Laywomen led to Little Rock to evangelize for week Missionaries part of Neocatechumenal Way retreat that sent out 800 to evangelize
Maruxa Atienza and Stephanie Rivera had only Bibles and the clothes on their backs when their plane touched down in Little Rock July 12.
They had no phone, no food or water and only a little bit of cash to buy a map and a bus ride to downtown Little Rock. Their mission — evangelize by spreading the message of Jesus wherever they were led for a week. They are modern-day disciples, following Jesus’ call to live off the kindness of strangers, leaving all possessions behind.
“In all reality, we’re denying everything we’re taught as a child — know where you’re going, don’t talk to strangers — but we’re doing it in the name of God this week,” Rivera said.
They were brought together by Neocatechumenal Way, a movement within the Church dedicated to adult faith formation. Its activities are lived through small parish-based communities.
Atienza and Rivera, along with about 800 other missionaries met at St. Benedict Preparatory School, guided by the monks of Newark Abbey in New Jersey, and were sent out to states across the country, two by two, to spread the love of God. Names were drawn out of baskets to see which missionaries would be traveling together by plane, bus or train. Money was pulled together by every missionary to pay for travel expenses.
St. Benedict headmaster Father Edwin Leahy said the Way movement, started by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández in Madrid in 1964 and approved by the Vatican in 2008, hearkens back to early Christianity “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” The Way often does mission trips, but this one in particular is in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September.
“The purpose of this one to announce the Gospel and God’s love, especially to the priests,” Father Leahy said.
Father Ivan Sciberras, pastor at St. Peter Church in Belleville, N.J., said the missionaries “experience the power of providence,” through this mission.
“You don’t know where you are going to sleep … you don’t know if you’ll be accepted or rejected. You live in poverty for a few days,” Father Sciberras said, adding he went on similar evangelization trips in Italy and Northern California in the 1990s. “It’s a beautiful experience. You get to see providence at work.”
Rivera said the point is to make sure priests also receive evangelization.
“We do want to find the priests and announce to them the love of God, the same thing they do for everybody else; we want to serve them as well in the name of Christ. It’s two crazy lay people, we don’t have a collar or a habit … but we see the importance in these servants of Christ, well we’re here to serve them,” she said.
While in Little Rock for seven days, the women talked with people at the homeless day center Jericho Way, Abba House shelter for women in crisis, reached out to priests at local churches and got their permission to knock on doors in the neighborhoods around the churches to share how God changed their lives.
Although the women are different — Atienza, 40, has nine children and lives with her husband in Guam, and Rivera, 26, is single living in Brooklyn — God called both of them to missionary work through crises.
Atienza said she and her husband had a comfortable life in Madrid, with their two children and one on the way. He has a doctorate in anthropology and she worked as a mental health occupational therapist. But their marriage was in crisis, chasing a living rather than making Christ the center of their lives and choosing only to have three kids instead of leaving it up to God.
“This is happening around the world so I really understand why the family is broken,” Atienza said. “God responded to our matrimony crisis. ‘Go, leave everything and follow me.’”
The couple moved to Guam and became missionaries nine years ago at the Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores Catholic Theological Institute for Oceania, where her husband teaches theology to missionary seminarians. They have nine children, ages 1 to 13, who are staying with family in Spain while she and her husband take part in this weeklong evangelization trip, though separated.
“Pope Benedict XVI, he sent families in mission to the whole world to announce this love. We carry our crisis. We carry our difficulties to be open to life, we carry our doubts,” Atienza said. “God called us to leave everything and go literally to announce the life of God with our lives.”
For Rivera, her life was broken by an absent father who, unwed to her mother, left a month before she was born. She lived with her mother, grandparents and other relatives and her teenage years became about trying to fill the void of affection with popularity, appearance and sex.
Around 15 years old, her older brother found their father suffering from cancer. They cared for him until he died.
“I don’t forgive and forget, it’s a horrible violence on myself,” Rivera said. “He was able to have a Christian death” and she found forgiveness. “It’s impossible if there’s no grace there … because if God’s not there, it doesn’t make sense. For us I think and all humans forgiving is not an easy thing. But to truly care for someone who in a sense you hated, it’s impossible (without God). I made sure I was one with God.”
Rivera now lives a chaste life, working as a missionary primarily in Brooklyn for three years, in addition to two years in the Dominican Republic.
“If I ask you today what was the vow you made in your baptism? What was promised to you that day? What did you say yes to? Most people say ‘I don’t know, I was a baby.’ That was me too. You grow out of your baptism dress and that’s it,” Rivera said.
Armed with an unhelpful map, Atienza and Rivera left the airport and went to downtown Little Rock to the Cathedral of St. Andrew, trying to meet with Bishop Anthony B. Taylor. Rector Father Jack Vu explained the bishop lives next to the House of Formation on the grounds of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock.
A young man they met on the street outside the cathedral drove them to Good Counsel,
A highlight of the trip for the women was meeting with Bishop Taylor and receiving his blessing. He arranged for them to stay with Sisters of Mercy at Mount St. Mary Convent. Daughters of Charity drove them to various places during the week.
“First off we wanted to get the blessing from the bishop because it’s rude to come to someone’s house and take food out of their refrigerator. We wanted to let him know we were here,” Rivera said. “He was super welcoming, super happy … He made us dinner.”
Since then, God has provided through the kindness of others, they said. They have never had to ask for water or food, others have offered it. While there are countless stories that have touched their heart during the week, from speaking to the homeless to prisoners just released from jail, Rivera pointed to a woman they met while walking through a neighborhood near Good Counsel. She was leaving her cousin’s home but perked up once she realized the missionaries were Catholics.
“She said, ‘Well maybe I need to hear this then,’ and I said, ‘Yes, yes you do,’” Rivera said. “I was able to more than anything to speak of my sin, my downfalls. To me I don’t have shame of my sin because that’s the victory of God.”
While they did not take money the woman offered, they did each accept a T-shirt from the woman.
“She said, ‘Did you eat today? I’m going to feed you I’m going to give you a good lunch,’” Rivera said, adding that they talked about God’s love and the promise of an eternal kingdom.
“She was crying. She said, ‘I was looking for this, this is the miracle,’” Atienza said.
The women left Little Rock July 19 and returned to New Jersey to discuss their evangelization experiences. It was an exercise of total trust in God and one that Atienza and Rivera will carry with them, they said.
“I could give you Bible verses and say read this and that one and Moses; but that has nothing to do with us, in reality, unless I tell you how I know God,” Rivera said. “God is our father, whether we realize it or not.”