Monthly Archives: January 2019

New border ministry helps migrants and asylum seekers

Border fence by CK Milestone 31177545118_5dbdedb30d_k

Heidi Cerneka begins work as immigration attorney in El Paso

At the beginning of January, Maryknoll Lay Missioners opened a new mission site at the U.S.-Mexico border. Heidi Cerneka has begun to serve as an immigration attorney with community agencies in El Paso, Texas. Heidi became a Maryknoll lay missioner 23 years ago and has previously served in prison ministry and human rights and legal advocacy in Brazil and Kenya.

“I believe it is important for us to be here at the border,” Heidi says, “because it is a flashpoint where national and international politics, ministry, church and economic issues meet.” El Paso is the port of entry into the United States for the second largest number of people (San Diego is first).

In opening this new ministry, Heidi is continuing a previous Maryknoll Lay Missioners presence at the border that lasted until 2007. She has joined Maryknoll sisters, priests and brothers serving in the El Paso-Juárez cross-border community.

Heidi Cerneka in her office at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas

Heidi Cerneka in her office at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas

Heidi has begun working with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso-based nonprofit that is dedicated to serving the legal needs of immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, victims of crime and families seeking reunification.

“I am dedicating January to Las Americas, and to learning the ropes from a lawyer who has been working there but is leaving at the end of the month,” says Heidi. After January she plans to divide her time with three days at Las Americas and two days at a different legal or policy advocacy ministry serving migrants and refugees.

In her first couple of weeks she has been working with asylum cases for detained people from many different countries. “People have a right to ask for asylum,” she notes, “both by international law and by U.S. law. So I am preparing people for hearings with immigration courts, representing them and really learning the reality of all of the struggles that immigrants and their families undergo.”

"Border Christ" statue in El Paso

“Border Christ” statue in El Paso

Most of the asylum seekers have fled real danger in their home countries. Her clients have been threatened, family members have been murdered, and they have sold their land to be able to flee their countries in the dark of night. They have endured long journeys in harsh conditions and have been robbed on their way through Central America and detention.

Heidi says, “Because the law recognizes a person’s right to ask for asylum at the door of a country, people do not expect to be held in custody, to truly be put in prison. It looks like a prison, it smells like a prison, it treats people like they are in prison—it is a prison.”

She points out that a U.S. State Department 2017 Human Rights Report on Venezuela began with this sentence: We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country. “I believe we have the capacity to live up to that vision,” she says, “although we are not at this moment. I hope that each of us, in whatever way we believe that needs to happen, can stretch to be our best selves individually and collectively and make that vision real.”

Top photo of border fence in El Paso by CK Milestone

Chile Program

Rural Chile Experience and Intensive Spanish Program

February 10 – 26, 2019

chilejuly20160715_0224603Maryknoll Lay Missioners provides an intensive Program of Spanish language and Chilean idioms through classroom work, practical and cultural experiences to increase knowledge of terminology, vocabulary and cultural differences in communication. They will introduce you to Chilean rural life, history and culture through presentations, both academic and artistic, tours to different areas of interest and a living experience with a Chilean rural family to strengthen your cross-cultural competencies and language.

Joanne Blaney on popular education and restorative justice in Brazil

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Joanne Blaney talks about her work in popular education and restorative justice. At the Popular Education and Human Rights Center in São Paulo, Brazil, Joanne works with vulnerable and marginalized populations, including homeless and incarcerated women and men. Joanne and her Brazilian teammates also train educators, community leaders and church groups in restorative justice practices and violence prevention to resolve group and interpersonal conflicts.

All our children

Anne Berry reflects on the Tanzanian value of extending compassion and care beyond the nuclear family

Anne Berry

Anne Berry (left) and nurse midwives (Maria, Mama Kisawa, Pendo and Neema) at the Reproductive and Child Health Clinic of Bukumbi Hospital near Mwanza, Tanzania.

By Dr. Anne Berry

I listened as Mama Catherine, the experienced and capable operating room nurse, discussed cancer of the cervix with our next client. She explained to the middle-aged woman sitting in a wooden chair in our small cervical cancer screening room that she should remove her underclothes, spread her kanga cloth on the exam table and lie down when she was ready to begin the simple screening procedure.  The woman nodded.  

Then Mama Catherine, filling in the register book, asked, “How many times have you given birth?” The woman answered quietly, “Never, I have no children.” Her eyes filled with tears.  

