To leave, to be and to return

Many ventures in life begin with a dream. For the late-founder of the Hong Kong Lay Mission Association, Jessica Ho Oi-chu, her life’s work began with a dream. “I had a dream. I saw many of my brothers and sisters in other places suffering. They were people of different ethnicities and colour. However, in this dream, they were my relatives.”

Columban Lay Missionaries Teresa Hui Ling-chuah (centre) & Sophia Ting Chee-tzu (right) working with 'Lets feed Brum' charity. Photo: Columban Lay Missionaries

Columban Lay Missionaries Teresa Hui Ling-chuah (centre) & Sophia Ting Chee-tzu (right) working with 'Lets feed Brum' charity. Photo: Columban Lay Missionaries

On the evening of October 6, the Columban Lay Missionaries celebrated the 30th anniversary of consolidation as an official group with a Mass held at the Society’s headquarters in Hong Kong. Although never huge, numbers have been substantial and today boasts some 70 members working in a wide variety of apostolates in the countries were the Society has commitments. Many a dream sits behind the decision of those who have put their hands up to live out their life vocation as a lay missionary.

For one of the newest of them, Sophia Ting Chee-tzu, the dream evolved over some time. The Malaysian-born New Zealander says, “I spent many years as an electrical engineer. In 2011, I attended World Youth Day in Madrid and it was there I questioned my purpose in life, my future and critically my faith and relationship with God. I felt an urgent need to discover more about myself, my Christian faith and how to live out my faith more fully.”

Sophia has just arrived in England along with her companion in this venture, Teresa Hui Ling-chuah. They have traversed a long road on the way to their first appointment as lay missionaries. For nine months, they continued their careers in New Zealand while keeping in close contact with Columbans. Then travel to Fiji gave them an intensive experience of living in a culture not their own among people of other nationalities, learning the value of local customs and gaining a deeper understanding of the mission ethos. The COVID-19 pandemic blocked their path to England, so both returned to New Zealand to continue working until visas were granted and a flight across the world was available.

Columban Lay Missionaries celebrated the 30th anniversary

Due in large part to the background work done by Fr Warren Kinne, the lay mission movement within the Columbans came into being at a time when the movement of missionaries was shifting away from traditional Europe to Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Latin America. They were beginning to flow among these traditionally receiving nations, thus becoming both missionary-sending and -receiving. It was then no longer only priests, sisters and brothers on the move. There had been a growing awareness of the lacuna the absence of lay people in the missionary flow left in the mission of God and hands were up to fill the gap.

PALMS Australia had been recruiting lay people since around 1960 to venture into the island nations of the Pacific and share their professional skills where invited to do so, as well as to give the witness of Christian leadership in faith communities, not from a position of power, but from among the people in the pews. The Columbans followed this model in the late 1980s with an organisation to send English teachers into China. It is still operating today. The Society also added the possibility of much longer-term commitment with more in-depth preparation and the longest-serving among the Columban lay missionaries have been in the programme almost since its foundation.

However, the basic challenge of lay mission remains: to leave, to be, to return. Jessica described it in this way. “We leave our own country to change our patterns of thinking and learn new ways in new cultures by being with people and sharing our own professional skills with them. Then like St Paul, we return, to give a detailed account of our activities to the disciples at home.” But no activity in the Church prospers without support and Jessica always maintained the commitment must be based on a wider front. “Some people go to give, but there are others who provide the support that they need and they are the ones who give to go.” This is the partnership on which the spirit of her dream was based.

However, what she cherished was her weakness, saying that the true value of her life must be measured in terms of the service that is given, not by what is achieved. The true value of those who go to give, as well as those who give to go, is measured in their commitment to spend their lives in the service of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society.

The leader of the Columban Lay Missionaries, Vida Hequilan, said in introducing the 30th anniversary thanksgiving Mass, “We give thanks to our benefactors and supporters among whom we live and serve.”

Columban Fr Jim Mulroney resides in Essendon, Australia.

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