By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2011
Catherine Giller always had a heart for mission work. Though she feels that God may have been leading her to it years ago, she did not always recognize the signs.
“I believe that God put before my eyes ‘mission’ in various forms throughout my life, but that my eyes were not always open,” Giller said. “The earliest influences were my parents’ support of overseas missions and Maryknoll mission magazine that my parents received from time to time.”
Giller, who used to live in Georgia, is now serving as a missionary near Cochabamba, Bolivia, with the Washington, D.C.-based Franciscan Mission Service, fulfilling a call she has been hearing for several years. FMS provides lay people with opportunities to serve poor and oppressed communities throughout the world through mission commitments of two years or more. Giller described her story by email.
This is not her first mission experience. She first traveled to Bolivia with FMS in 2002, where she served as the administrator of a day care center and the local coordinator of Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, an international child sponsorship program based in Kansas City, Kan.
Giller eventually came to Georgia, where she discovered Jubilee Partners, a Christian-based organization that provides hospitality for refugees new to the United States. For six months, while attending Mass regularly at the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, Giller taught English as a Second Language to refugees. This was a pivotal moment in her mission career, she said.
“I always thought there was enough volunteering to do in the U.S., but at Jubilee Partners I met a man from Nicaragua who came to study English and to speak at churches of the realities of life in Nicaragua,” Giller said of her meeting with a man named Juan Carlos in the late 1990s.
“Juan Carlos had left his young wife and baby daughter home for the opportunity to study, living in community, and to speak at churches,” she continued. “Luckily his English was good because I had yet to study Spanish; his stories, both of Nicaragua and his experiences speaking in the U.S., helped to create the next turning point. During evening prayer I felt God calling me to go overseas.”
She said there are five outposts east of the main parish center. Most recently, she was stationed in the hills at the post furthest from the parish. She says this was the only center that was not run by a group of religious sisters and so she focused on helping with first Communion and confirmation classes.
“I was a basic presence in the community and people came to me with questions,” she said. “The pastor has been looking for a group of nuns to manage the center for a while, far more effective then one lay missioner.”
Giller recently received good news as the pastor found a group of nuns to work at this center. While Giller will continue to serve a couple of days a week there, she now lives at the Franciscan Social Center near the center of Cochabamba. She says this location provides many services and even includes doctors and dentists. The Franciscan Social Center also offers a soup kitchen and a home for burn victims.
She continues her work with children, trying to find programs for youngsters to get them off of the streets. This particular program now has a therapeutic center outside the city where many of the teens have been moving.
Navigating her new neighborhood, Giller is surrounded by street vendors, churches and shops. The buildings range from “classic Spanish structures, to some amazing modern, artsy structures, from adobe, to bricks to cement. From brand new, to literally falling down, from one story to 20 stories.”
Bolivia, a mountainous landlocked country in South America bordered by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, is home to nearly 9 million people. Cochabamba, southeast of the capital of La Paz, is in a valley of the Andes Mountains. The predominant language is Spanish with other native tongues including Quechua and Aymara.
The benefits Giller receives from her Bolivian mission experience are numerous. Whether it’s a simple conversation or assisting children, connecting with the people is what makes her experiences special.
“(The) greatest blessing is being able to share connections with people: peeling potatoes with moms for the lunch program and hearing about their lives; having strange conversations with older people who speak to me in Quechua, and I respond in Spanish and somehow we communicate, if only to learn about an escaping goat,” she wrote.
“Seeing the growth of children, whether it be a year of first Communion classes, birth to walking, or the development of children into young men and women with thoughts and dreams and a desire to express themselves and share,” are blessings to her in ministry, she said.
She is inspired by St. Francis of Assisi and his total focus on following Jesus.
“When he felt called to rebuild the church, he started with the physical structure, until he realized that God was calling him to something far different,” she said of St. Francis. “We are the church. I think we are all called to rebuild the church in Jesus’ image.”
Giller is scheduled to complete this mission and return to the United States at the end of 2012. She feels called to share her story and experiences with Americans upon her return, in hopes of inspiring others.
“My faith calls me to mission work, whether that be in Bolivia or the U.S.,” said Giller. “I told the new missioners in training that for me God isn’t calling me to Bolivia to save Bolivian people. I feel God calls me to Bolivia to save myself, and to share with the people of my home country this experience. We can be so distracted with the things of this world. In Bolivia (or with refugees) I come in direct contact of meeting God, in the eyes of the suffering, hungry, in people working for peace and justice.”