While serving a mission, see faith treated in a magical way

We observe increasing priestly vocations in mission countries, such as Africa. More often, only local priests work in Salesian institutions, and the Church develops there from the bottom up. No wonder African missionaries come more repeatedly to evangelise in Europe, where faith is slowly disappearing. This may become the norm one day, says Dominika Oliwa-Żuk from the Salesian Missionary Voluntary Youth Service – Youth for the World – (“Młodzi Światu”) in Kraków. She has been involved in missions for over 15 years, and her public benefit organisation supports the poorest in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Among other matters, she deals with projects of building schools and wells, feeding children and supporting education.

TVP WEEKLY: What was the most valuable thing you learned from the mission?

First of all, the missions broadened my horizons. Now, I am more open to the world and other people. When I was on my first mission in Bolivia, I bucked against some of the behaviour of its inhabitants. It has taken some time for me to understand that their behaviour was justified. It was part of their culture, mentality and the reality they lived in. What is important, their perception of matters does not have to be worse than ours. Those things must always be perceived in a given context of life.

It is worth recalling that what is the norm for us - Europeans - does not have to be so obvious for the inhabitants of Africa, Asia or South America, for example, the access to electricity, water or food. One of our volunteers once said that most people worldwide have only as much as you can fit in your backpack. And sometimes it's not even that. Therefore, looking at the material side, we should be grateful for what we have - meanwhile, we tend to complain constantly. It is good to follow the example of the poor people of Africa and their attitude: despite extreme poverty, they are joyful every day and calmly look forward to the future. They are happy with what happens to them and do not worry in advance; they do not make plans in advance. They take one day at a time. We constantly plan and try to protect ourselves, even against things we cannot control. We would be more peaceful and happy if we entrusted our lives to God. I try to do this because it is the best investment.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE For some people, missionary volunteering is a vocation; for others, it is an opportunity to gain new skills or learn about a new country. And what was it like for you?

In the beginning, I actually treated this as an opportunity to gain new experience and a chance for adventure. Only then did I realise that it was my life path. I had the desire to go on a mission since my early youth. I wanted to go to Africa, choosing specific countries: Angola and Mozambique - because I studied Portuguese and knew something about these places; Congo, Mali and Chad - because I know French; and finally Cameroon - where I have friends. I was also attracted by the warm climate and exotic nature there. Later, I found out that a volunteer does not ultimately choose the direction of the missionary work. Your application may indicate your preferences, but this is not a travel agency. Each person receives a proposal from a designated country, and this offer is either to be accepted or not.
I received a "Sign from Heaven" before I knew where I was supposed to go. I went to Spain to see my friend Kasia, and we went to a mass celebration at the Jesuits’ church in Madrid. At the entrance, people gave us cards with song lyrics and a fragment of a letter written by Saint Francis Xavier. Kasia laughed, showing me the last sentence of this letter: "Here I am Lord, what should I do? Send me wherever you want me to go, and if it's your will, even to the Indians". This prediction was correct. Sisters Servants of Dębica, who run the orphanage in Tupiza, Bolivia, asked for volunteers’ help. I was chosen among others, so I waited impatiently to go to this mountainous, harsh climate town almost 4,000 meters above the sea level. I had double thoughts for a moment because I didn't know Spanish. However, those doubts quickly disappeared. In total, I spent eight months on this mission. Adjustment didn’t take long, and I quickly felt at home. I realised that being there had a deeper meaning and purpose.

What was you responsibility?

At that time, there were 70 pupils living in the orphanage home in Tupiza. They were cared for by four nuns and two ladies who, among other things, did the cooking or washing - so there was a shortage of hands to work. Together with another helper, I did almost everything: we took the children to school, helped them with their homework, organised additional classes for them - e.g. the English lessons, basic computer science, art, theatre or sports - and at the end of the day we had to make sure they ate dinner and went to bed at the appropriate time. It was all about being there for them and giving them some attention. For example, in the evening, we would read different bedtime stories or hug them. Every child needs such warmth, love and recognition.

Although I must admit, there were exceptions to the rule. I noticed that one boy, 9-year-old Eliseo, was very withdrawn and kept his distance for a long time. He didn't want to talk, let alone the hugging. Of course, Latinos from the Bolivian mountains take a long time to break the ice, but he needed a longer while. Over time, he slowly opened up. For example, once he brought his notebook and asked me to test him on the lesson. Another time he just said something to me. It seemed casual, but it was evident that he continuously sought my attention. The ice was finally broken when I came to the boys' room one evening to read the bedtime stories as usual. Then, when I sat on his bed, he grabbed my hand tightly as I started the reading, and he held it until I finished. Our relationship became close, and we still keep in touch.
Anyway, all the kids in this house were wonderful. I celebrated my 25th birthday there but didn't expect to spend it in bed. I had stomach problems. Bolivians eat a lot of fatty food, and my stomach gave up after two months. In the evening, I got up and went downstairs to the room where the children sang the Polish "Happy Birthday" song. Then they gave me hand-made birthday cards. One made by David particularly touched my heart; his card was perfected as much as possible, with angels and paper flowers and the following text: "Happy birthday, senorita Dominika, God bless you. I prepared this card because you are my best friend, and besides - you are our friend - you lend us many books so that we can learn to read. Thank you for everything!". It was enough to feel at home in this place. It was difficult for me to return to Poland.

