“One of the biggest mistakes everybody does in mission work is they go there to try to change the people instead of changing ourselves for the first year, and then see what we can do to help after that. This is a three-year mission, and you can blow it in the first three months.”

Nebraskan Matthew Kadavy was telling Angelus News about the four months of formation training he and three others — Karen Hunka from Pennsylvania, Maria Luisa Garcia from El Paso, Texas, and Diane Yonga from Minneapolis — were finishing up to be commissioned as Lay Mission-Helpers. 

They were following a sacred tradition started by Msgr. Anthony Brouwers here in 1955 of sending laymen and laywomen to toil mostly in Third World countries as “God’s Helpers.”

“The speakers just beat that into our heads that you’re a guest on their soil,” the 55-year-old retiree went on. 

“And you need to act like that. You need to think like that. If you think you’re going over there to teach them how to do something, you better certainly learn the culture and everything else first. You shouldn’t even make a suggestion for the first three months. You need to speak less and listen more. Because you’ll never know what the problem is if you don’t.”

Kadavy is headed to work for Bishop Callistus Rubaramira of the Diocese of Kabale in Uganda. For 32 years he was director of the physical plant at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. In Africa, he’ll be working on a tea farm, trying to make it more profitable. After that he may start an apple orchard or catfish farm to bring in more income.

“I’m 55 and I retired too young,” explained Kadavy.

In 2013, Kadavy’s wife lost a battle with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, an incurable scarring of  the lungs that doctors believed she would have died from five years earlier. 

“It was a blessing to be married to Carrie for so long. So I promised God that if I could help others I would.”

Kadavy found out online through the Catholic Volunteer Network about the Lay Mission-Helpers Association, and eventually attended a discernment weekend retreat. 

“I felt it was really the right move,” he chuckled. “Now when I got here for formation, it was all women. None of the men from that weekend had decided to come. And that was a little bit concerning for a couple weeks. But it certainly was the right move, and I feel great about it now.”

A South LA sending

At the Dec. 9 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South LA, Kadavy, Hunka, Garcia, and Yonga were asked to stand.

Janice England, executive director of the Lay Mission-Helpers, declared she had journeyed with the four candidates from their discernment through formation: “I can attest that they are worthy.”  

Brother John Kiesler, OFM, a presenter during the formation period, said, “I think they will be a real blessing to the churches of Papua New Guinea, Uganda, and Ghana. But I also think it’s important they know they’ll be learning from the people there.”

One by one, they were commissioned to be good disciples to go forth and tell the good news in service of the missionary Church. Each promised to serve God’s people for three years as well as to obey the directives of the Lay Mission-Helpers Association and their missionary bishop.

Finally, the four received their missionary rings with the inscription inside: “For We Are God’s Helpers” to loud applause.

After the liturgy, England told Angelus News how the four new Lay Mission-Helpers showed how answering God’s call could happen for different reasons and at different stages of a person’s life. 

“It all depends when you feel that call is right for you,” she said. “Like for myself, I was 26 when I went to Sierra Leone. So that’s when I felt the call. With other people, it’s mid-career, like with Maria who is going to Papua New Guinea to teach, and Diane, an attorney and dietician headed to Ghana, and Karen, who is also going to Ghana to do accounting. While Matthew, who took an early retirement, simply felt, “I’m not done yet.”

England also felt strongly that laymen and laywomen have a unique impact as missioners in today’s world, just as Brouwers believed.

“One of the bishops we’re going to in Ghana, Bishop Peter Paul Angkyier of Damongo in northern Ghana, said our Lay Mission-Helpers are filling particular skills that they need,” she reported. 

“But he also wants their witness; their witness to his people that this is a universal Church. This will show people that people from other parts of the world care about them and will widen their vision of what Church is.

“Lay people can witness in a different way,” she said. “When lay people witness, people in Third World countries say, ‘This is something I can do. I can have a role in the Church. It’s not just priests, sisters and brothers.’ ”

And what would Brouwers — who died in 1964 of multiple myeloma (a form of bone cancer) at the age of 52 — think about today’s commissioning?

“I think he’d be happy that Lay Mission-Helpers is still going,” said England with a smile. “You know, he died within less than 10 years of founding Lay Mission-Helpers. But he had a vision that would go on over 50 years later. And not only that it’s still happening here in Los Angeles, but so many other people and communities are doing what his vision was of sending out lay missionaries.”

After a moment, she added with some gratification, “But we were the first Catholic laity international volunteers.”

‘We are the Church’

Addie Coronado, almost 91, was sitting in a pew near the front of St. John the Evangelist Church during the commissioning. As a member of the second Lay Mission-Helper class, she got to know Brouwers and his love of the laity. And this was years before the Second Vatican Council proclaimed clearly how holiness was expected of all members of the Body of Christ — not just priests and women religious and brothers.

“He made us aware that we are the Church,” she said. 

“The Church was ours — mine! There were so many priests and nuns available back then, people thought, ‘Why do we need laymen and laywomen to go out to the missions?’ But he saw us as good examples to the people we would be serving in these poor countries. He would say you don’t have to be a nun or a priest to be a good Christian. So he was really ahead of his time,” she added.

“He just expressed a real confidence in ordinary lay people. I know he did that with me. His character was so positive all the time. He was always saying when we had some personal or mission problem: ‘It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.’ ”

Coronado wound up serving three separate three-year stints as a Lay Mission-Helper. The first was as a 29-year-old nurse to Tanganyika in late 1957, followed by a year back in the U.S., then three years as a midwife in Kenya, and another year home before one final three-year assignment back in Kenya. 

Those nine years of service changed her life. She went from being an “apathetic” Catholic to being a eucharistic minister, lector, religious education teacher, and minister to the elderly at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Tujunga.

Today, she still prays to Brouwers whenever a life decision comes up: “‘OK, Monsignor, what should I do about this?’”

Writer’s note: I spent most of 2003 and 2004 researching and writing a book titled: “‘For We Are God’s Helpers:’ The Life of Monsignor Anthony Brouwers — Visionary of the Lay Mission Movement.” I tape recorded 45 interviews, read the weekly column, “Mission Chats,” which he wrote for The Tidings newspaper and did archival research on the popular priest.

Part of the preface to that book by Janice England, executive director of the Lay Mission-Helpers Association, and Elise Frederick, executive director of the Mission Doctors Association, which he also founded in 1959, states: “Those of us who have served are blessed as our experience in mission reverberates in our lives. Today we work to continue Msgr. Brouwers’ legacy — helping others to have this opportunity to serve by working with local bishops in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific and Asia so that lay people can continue to share their gifts, live their faith, change the world, and see how the world can change them.”

“For We Are God’s Helpers” can be purchased as an e-book at Amazon.com.

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