During a short-term immersion trip to Bolivia organized by Maryknoll last year, Dulce Tovar visited a tutoring program run by Maryknoll Father Paul Sykora for children at high risk in Cochabamba. As she was helping an 8-year-old girl with homework, the girl said, “My mom works all day. I would stay at home by myself and I felt cold. Sometimes I didn’t have anything to eat, and it was very hard to concentrate to do my homework. I am very happy to be here because I can eat and learn a lot.”
Tovar was happy to be there too. She has participated in several short-term mission trips as a Casaheart lay missioner, and each new encounter, she says, deepens her commitment to serve in mission. “I am grateful to God for the gift to allow me to share with this girl, even for a moment. I could see the face of God and feel his love through her,” says Tovar. “Serving in mission makes me more sensitive to the needs of others.”
Tovar, 31, says her mission journey began when she attended the first Youth Mission Encounter in Houston 10 years ago. The encounter brings together young U.S. Hispanic Catholics to energize them for mission. Maryknoll Father Gerald Kelly, promotor and mission educator in Houston, Texas, helped them get started.
He recalls the day a decade ago when a group of young people came to the Maryknoll Society house in Houston and asked him for help in organizing a mission conference. “I asked: ‘Do you have funds and a place for it?’ They replied: ‘No,’ ” says the 84-year-old priest from Boston. “But I understood that great desire they had to reflect on mission. Some were serving in missions, but hadn’t deepened their experience.”
Tovar, who was born in Mexico and arrived in this country when she was 14, says she has admired Father Kelly since meeting him at the first mission encounter. “Father Kelly inspires me with his good example because he never gets tired,” says Tovar. “He works with great enthusiasm and joy and has guided us on this mission journey.”
Five years ago, Father Kelly invited the Maryknoll Missionary Disciples team (known by its Spanish acronym, DMM) to provide mission formation for the youth who gather each year in a Houston parish for their encounter.
Maryknoll mission promoters Deacon Leonel Yoque and Yvonne Dilling present reflection workshops using the methodology of see-judge-act. The DMM team not only brings their experience in conducting mission formation programs, but also organizes short-term mission immersion trips like the one in Bolivia in which Tovar participated. “We use documents of Catholic Social Teaching so the youth can make a connection between the faith we profess and concrete actions,” says Yoque.
Maryknoll’s goal, he adds, is to bring awareness to young people of how life is connected to God’s mission. DMM, he says, is helping young people—both immigrants and those of Hispanic heritage born in the United States—to discern how God is calling them to serve in mission. “Many young people are from Mexico and Central America; some are undocumented or they are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients,” says Yoque. “We remind them that they are here for a reason, because God has brought them and continues to accompany them in their challenges and struggles.”
As coordinator of the Youth Mission Encounter in Houston, Tovar is the key person in inviting other young people to plan the yearly encounter, which includes group dynamics, prayer, songs and conversations about the reality faced by the most vulnerable. In addition, they invite mission organizations that serve in the community or overseas to share their experiences. This is how Tovar got to know and eventually become a Casaheart lay missioner.
Casaheart, an organization affiliated with the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, has approximately 15 lay missionaries based in Houston. They serve in short-term missions in Ecuador, Mexico and Colombia. Tovar travels once or twice a year to serve in mission through Casaheart.
On her first mission with Casaheart, in Bogota, Colombia, she visited the District Institute for the Protection of Children and Youth (IDIPRON). There she met youth with drug addiction problems who had been rescued from the streets. The three-stage IDIPRON program helps the youth through rehabilitation and skills training. Tovar and the Carmelite sisters offer formation and reflection so the youth can receive their first Communion and confirmation.
Dilling, who has coordinated workshops with Tovar in several youth encounters in Houston, says Tovar shows that joy of the Gospel that Pope Francis speaks of as the sign of God’s love. “Dulce shares that love of God with other young people and she seeks mission formation opportunities,” says Dilling. “The Maryknoll mission formation has helped her develop her leadership.”
Tovar, who is studying for her master’s degree in theology, says that the Church in the United States is realizing that young people are hungry to learn and serve in mission. “I see in the youth a missionary awakening and they are aware that we are all missionary disciples,” says Tovar. “Before, we did not hear much about mission because we thought that mission was only for priests and religious, but now we see that it is available to lay people and it is our call to serve in mission.”
Featured Image: Dulce Tovar ( far left) with young people who participated in the 10th Youth Mission Encounter. They carried a mission rosary in procession around Holy Name parish in Houston, Texas. (C. Rodriguez/U.S.)