected us,” Brian explained. “Since medical school, I’ve kind of been on the track of hoping to do medical missions. So I’m excited that we’re finally getting to the point of going.”
“I think we both feel called to go serve the poor in other countries, just with what we’ve been exposed to: the lack of resources and the poverty in other places,” Robyn added. “It felt like we could use the knowledge and skills that we have to help in those places.”
The three-year commitment to Mission Doctors is the longest volunteer effort both have made. Another reason for that is their children, Emily and 2-year-old son, Jack.
“I’m hoping that they’re going to learn a lot about the world: new cultures, new languages, meet new friends,” said Brian. “I think they’ll have experiences that most kids here in the U.S. are not going to get to have. So I’m hoping that it will help them to grow.”
Robyn agreed. “I wanted them to share what it was like meeting other kids like we’ve met in our travels,” she said. “And they’ll be part of the ministry. They can help open doors to other families. So having them go with us is actually an advantage.”
The doctor couple expects to see a lot of patients with malaria at the 70-bed rural hospital they will be working in, along with common illnesses like pneumonia, urine infections, and injuries like broken bones, cuts, and burns. And, of course, they’ll be using their obstetrical training with many deliveries.
“What’s nice with the Mission Doctors Association is they have a lot of short-term doctors who are specialists in different things,” Brian said. “So they can come and provide that specialty care, hopefully, throughout our three years over there.”
Both believe formation at the Mission House prepared them both culturally and spiritually to work in a mission far from home. For Brian it was a special period of time to step back from his busy life as a physician and have time for prayer and reflection.
“It just solidified what I already felt I was being called for,” he said. “When you’re working, it can be tough to have that time during the day to just have a quiet time to think.”
Robyn liked the workshops and talks by experts in different fields, as well as former Mission Doctors and Lay Mission-Helpers dropping by to share their own experiences. And she thought the three-day retreat before their commissioning on Dec. 8 was a fitting way to end the formation.
“It was just nice to be able to focus on our own spiritual lives and pray and read and walk in nature,” she said. “This week’s been really good. Our faith is important to us and being commissioned to go into the world to treat and heal, to love, to make disciples.”