But new challenges have arisen. You also went on a mission to Palestine - a rough area engulfed by religious conflicts; how do you recall this experience?

I went to Palestine with my husband. We both met while volunteering. The missions brought us together because we have completely different education: I am a historian and Portuguese philologist, while my husband is an engineer and electrotechnician. Initially, I doubted whether such a joint trip was a good idea. We were supposed to share work and free time 24 hours a day, which we don't normally do on a daily basis. However, the fears quickly vanished from sight. Once we were there, it turned out that we complemented each other perfectly in performing our duties.

We were delegated to help at the Home of Peace in Bethlehem, led by the Sisters of Elizabeth. In Jerusalem, for years they have welcomed young Christians to their facility who, for various reasons, cannot live with their families. We spent over a month there as obtaining a visa for a longer stay was difficult. We mainly supported the day-to-day running of the house: we started by waking up the kids in the morning, and then we made sure they had breakfast - usually, it was cereal with milk. Pita bread with hummus was packed for school - and then we had to ensure everyone boarded the school bus safely. After this, together with the sisters, we attended Holy Mass, usually at home. Still, once - on the day of our second wedding anniversary - we went to the morning Eucharist in the Grotto of the Nativity, which was a special experience.

The children usually returned from school around 1:30 p.m. It was necessary to ensure that everyone took off their school uniform and put on home clothes. Then, it was time for homework. We couldn't support the teachers much here because the classes were in Arabic. Once, Nasri - the oldest boy in the house - tried to teach us how to pronounce some letters. Despite our joint efforts, some sounds remained too difficult for us, but we all had a great time. On the other hand, Nasri was quite good at handling the sounds "p" and "b", which are not distinguished in Arabic. So we helped children mainly learn English or French. We also tried to organise their free time. Sometimes, they had educational games, sports activities, movies or art classes. Unfortunately, behavioural problems occurred quite often. It was hard to motivate them so that they wouldn't fight while having fun. But in the end, we managed to reconcile the conflicting parties. A wall was an ominous reminder of the real conflict - just two streets away from the facility - which is no longer so easy to moderate...
It is worth mentioning that the "handyman" of this house was a Muslim, Omar. He built most of the rooms, and his attachment to this place and its inhabitants was visible. He often visited us in the evenings and brought a hookah, a kettle of Arabic coffee, and sometimes a delicious knafeh (Palestinian pastry with goat cheese and pistachios); he was also a barbecue master. He never made us feel that he was of a different religion. Apart from drinking non-alcoholic beer, there was nothing different about him.

Still, evangelisation is an important element of missionary activity. What does it involve in practice?

This is why the Salesian Missionary Voluntary Service "Youth for the World" was created. It was founded in 1997 by young people fascinated by the stories of missionaries. Most of them fulfil tasks as teachers and educators - we work mainly with the Salesians, a congregation founded in the 19th century by Father John Bosco, whose charisma was to work with poor youth. Father John Bosco created oratorios, i.e. the so-called community centres - places where young people found a home, a church and a playground, where they could eat, learn, pray and play.

Speaking of education, one of our important projects worth mentioning is "Adoption of Love". Its primary goal is to educate poor children and youth from various parts of the world. It started in Nairobi. In 1998, Karinde Childlove was founded there. The cooperation was initiated by a Salesian, Fr. Henryk Juszczyk, who deeply cared about the fate of children living in the slums of Nairobi, especially their education. A layman Joseph Mugai created the project. This man had a serious accident 20 years ago, after which he experienced conversion. He asked God to regain his health and his prayers were answered. He wanted to give back somehow and decided to help poor children learn to read and write. Shortly afterwards, he met the above-mentioned Salesian priest Henryk Juszczyk, who supported him with educational materials. The priest admitted some children to primary school and provided contact details for missionary volunteering. The project began to develop dynamically. Children in Karinde Child Love currently have over 60 adoptive parents who sponsor their education.

So, in the spirit of the Gospel, we help the poor and excluded, provide food and medicine, run homes for street children and single mothers, build schools, boarding houses and wells. For us, talking about faith begins when someone's basic needs are met, such as satisfying hunger or providing access to education. We do not separate charity from talking about God. Volunteers go to testify to their faith. They show how to live with these values every day, for example when performing duties, resting, in joys and sorrows. When lay people testify about their faith, it makes young people even more curious and draws them to God.

It's probably not easy: passing on faith when there is so much confusion and chaos in the Church. In the West, new ideologies enter its structures, while in developing countries, religious syncretism is still quite common - combining the principles of Christianity with pagan beliefs.

