By Celine Klosterman
After volunteering for a year in Uganda and spending another 12 months in California promoting global solidarity, Mary Oldham just didn’t feel as if she were done.
“I felt like my heart was still overseas,” she said.
So after wrapping up a two-year volunteer stint with Catholic Relief Services this summer, the native of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa eventually decided to join the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Now she’s in the midst of a three-month orientation period for the Missioners, and will leave in January to spend three-and-a-half years in Kenya. There she’ll meet with representatives from the dioceses of Mombasa and Kitale to come up with a long-term service project to benefit local people.
Oldham is making the effort largely because she loved helping set up and manage savings and lending groups in 2007-08 for Ugandans without access to formal credit systems. “I just really loved being with the people I met there and learning from them, and appreciated their sense of joy and faith.” And she was grateful that skills she’d developed in managing data — during her 10 years as a chemical engineer for 3M in Los Angeles — proved useful in tracking money’s flow among the Ugandan groups.
“It was really a gift for me to be able to go there,” the 35-year-old said. “… I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
But the CRS program wasn’t designed for volunteers to live and work overseas long-term. So after returning home — and concluding the program by speaking about her experience for 11 months — Oldham initially decided to seek a master’s degree in hopes of working for an overseas non-profit group.
However, she later realized she’d rather work directly with people in need than craft long-term social strategy. So a CRS staffer suggested she call the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. That Catholic organization includes about 100 people who work with poor communities in 14 countries to make strides in civil and human rights and educational, economic, environmental and health-care development.
Oldham was struck by the group’s vision statement, which speaks of witnessing the Gospel and “crossing boundaries of culture, nationality and faith” to unite with disadvantaged people.
“I felt like that was how I wanted to live my life,” she said. “… That was some of the beauty I experienced in Uganda — not just building relationships with people, but crossing boundaries of skin color, language and economic status.”
Oldham also appreciates the idea that the Maryknoll Lay Missioners serve “not because we’re better or know better, but because we have relationships with these people.” Volunteers don’t necessarily come in with a pre-determined service project, but talk with local people to decide together how to best fill needs.
Oldham said that not knowing what she’ll be doing in Kenya — where residents’ average age is about 19 — was at first unsettling. “It’s a journey of faith,” she acknowledged.
Her current orientation period in Ossining, N.Y., is considered a time of discernment. But Michelle Born, admissions and recruitment manager for the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, said Oldham already has shown “essential qualities” for cross-cultural missions. “Mary brings a sense of humility, but deep and honest insight,” Born said. “She also offers a great deal of humor and flexibility.
“We are delighted to count Mary as one of our newest MKLM missioners.”
After orientation wraps up in December, Oldham will spend about four months in Nairobi studying Kenyan culture and Swahili, one of the country’s official languages. She’ll miss family, friends and supporters including St. Patrick Parish, where she was blessed at a Mass in August before beginning orientation in September.
“I’m not sure what will come from this,” she said of her venture, “but I’ll try to be open to anything.”
To receive updates about Oldham’s work, submit contact information to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners at (800) 867-2980 or www.MKLM.org as Friends & Family of Mary Oldham or visit growingonthejourney.blogspot.com. Donations to or written inquiries about the Missioners are welcome at Maryknoll Lay Missioners, P.O. Box 307, Maryknoll, N.Y. 10545.