Pilgrimage to the periphery

Father Agustin Martinez, associate pastor at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, celebrates Mass at a chapel in a dump in Mexico City. More than 1,000 people work and live in the dump. PHOTO BY CRAIG JOHRING

by Olivia Martin
olivia.martin@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — Imagine traveling hundreds of miles to spend a hot and sunny weekend in Mexico City — in a women’s shelter and a city dump.

While not a typical weekend getaway, that’s exactly what a group of seven doctors and their families did in Mexico City during a weekend mission trip May 10-13.

Where it all began

An earlier pilgrimage to Mexico City with the adult catechetical program School of Faith was what first interested Randy Brown of Queen of the Holy Rosary in Wea in a collaboration with Hope of the Poor missionary Craig Johring, who lives and works with street children in Mexico City.

As president of the Kansas City Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, Brown is part of a tightly woven community of Catholic medical professionals in the area.

“We have a group of doctors who are pretty strong friends,” said Brown. “[We] have developed relationships over the past four years through the program called First Saturdays.”

First Saturdays is a fraternal spiritual program for physicians and their families through CMA.

It was through this fellowship that Brown invited the doctors and their families to go on mission in Mexico City.

Hope in the dump

The mission began with a brief pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“Seeing the tilma was amazing and impactful,” said Gerry Malnar, a parishioner of the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, who was accompanied on the mission by his wife Terry and two sons.

“Mary is our most confident intercessor, “ he said. “She should always be part of the conversation.”

Prayer to Our Lady continued in the days that followed as the group visited a city dump, as well as a shelter for nearly 400 homeless elderly women.

“One thousand people work in the city dump and live there,” said Brown.

And due to changes in animal protection laws in Mexico City, animals are no longer allowed to carry waste up the mountains of garbage in the city dump — so humans do it.

“They do that all day long,” said Brown. “They live there. They don’t go home. They never get away from the smell. It’s like wearing it.”

As soon as Terry Malnar heard about the mission trip, she knew she wanted to go with her family.

She wasn’t sure what to expect, however, and was nervous starting out.

“I was really concerned, especially at the dump, about the smell and getting sick,” she said. “And then I got there, and I didn’t notice any smell at all. And, I mean, we were in a city dump!

“Even though there was trash all around and they live in shacks, it was like I had tunnel vision on the people and nothing else mattered.”

“I could have been anywhere,” she added, “at church in Overland Park. It didn’t faze me while I was there. It was just grace.”

The group attended Mass in a chapel called Cristo de los Humildes, or “Christ of the Humble,” which was made from the garbage in the dump, including a reclaimed crucifix.

“I remember during the penitential rite,” said Terry Malnar, “I got overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude — that I was blessed.”

The women’s shelter

Anna Brown, a student at St. James Academy in Lenexa and daughter of Randy Brown, also experienced apprehension approaching the mission, but felt it dissolve once they arrived at the shelter for elderly homeless women.

“When we got there all of the women were welcoming and greeted us with hugs,” she said. “We painted their nails and danced — it was really a lot of fun!”

Some in the group brought instruments and filled the afternoon with music and dancing.

“I must have danced with these ladies for an hour at least out in the sun!” said Terry Malnar. “They were so excited.”

The visit to the women’s shelter evoked the same sense of community, but it was also difficult.

“That was a hard experience,” said Gerry Malnar. “Even as a physician, it was hard to watch and see . . . a lot of marginalized women who have no families to take care of them.

“Being a gynecologist by training . . . I [participated] in a conversation trying to help a particular resident there.

“Being able to work things out and come up with practical solutions, especially when you don’t have a lot of tools, resonated with me because I really should be approaching all my problems this way: Keep it simple and focus on what’s important.”

Communicating across barriers

“The mission,” Randy Brown explained, “was to get as close as we could to the poor through eye contact, touch and just to share humanity.”

This human connection was possible across the language barriers.

“A few of [the women] knew sign language,” said Anna Brown, “and I’m studying sign language right now. So even though there are different languages within sign language, I was still able to piece it together.”

“I can’t even speak the language,” said Randy Brown, “but when I was handing a burrito [to someone], I could feel their hand — there’s a contact there and a compassion in the eyes that’s hard to explain.

“They soften you.”

Gerry Malnar found the trip’s encounters with the poor to be experiences of hope rather than despair.

“As a physician, it’s kind of in our DNA to want to fix things,” he said. “Then you . . . realize very quickly, ‘I’m not going to fix this.’

“It took a while for us to wrap our heads around the fact that that really wasn’t why we were there.

“We were there more to acknowledge them as fellow human beings that mattered, because all of us do.”

A family experience

The fact that the mission was made within the context of family made the experience even more profound to the pilgrims.

“It’s always great to do stuff with family,” said Gerry Malnar. “We were able to share all of our experiences as we went through the mission.”

“When you . . . see that kind of poverty together, [it] helps you grow closer,” agreed Anna Brown.

“We spent two nights talking about [the mission],” added her father. “Nobody was unaffected, that’s for sure.”

Most striking to Randy Brown was the gratitude that was present even in the midst of the mission.

“There was no complaining,” he said. “This was a transformational aspect of the people, the setting, the whole human experience.”

“[We] got a chance to give [ourselves] to the poor and receive the poor,” he added. “It was awesome because of the poor.”

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