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Indeed, religious syncretism is visible while serving a mission. Sometimes faith is treated in a magical way. In Bolivia, for example, people bring figurines of Baby Jesus for Christmas and a priest needs to bless them. The ordination is invalid if each of them is not touched and holy water does not reach there. By contrast, the custom of wearing rosaries around the neck is popular in Africa. There is a need to manifest faith and touch something intangible. In the Andes, the cult of Pachamama, i.e. Mother Earth - which is supposed to ensure the abundance of fields and fertility - is still quite popular. Children were once sacrificed as part of the cult. When the Spanish christianized Peru, Pachamama began to be equated with the Virgin Mary. Residents have no problem with attending church first to pray and then giving a gift to Pachamama - this is not impossible for them. On the other hand, their faith in God is very simple, vivid and sincere. Their everyday behaviour shows their reference to Jesus or Mary, for example in greetings or blessings. There is a lot of singing and dancing during the mass, which means that the mass can last two or even three hours. It feels like they are shouting out their love for God. There is some incredible power in those celebrations.

We also observe many more priestly vocations in the countries covered by the missions, such as Africa. Until recently, in its eastern part, one Salesian province covered four countries. Now, Tanzania has become a separate province because an increasing number of these facilities and new structures had to be created. More and more often, only local priests work in Salesian missionary institutions. Polish missionaries passed the baton, and the Church is already developing there from the bottom up. Some European customs have been introduced, but local priests play a leading role there. No wonder African missionaries more frequently evangelise in Europe, where faith is slowly disappearing. One day this may become the norm.

Missions are not only about evangelisation, effort and sacrifice but also carry a risk. We remember the tragic death of a young woman from the Salvator Missionary Volunteer Service, Helena Kmieć from Libiąż, who was murdered in Bolivia in 2017. She died on the night of January 24-25, stabbed during an attack on a children's orphanage in Cochabamba. Is it possible to avoid such dangerous situations?

Such situations are impossible to predict. It was a random event that could have happened anywhere, also in Poland. The volunteer is an adult and needs to consider that they might go to places where safety is limited in some way. We try to minimise the risk whenever possible. For example, we had a missionary in Chad who needed supporting volunteers. Still, he said he would not take on such responsibility as he was aware of the different danger implications involved in that place.
We do not send people to areas with ongoing military operations or internal conflicts. If something like this starts to happen, we constantly monitor the situation and, if necessary, evacuate volunteers to another, more secure place. For example, two years ago, when our volunteers worked in Ethiopia, riots began in the country's north and quickly spread to the south. When they arrived in the capital, we moved our volunteers to another camp in Kenya, and they completed the mission there. The health and life of our envoys is our priority.

You can't expect comforts on site either.

People who come to volunteer are generally aware that the life conditions will not be excellent; for example access to water or electricity will be difficult. They are prepared for this but less ready in terms of flexibility for the tasks they have to perform. They have this vision of saving the world, but they must do rather prosaic things when they get there. We try to prepare our volunteers so they know that the missionary decides what is most needed at that particular moment. Those leaving for the mission must feel that what seems good to us may not work in those different conditions. As for character traits, a volunteer must be brave and outgoing towards people from another culture. Positive thinking and mental resilience are also helpful because many situations can be difficult and upsetting, making you tense and an easy target.

The Salesian Missionary Voluntary Service's “Youth for the World” activities are impressive. Volunteers perform missions in over 40 countries on four continents. Until today, over 450 projects have been implemented in education, medical assistance and infrastructure building in the poorest parts of the world. Which of them are you most proud of?

I am proud of two projects at the Salesian Don Bosco Boys' Town Technical Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. There is great poverty and unemployment, which leads to crime, different forms of addiction and the risk of HIV/AIDS. This is the everyday life faced by young people from the Kibera slums in Nairobi, which, according to UN data, has a population of about one million people. Only 20% of them have access to electricity or running water. Young people have no jobs. That is why the school was established to provide education; this is also a children’s home and rehabilitation centre for them.

Our task was to equip the school and workshops. We expanded the mechanical workshop, including purchasing a wheel alignment measurement device and a four-column car lift and car supports. Students can work with equipment exactly the same as that used in their future workplaces. The teachers were delighted; they said that only in textbooks had they seen these machines bought for the car mechanics department. There are also new machines in the tailoring department, including the eight-head computer embroidery machine, thanks to which you can sew a pattern previously designed on a computer, transferred later onto a T-shirt in eight copies at a time. In addition, there is a computer knitting machine that will enable the production of sweaters and a machine for making buttonholes. Among other things, we also purchased a set of computers for office work.

I was happy that I could also coordinate this project on-site and see the students' joy in person. They were pleased to go to this school. Boys' Town has been a valued institution providing vocational education for years. As many as 80% of graduates find work. This is a big chance for them to leave the slum environment and have a better future. This motivates me pretty much to keep going and to continue my work.

- interviewed by Monika Chrobak, journalist of The Polish Radio

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

- translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Dominika Oliwa-Żuk z podopiecznymi misji w Tanzanii, 2017 rok. Fot. archiwum DO-Ż
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