During the 10 years Betty Nystrom has served as coordinator for the religious education program at St. Anne Parish in Kimball, she has often heard youth and confirmation students express an interest in going on a mission trip. But, Nystrom said, being a small parish without an organized youth group makes it difficult to find the resources to plan a big trip.
So when she heard Father Jerry Rogers speak last October about his work at St. Mary’s Mission on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, she knew this was the solution she’d been hoping for.
“I was very impressed with Father Jerry’s dedication to the people of Red Lake. He was a great storyteller and he really got me excited about the mission,” Nystrom said.
At the presentation, which was sponsored by the St. Cloud Mission Office, Father Rogers — a former missioner in Africa and priest of the Diocese of Crookston — suggested that churches could bring youth to the mission during the summer.
On June 27, Nystrom and her husband, Bruce Mancini, traveled with four teens from the parish for a five-day mission to St. Mary’s Mission. Their daughter Kateri Mancini, mission education coordinator for the St. Cloud Mission Office, and Kristi Schmidtbauer, a member of St. Rita Parish in Hillman, also joined the crew.
Mornings were spent with children from the mission’s school, rotating between different learning sessions that included activities like sports, music, art and dancing. One of the days, the group took the kids on a field trip to the library in Bemidji, where the children selected books to read to the youth and adults.
Hannah Ehlinger, who will be a junior at Kimball High School this fall, was one of the youth who participated in the trip.
Ehlinger always wanted to go on a mission trip, so when Nystrom approached her, she signed up without even really knowing what she’d be doing. She said she was open to whatever the experience held.
“It was all just going to be a surprise, and I had faith that it would all go over well,” Ehlinger said.
And it did.
In the afternoons, the group helped with basic needs around the mission like gardening and cleaning. At the end of the day, they met with another group that was also there for “Pillow Talk.”
“Pillow Talk was a time where we’d sit in the hallway and talk about our highs and lows of the day and then we would pray and sing before we went to bed,” Ehlinger said.
For her, the whole trip was amazing, she said, but her “all-time high” was listening to Father Rogers speak.
“He is definitely the best speaker I’ve ever heard,” she said. “One day at Mass [at the mission], Father Jerry talked about receiving the Blood and the Body. He said when you receive the Blood and the Body, you are taking in Jesus so you should act as Jesus does. That really stuck with me. Now whenever I receive it, I focus on being more Jesus-like.”
She also said the children of Red Lake had a big impact on her.
“You get really close to them really quickly,” she said. “It was those connections we made that were important. You aren’t with them a lot, but you realize how much it means to them for us to be there.”
Nystrom saw it, too.
“There was a real connection between the kids,” she said. “There was a realization that we are coming from a southern, middle-class parish community and these kids are from an extremely poverty-stricken area. But what I think we all saw is that we are all beautiful people; we are all sisters and brothers.”
The group also had opportunities to experience some of the local culture. They visited a cemetery, which Nystrom said was very different from the local cemeteries in central Minnesota, and they even had the opportunity to watch bears sifting through garbage for food. They also learned about the serious issues the people of Red Lake face, such as extreme poverty, high suicide rates and unemployment.
“It was really helpful to have prayer experiences with the teens, especially to talk through some of these experiences. There was a lot crammed into those five days,” Nystrom said.
Kateri Mancini said Father Rogers is someone who “does mission well.”
“He shares quite clearly with participants that they are not there to do projects for the community,” she said, “which could build a sense of dependency in a place where empowerment is needed more so than most to overcome centuries of oppression, and/or could take away employment from a population already dealing with a 60 percent unemployment rate. Rather, he asks those who come to spend the week with him to focus on the positive — getting-to-know ‘what’s right with Red Lake.’
“According to Father Jerry, that is the children and the elders. So mission teams spend the week helping with activities for the young people of St. Mary’s School or visiting the nursing home, building relationships and falling in love with the people they meet. And they come back changed,” Mancini said.
One thing they all agreed on was that everyone wanted to go back to the reservation again. Nystrom and the missioners will be sharing about their trip with their parish community through a bulletin board with pictures from the trip. They also hope to find other ways to talk with parishioners and encourage them to come along next year.
“The whole trip totally changed my outlook,” Ehlinger said. “They don’t have much there, but they are all so happy with everything they do have. It was incredible to be there and experience the trip with them.”
Kateri Mancini said Ehlinger’s experience — as well as the others — is the benefit of a mission trip.
“Participants will go on to influence their parishes and communities back at home, too — dispelling stereotypes, sharing the joys of simple blessings, living out their gratitude in service to others, and looking at the world, both near and far, through a new lens,” she said.
“Christ gives us opportunities to encounter the ‘other’ each and every day,” she said.” It is our hope that an experience such as this will help participants recognize that the ‘other’ is not so different than our self, that we are all brothers and sisters, all neighbors, no matter our geography, culture or economic status. And carrying this view back home afterwards can change the world.”