Editor’s Note: In celebration of our 25th year of preparing and supporting lay missioners, we look back to our archives at a World Care newsletter from 2009 with an article from returned missioner Katie Mulembe from Class 19 serving in Zambia from 2004-2006. This article was written after she visited Zambia for the first time since her time as a missioner.
“How long was your flight?” That’s the question many people asked me after my recent trip back to Zambia. To say it took me thirty hours to fly there is an understatement; in truth, it took me three years to return to the place that I called home during my time on mission, and to the people I grew to love as brothers and sisters.
In 2006, I boarded a plane for the United States; I was leaving the community in which I had served as a missioner for three years. It was painful to say goodbye, and I couldn’t help but weep openly. My ministry was primarily working with high school-aged children who had lost their parents to AIDS and were forced to bear the brunt of family responsibilities. I was able to be there for them in moments of despair and provide some of the encouragement and hope that they needed to face another grueling day.
I knew it would not be possible to stay in touch with them all after I left, and that it was likely I would never see most of them again. It was so hard to step away from these children at such a critical moment in their lives—yet my heart told me it was time to go home.
Since returning, I have lived in Washington, DC. It took some time to re-familiarize myself with life here. After a month or two of fumbling, I realized that it wasn’t so much that the U.S. had changed while I was away—it was I who was different. I was thoroughly and irreversibly transformed by the experience of walking alongside the Zambian people for three years.
In the time since I left, many of the people I had grown close to have lost their battle with HIV and several of the organizations and community groups I worked with had disbanded. Bad news like this began to wear on me, and there were times when I even questioned the value of my mission. I would ask myself—what did I accomplish if there is nothing to show for it just a few years later? Did I waste three years of my time? Going back to Zambia meant facing those difficult questions ahead.
In some ways, my fears turned out to be accurate. Walking through the streets of Lusaka, I could see little, if any, mark that I had left behind. The street kids who knew me by my name were no longer lingering around their usual corners, the office I worked from was closed, and so many dear friends were not there to greet me. But it wasn’t long before humility struck me—this wasn’t about me and my endeavors—this was about something much bigger.
I was busy wishing things could be the same as when I left, and meanwhile missing new opportunities for friendship and service. The mission work hadn’t ended simply because “missioner” was no longer my job title.
Now I understand even more clearly that mission is not about tangible achievements and definitive timelines. It’s not about coming up with answers for the world’s problems. It is about presence. It is about seeing the poor as individuals rather than statistics, and using my voice to be a witness for justice.
These are not objectives to be accomplished in a set period of time, but rather are part of a lifelong process of personal transformation and inward growth. My three years of mission were not wasted, so long as I continue to share how God spoke to me during those years, and seek out the new ways in which God calls me to mission each day.
Editor’s note: In Katie’s first year of mission in Zambia, she lived and worked at St. Anthony’s Children’s Village – a home providing caregiving and pastoral ministry to orphaned children from birth to age 7 that are infested or affected by HIV. In her second and third years, she worked with Children in Crisis, a Zambian grassroots organization that worked with children and communities affected by HIV. She now works for Catholic Volunteer Network. “After walking with the poor and experiencing the presence of God so vividly with them, I can no longer overlook injustice in teh world. I have to do something about it. I have to be a vessel for God’s peace and justice.”