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I discovered how to be missionary in my own neighborhood.

By Claudia McIvor, Director of Faith Formation, Saint Mary Our Lady of Grace Parish, St. Petersburg

I Discovered How To Be A Missionary In My Own Neighborhood

“I will NEVER be a missionary, not even if Jesus Himself were to appear and ask me!” I adamantly proclaimed about 10 years ago. Of course, I was thinking of the rigors of crossing the mountains of Haiti on the back of a donkey, living without air conditioning in Africa, and dying of tainted drinking water in Central America. Lesson learned: do NOT tempt the Lord, your God. In the last six years, God has shown me that I am called to missionary work, and that this ministry is life-giving and awe-inspiring in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

For the last six years, Saint Mary Our Lady of Grace parish has had an outreach ministry to local refugees, most of them from central Africa. We serve about  100 refugee men, women and children in our parish boundaries. We have coordinated many drives for their needs – diapers, clothing, medical help, groceries, etc. But this year we had a drive for a distribution of backpacks that was so remarkable, I want to share it with you.

All during July, we networked with local organizations, community members in and outside of our parish, and our Faith Formation families to procure 52 backpacks and the supplies to stuff them. This was not a small effort for our parish, which does not have the funds to just purchase the items. We had to cast a wide net to find contributions.  Watching this unfold was like watching the Holy Spirit in action, inspiring everyone to do what they can.

The most eclectic variety of donors materialized, through the grace of God, to provide what we needed. On July 30, we invited all to join us in the parish center to pack and deliver the backpacks.

Supporters came from as far away as Cincinnati! The donors and volunteers included Faith Formation families and other parishioners, as well as members of Delta Kappa Gamma (an international teacher organization), and one of them, Carol Moyle, brought her grandson from Cincinnati. Carol has been a long-time supporter of our refugees, even though she is not Catholic. One friend, Therese Johnson, representing the Saint Pete Glitter Queens (a philanthropic group) and her adult daughter also helped out.  One woman who heard about our project donated 10 backpacks to teach her child that giving to others is important.

Over lunch, we talked about why we said “yes” to this project, and what we were learning from it, and how we are living out our call to “Missionary Discipleship” through it.

Clod Angelo Dimasacat, a student at New Heights Elementary in St. Petersburg and a faithful Faith Formation attendee, said, “I learned some of the reasons why people help refugees is to share the love of God.” 

Nadia Ortiz-Hall, another of our faithful Faith Formation students, noted that, “These people came because they love children.”

Nearly everyone said, “I came because Claudia asked me,” to which I said, “That just goes to show that one person asking can make a big difference!”

Missionary work is not what I thought the Lord would call me to. But I’m so glad I said yes when He did. I have learned that people who give have generous hearts; that Catholics can join with others to make an impact in the community; and that Jesus is found in the poor, right here in our community. Most of all, I learned that when God wants to love the poor, God will move mountains to make that happen. God had a plan for me, and that plan included showing his unrelenting love for the refugees in our community.