“Maybe I’ll come if it doesn’t rain,” she answered.
It was our first full afternoon in Bairro do Carmo, Brazil, and Lilianna, one of the American students on our FOCUS mission trip, went with the campus chaplain from the University of Oklahoma to visit a woman who hadn’t been to church in over two years. They were inviting her back to Mass. She only lived one block from the church, but she was hesitant about returning.
When they arrived and began a conversation with her, they found someone who had undergone a deep experience of human frailty. She explained that she was a faithful Massgoer until about three years prior, when she had a fight with her brother. Their argument was irreconcilable, and she and her brother were not on speaking terms. Physical and emotional distance, exacerbated by the pandemic, kept them separated in this way until one day her brother suddenly died. That’s when she stopped going to church.
“I’m not ready,” she said softly. She explained to Lilianna and Father Buettner that she didn’t deserve to see Jesus after letting things with her brother end that way. What was more painful for this woman, even more than her brother’s death, was the fact that she never had a chance to mend the relationship and forgive him. So, she thought, “If I let my brother die without my forgiveness, how could God forgive me?” And so, caught in despair, she remained away from the Catholic Church, and therefore, away from the salvation that God made ready for her in the sacraments.
“Salvation has come to your house today,” Father pointed out, spending a great deal of time and effort turning to Scripture verses he believed would convince her of the wideness of God’s mercy.
“I’m not ready,” she repeated. She allowed them all to pray for her.
“Can I sing for you?” she asked. Then, she and her nephew, the guide for the group, sang an a cappella song to the Blessed Virgin in Portuguese. Soon everyone was in tears. It was truly a powerful moment of grace. The song finished, and it was time for the visit to end.
As they were leaving, one of the young adults, a Brazilian volunteer from Sao Paulo named Cesar said, “that was the most powerful Catholic moment of my entire life.”
Better yet, later that evening it didn’t rain, and the woman came to Mass.
The reason for mission
Stories like this are why we go on mission. In our everyday operations, we sometimes let the voice of the Holy Spirit get lost. But when we get out of our normal everyday rhythms, we make room to hear the Father’s voice — this time through a surprise home visit from foreigners and the beautiful song of a remorseful daughter.
On a FOCUS mission, we aim to complete the call of Matthew 25 by serving the spiritually and physically poor through sustainable trips. For each trip, FOCUS partners with a local religious order, apostolate or organization that understands the community’s greatest need. Some teams serve the homeless and renovate community infrastructure, while others teach children or provide patient care services at medical clinics. On this specific trip, we partnered with Mission Brazil and the small community of Carmo.
After a whole week of home visits like the one above, catechesis with children, coordinating parish formation nights for the community, and offering the sacraments daily, it was hard to see any way that God was not touching everyone involved.
It is our hope that not only do locals benefit in the communities in which we serve on mission trips, but also that the experience transforms the lives of the students and volunteers amid long days of prayer and work.
“This has been the best week of my life,” said David, a student who came along after declining other fun options with his fraternity for Spring break. Since returning to campus, David has been going to many weekday Masses and is committing himself to a nascent but fervent daily prayer life.
Since 2004, more than 14,000 college students, chaplains, FOCUS missionaries and alumni have encountered Christ and shared the Gospel while on FOCUS mission trips. During the current missions season (winter 2022 — summer 2023), more than 100 trips are giving approximately 1,800 people the opportunity to serve others around the world, including a pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. Many benefactors help change the lives of students and those whom they serve by supporting them on mission.
For the students from the University of Oklahoma, and especially the woman who was reconciled to the Church, making the trip was worth more than the material cost. It sang for them in their souls.
Ryan Noll is a FOCUS missionary who facilitates domestic and international mission trips in the FOCUS Missions Department.