Mama Catherine looked up from her data entry. “How can you say you have no children? Don’t your neighbors’ children play at your house?” “Yes,” said the woman. “If they need something, won’t you help them?” “Yes,” said the woman. “If you ask them to run and fetch things, don’t they do it for you?” “Yes,” she answered again. “Then,” said Mama Catherine with an encouraging smile, “You do have children – they are all your children!”  

St. Paul’s sermon on the one body with many members in the 12th chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians has always invigorated me with its praise for the diversity of gifts. But now, after living and working in Tanzania for two years, what stands out to me is the call to belonging:

If a foot should say,
Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
Or if an ear should say,
Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.

In my short time in Tanzania, I’ve met many people who are caring for or supporting extended family members – paying school fees for a niece, raising a grandchild, nursing a cousin back to health, caring for an aging grandparent. Of course, I know people back in the U.S. who do the same, but here it seems not like a special kindness, but the usual, expected thing because you and your relatives belong to one another. 

I remember at the beginning of my Swahili studies learning the words for family members: mother, mama; father, baba; grandmother, bibi; grandfather, babu; sister, dada; brother, kaka. “And what,” I asked our teacher, “is the word for niece, the children of my sister?” “Oh,” answered Mwalimu Magdalena, “they are watoto wako, they are your children!”  

I cannot claim to understand the full meaning of familial relationships and obligations in the ethnic groups and cultures of Tanzania, but my Swahili teacher’s pronouncement of belonging between me and my nieces reminded me of Jesus’ pronouncements of new family relationships, like that in Mark 3:34-35: “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” 

The German Catholic priest and theologian Gerhard Lohfink writes in Jesus of Nazareth, “The new thing that comes with the reign of God is not something purely spiritual…. It is the ‘new family’ of those who follow him…. [The church] not only demanded justice; it lived justice…. It hoped not only for a future life in heaven; it knew that in the common life of the baptized, heaven is already revealed and the precious treasure has already been found.”  

As a Maryknoll lay missioner, I try to serve those in need, but also to realize my own needs and open my heart to receive in humble gratitude from my “siblings” in the “new family” of the reign of God. Those of us from Western cultures where the focus is on the individual need to recover the vision of the common life Jesus proclaimed, to learn how to depend on one another in love:

The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you,
nor again the head to the feet, I do not need you.

What Mama Catherine told our client at the cervical cancer screening program is the truth I want to learn to truly live: All children are our children, and we are all sisters and brothers. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu expresses it: “God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness and for compassion.”

From Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns, Scripture Reflection for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 27, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Anne Berry. 

‘Joining hands’ to end human trafficking

In Cambodia, Lay Missioner James Havey and the Chab Dai Coalition fight human trafficking and empower its survivors

Cambodian girls look and listen in on a human trafficking prevention meeting of the Chab Dai Coalition.

Cambodian girls look and listen in on a human trafficking prevention meeting of the Chab Dai Coalition.

By Carolyn Trumble

Lita carefully traces daisies on the cake she is preparing for her client in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She is grateful for the work she has and the skill she has gained as a pastry chef. But her life has not been one of all cakes and daisies.

Lita, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was very young when her father died. When she was only 10 years old, her stepmother began throwing her into the arms of various men for money. Lita’s journey has taken her through the dark web of human trafficking, but she has advocates on her side, starting with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that helped her escape the control of her stepmother.

The NGO took her to a shelter for trafficked and exploited children, provided her with vocational training and connected her to another NGO called Chab Dai Coalition.

Chab Dai, which in the Khmer language means “joining hands,” is a coalition of more than 50 Christian NGOs working together to end sex abuse and trafficking in a variety of ways. Through one of Chab Dai’s projects, for instance, survivors of sexual exploitation like Lita are given the opportunity to confidentially share their life journeys. This project is called the Butterfly 10-Year Reintegration Research Project.

Based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Maryknoll lay missioner James Havey serves as a researcher and advisor for the Butterfly Project of the Chab Dai Coalition.

Based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Maryknoll lay missioner James Havey serves as a researcher and advisor for the Butterfly Project of the Chab Dai Coalition.

“I am amazed how often my Butterfly teammates who work directly with the survivors are thanked for just being present to listen and validate the emotions and experience of these women, men and children who have been abused,” says Maryknoll lay missioner James Havey, a Butterfly researcher and project advisor. “Because of the profound commitment the Butterfly team has to investigating and illuminating the realities survivors face throughout their lives, even beyond NGO intervention, we hope this project contributes to the global discussion on the importance of survivor-informed programming and policy.”

Havey, a native of Wilmington, Ohio, who joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2012, says one important insight he has gained through working with Butterfly’s team of Cambodian researchers is that when people are helped to escape bondage, they need good quality education to secure a high-paying job that will give them enough income to avoid being vulnerable to traffickers once again. Lita was fortunate to be trained as a pastry chef, says Havey, explaining that if she had been trained to make simple baked goods, the wages she earned would not allow her to thrive. “Often those who do not have sustainable income are forced to work two or three jobs, leaving them desperate and susceptible to exploitive working conditions,” says Havey.

He says Butterfly’s findings reflect a statement from the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns that echoes the Maryknoll charism: “We work for economic justice with an emphasis on the elimination of poverty and the empowerment of impoverished people.”

Besides helping people out of poverty, Havey says, empowering them means allowing them to be themselves. “We need to take care not to silence each other, especially those who have been abused,” says Havey. Survivors in particular, he adds, need someone to listen to them because it is they who have the best knowledge of the services they and other survivors need.

A local woman trained by the Chab Dai Coalition gives a community outreach presentation on the tragic reality of human trafficking,

A local woman trained by the Chab Dai Coalition gives a community outreach presentation on the tragic reality of human trafficking.

The Butterfly Project, he says, continues to accompany Lita on her journey through freedom. She has met a man who loves her, knows her background and still accepts her and wants to marry her, but shame and fear stand in her way, Havey says. He explains that in Cambodia it is the custom for families to meet when a couple is engaged to be married. “The only family Lita has is the stepmother who sold her,” says Havey. “She is afraid her boyfriend’s family will reject her if they meet her stepmother and ultimately learn how she sold her stepdaughter.”

To make things even more complicated, Havey says, the stepmother has been trying to sell Lita again. Because of the lack of a social security net for retired people, children in Cambodia are obliged to financially support their parents as they age.

“The stepmother believes that the way she would receive the most financial support for her old age is for Lita to be sold to a rich business man from a foreign country,” Havey explains.

The Chab Dai Coalition continues to provide a place where Lita’s voice is heard and validated. Chab Dai will not abandon her in her struggles.

James Havey and Chab Dai’s Butterfly team are committed to accompanying all those who are courageously going through the stages of transformation from slavery to freedom. They know it takes time for a caterpillar to emerge as a butterfly.

Carolyn Trumble is a Maryknoll mission education promoter based in Los Altos, California. She is a former Maryknoll lay missioner, who served in Brazil. 

Photos courtesy of Chab Dai Coalition

From the January/February 2019 issue of Maryknoll Magazine


Providing a safe haven for Salvadoran refugees

Maryknoll lay missioner Peter Altman discusses his work at a church-run shelter for internally displaced refugees in El Salvador–and why Salvadorans are forced to flee from the violence in their home country.

Salvadoran TV features lay missioner’s soy project

Last year Maryknoll lay missioner Ann Greig was interviewed on Salvadoran TV about her innovative soy project. Here is an excerpt: 

You can watch the entire interview at: 

Many thanks to Ann Greig and Francisco Figueroa (Agape TV Canal 8).

Plastic bottles, organic crops and sharing life’s journey

Lay missioner Peg Vámosy reflects on her life and ministry in El Salvador 


Maryknoll lay missioner Peg Vámosy (back row, second from left) and her parish group in Monte San Juan have been successfully promoting recycling. They have built collection bins like this one in the town’s dozen villages.

By Peg Vámosy

I have now been a Maryknoll lay missioner for 10 years, and I still love what I do! I continue working on agricultural and environmental issues in the rural parish of Monte San Juan, about an hour outside of San Salvador, and continue to enjoy sharing in the life of the people here in El Salvador, who have become like family.

The easiest changes to see are the children growing up. But there is also other progress, as was evidenced by the comment of a recent visitor, who said that our Monte San Juan appeared to be the least littered community they’d seen in El Salvador. That made me proud because it was the result of the work of all of us together.

We have made an effort to collect recyclable bottles and cans and now have built and installed bins in all but the last two of the dozen villages of the town—and those remaining two will finish building theirs soon. Some of the bins fill up very quickly, while in other villages it will take a little more education and encouragement to get folks to really use them. We’ve also been working to eliminate plastic drinking straws and have decreased the use of Styrofoam cups and plates.

Our environmental group has also been working with the local government to improve land use regulation and watershed protection and to promote communitywide efforts to protect the rivers and the entire environment of the town. And we hope to get regular trash collection throughout the town instituted someday. 

A few villagers like these have started to produce small plots of organic corn and beans—without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticide.

A few villagers like these have started to produce small plots of organic corn and beans—without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticide.

Our agricultural group continues to promote native crops, a more diversified production, organic farming and home gardening as well as small animal production.

Besides the work, just sharing life’s journey is really what my “mission” is all about. Working together, we have built a great sense of community, as we help each other with work projects, visit when someone is sick, console each other when there are deaths in the family, and share the good times with a lot of laughter.

This past year, we lost two members of our ag ministry group, including Julia (whose land we have been using for our community organic production), and family members of several more. One of my neighbors now goes for dialysis three days a week (leaving on the first bus at 3:45 a.m. to get to the hospital in San Salvador by 6), another had to have his leg amputated, and another is still reeling from his wife taking off unannounced with their two young daughters a couple of months ago (she is probably headed to the U.S.), so I try to spend more time with them.

But there are happy times to share, too: the twins next door made their First Communions; many of our young people graduated; four new babies were born to families in our neighborhood faith-sharing group in the last few months; several of us enjoy catching up and laughing together while picking coffee at our neighbor Juan’s farm; and the parish Christmas dinner helped complete the fundraising to purchase a property adjacent to the parish that will serve for youth activities and someday maybe even a parish school. 

Fiestas and other community celebrations are an integral part of life in El Salvador. Here a family prepares the grave of a loved one for the Day of the Dead celebration.

Fiestas and other community celebrations are an integral part of life in El Salvador. Here a family prepares the grave of a loved one for the Day of the Dead celebration.

Sometimes it seems like we just go from one fiesta to the next, but life should be a celebration! All year long, it is easy to find a reason to celebrate as a community, often with a procession. Perhaps the biggest of all this past year was the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Romero. While the actual event took place in Rome, there were lots of festivities here in his homeland, including in our parish (click here to read my report about it

Peace and blessings from El Salvador,
Love and prayers,




A thank you from a prison in Brazil

A prisoner's thank you letter

A heartfelt thank-you letter from a prisoner in Brazil

Maryknoll lay missioner Marilyn Kott recently shared a beautiful thank-you letter she had received from a man named Kingsley, who is incarcerated in the Itaí prison for foreigners in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. 

When a priest and a sister from the São Paulo archdiocesan office for prison ministry visited the inmates at Itaí last October, they took a “prayer request” letter from the Maryknoll Sisters’ contemplative community in Ossining with them. The Maryknoll Sisters have long been praying for many intentions from around the world, including from prisoners in the São Paulo prisons.  

“The incarcerated men and women are always astonished, and truly appreciate the fact that religious women in New York pray for them,” said Marilyn.

After she sent the requests to the Maryknoll Sisters in New York, Marilyn used the names of the prisoners on the prayer sheet to send them each a small Christmas packet at the beginning of December. The packet included an Advent reflection book in English, a Christmas card with words of encouragement, some artwork from two Maryknoll lay missioner children in São Paulo, and a few odds and ends like prayer cards and comic strips. She signed many of the cards “Mary Knoll.” 

Entrance to the Itaí Prison for foreigners in São Paulo state.

Entrance to the Itaí Prison for foreigners in São Paulo state.

In his thank-you note to “dear beloved friend Mary Knoll,” Kingsley writes that he was “so astonished and overwhelmed to read your letter… It was like an angel visiting me” in his time of need. He thanked her for the packet, saying, “Now I know that God doesn’t sleep; he always hears the cry from a heartbroken poor man like me. I put my faith in him. And I know he will never let me down…. In my days of pain, I know God and his divine grace will intervene for me, and I pray that his love always be with you and your family forever more. Amen!”

Marilyn says, “I believe the thanks are for ‘Mary Knoll,’ and are best directed to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners donors who make this work possible.”





View All Upcoming Events >