One morning, while serving as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Kenya, I stood at the side of a rural dirt road awaiting a small bus that would take me to a nearby village. There were no bus schedules. Like others waiting along this remote stretch, I packed food and water and patiently marked time until I finally heard the putter of a straining motor. Moments later, a colorful van rounded the bend about a mile distant. As it approached me, it sputtered to a stop. I tumbled into an open seat as it lurched onward again. In doing so, I noticed the floorboard missing in front of me – I had to position my feet on vehicle’s exposed frame to keep them from dangling through the floor and into the moving road below.
We traveled only about a mile further before the engine made an ominous noise. The bus then lurched to a sudden stop in the middle of the road. Another rider, who turned out to be the bus conductor, climbed quickly out and pulled himself through the dirt to a position beneath the engine. While passengers murmured around me, the driver dropped various tools to the conductor through holes in the rusted floorboard.
About 10 minutes later, the conductor shouted up to the driver to start the engine. It coughed at first then purred like a sound working motor. As the conductor climbed back into the bus, the driver asked him what had happened. The conductor replied without hesitation, “We were blessed that the engine started once again.” And, that was that. Without another word, the conductor returned to his seat and the driver continued onward. I reached the village safely about an hour later.
This year’s theme of the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis was “Blessed, Broken, Given”. Life journeys, much like my rural bus ride in Kenya, can often be summed up by these three words. What I was “given” in the experience of riding a “broken” bus that was “blessed” to start once again was a new perspective on those moments when we feel “stuck” in life, “broken down” in the middle of our journey. Those who accompany us – sometimes even unknown to us at first – may unexpectedly share gifts, skills, wisdom and insight that empower us once again on our way. These special people do not draw attention to themselves or their expertise. Rather, they selflessly remind us of blessings and gifts that carry us down the road even when we feel at times stuck or broken. We, as Maryknollers, are touched and transformed time and time again by people such as this young Kenyan — people who step up when needed, quietly repair things and then credit God for their successes.
The English writer, Mary Ann Evans, writing under the pseudonym “George Eliot” observed in her classic novel, “Middlemarch”, “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”*
Maryknollers know well these “hidden lives” and “unvisited tombs”. They represent the “fundi” (“handyman” or “expert” in Kiswahili) who staff or volunteer in our missions. They represent our religious brothers and sisters whose “behind the scenes” work run our parishes, schools and other ministries. They are made up of those “ordinary people” whose life experiences and skills are shared humbly as gifts that reveal expertise and wisdom far beyond our professional training as missioners.
We are blessed by them. We are broken without them. We are given much from them. No Maryknoll vocation in mission can thrive except in loving solidarity with them.
*This quote also prefaces Terrence Malick’s powerful film, “A Hidden Life” based in large part upon the Orbis Book, “Franz Jägerstätter – Letters and Writings from Prison” edited by Erna Putz.
Greg Darr is a Minnesota native and US Army veteran. As a Maryknoll lay missioner in Kenya, Greg worked with a Church-sponsored program assisting displaced and refugee communities toward developing local initiatives in reconciliation and peacemaking. Greg now serves on the Vocation Ministries Team of the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers.