Being a missionary in my own backyard

We all have titles that we identify with. Some we’ve earned, some were given to us. These titles grow and evolve, just as we do, often charting the course of our lives and the choices that come with it.

Oct 22, 2021

By Sherril Netto Vijayan

We all have titles that we identify with. Some we’ve earned, some were given to us. These titles grow and evolve, just as we do, often charting the course of our lives and the choices that come with it.

For me, that title was Missionary. When exactly it started, I do not know. But deep down inside me I knew, I have always known, that life, especially for me was meant to be lived in service. My younger, naïve self, assumed that it meant going away from everything I called home and living a life of complete service, a life where no other titles can co-exist and flourish.

But God, our perfect Father, has a way to prepare us for exactly who we are meant to be and desire to be. I was too young to understand this, as God once asked Jeremiah “what do you see” (Jer 1:11), a dear mentor said to me “what about right here in our own backyard?” As if waking up from a deep slumber, I began to “see”. My eyes observed and soaked up everything I saw, carrying it all over to my heart. My heart held on tight to everything that it felt as I continued to observe, trying to make sense of everything that was happening all around me, right here, in the land I call home.

I began to see how some had nothing and yet were still being robbed of the nothing they had. I began to see how children were robbed of their right to a childhood and how the voiceless were treated as if they were not human at all.

But for years, in my everyday living, I struggled to focus on much beyond myself. I spent most of my corporate career in business development, working with some of the best minds in the industry while nurturing my own. I today know that time was no less crucial in ensuring that I gained the education and corporate experience I needed. A training ground that was used to sharpen and nurture skills that I would one day need to serve.

But through all that, I never stopped seeing. Little did I realise that it was a calling within itself. It builds up within you, as if pleading to be addressed and acknowledged, pleading to be lived out in everyday actions. For years, I pushed it away, believing that I needed to fix the brokenness and pain within my own life for me to begin. Somehow, it eluded my memory that throughout the history of salvation, those that were called to serve were always called despite the brokenness and pain that they carried.

Somehow their brokenness and pain often became the very vessel from which God’s plan unfolded.

Slowly I began taking small steps to serve and to be of service exactly where I was. Very often that merely meant being a better friend. By taking one step at a time, what started off as just my desire and calling, soon involved likeminded individuals, aware of God’s unfailing love for us and equally desiring a life lived so deeply in service. What started off as a blessing to each other grew to include reaching out to those in need within the community around us. Soon it became clear that we needed to set up formal structures and systems to sustainably support everything that was happening.

We never had any grand plans of our own. Truth is, we still don’t. We merely focused on doing the best we possibly could for those who are most marginalised within our society.

I remember, as if it was just yesterday, receiving a call from one of my dearest friends telling me about her encounter with a refugee mother, what she saw and everything she felt. A conversation between two likeminded friends weighing out the options we had to address her plight and the resources needed in order to do it well.

That conversation happened a decade ago and ended in what eventually became the first school for refugee children in that region. A school which, over the decade, grew to slowly look into all the other needs a refugee child and their family might have — like nutrition, healthcare and shelter and, when a global pandemic struck, to find a way to carefully address the most basic needs of these communities in order to help them survive this tumulus time.

As you can probably tell by now, mine isn’t a story of great leaps of faith, but rather one in which I questioned if every little step that I was taking was right and diligently analysed and considered the consequences of any potential mistakes. But in my questioning, there was always one clear constant, God. He was present in moments of inspiration and growth, just as He was ever present in moments that shattered our hearts.

By allowing us to see and feel the pain of another so strongly in our own hearts, He is constantly urging us to do more and to be more to the weakest and meekest of His children, just as He has, and always will be, to us.

Today, I bless and thank God every day for that ability to “see” and the strength to slowly but surely step out and do all I can to care for His beloved children, all while I carry the various titles that chart my life and tell me how incredible life is. 

--Sherril Netto-Vijayan is a Co-Founder of New Thessalonian Apostolate (NTA), a home-grown Catholic missionary organisation that runs various humanitarian programmes focused on bringing relief and access to basic needs to non-central parts of Malaysia.

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