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June 4, 2017

Rochester parishioner’s mission leads to Guatemala

Misty Menis-Kyler with her host mother, Elizabeth, in Xela, Guatemala. (Photo provided)

Misty Menis-Kyler with her host mother, Elizabeth, in Xela, Guatemala. (Photo provided)

By Sarah L. Murphy

Misty Menis-Kyler, a 25-year-old parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Rochester, Ind., is following a different kind of lay vocation of service near high-crime Guatemala City.

She is five months into her two years of commitment as a lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service and is serving at Valle de los Angeles Orphanage, a boarding school that provides a nurturing home and education for more than 200 children who would otherwise go without food, clothing and support.

She was not expecting to be sent to a non-English-speaking country, but heard God’s call to Guatemala while preparing for overseas mission with Franciscan Mission Service (FMS), a nonprofit supporting lay Catholics wanting to serve those living on the margins. FMS partners with Franciscan communities around the world, like the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception Province who operate Valle de los Angeles Orphanage.

Before serving in Guatemala, Menis-Kyler and her fellow missioners participated in FMS’ three-month formation program. The training’s curriculum included Franciscan spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching, as well as the tools necessary to integrate into a cross-cultural community. She then spent six weeks in Xela, Guatemala, a 5-hour drive from the orphanage, “doing intense language school five hours a day five days a week” one-on-one with an instructor and living with a host family.

Upon arriving at Valle de los Angeles, her “first impression of the orphanage was amazement.” Menis-Kyler is there to teach English, supervise computer classes, and assist the priests with spiritual formation of various youth groups, a mini farm, and other short-term mission groups.

Her main ministry will be one of companionship, presence and service. The FMS approach to mission is a relationship-centered approach that promotes a culture of encounter. This challenges missioners like Menis-Kyler to know and learn from those they serve alongside, rather than believe their role is to lead, change, or fix a situation.

“I spent nearly three months in discernment during my formation praying to God on where it was he was calling me,” she says, indicating she had been hoping to go to the English-speaking ministry site in Jamaica. Menis-Kyler began to look beyond her concerns about learning a new language: “I realized that was what I wanted and that God was in fact calling me to Guatemala.”

“I was impressed by how she reacted to the change of plan and the added factor of a different language more as a challenge than an obstacle,” says Fr. McKinney of Menis-Kyler’s home parish of St. Joseph Church. “You could tell she already had acquired a lot of flexibility that a good [missioner] needs in order to be effective.”

Although she is experiencing isolation because of the communication barriers of both language and location, Menis-Kyler is learning to adapt to her new home. Due to ongoing issues with the Guatemalan mailing system, she is not able to send or receive letters, plus she has limited access to the Internet. These shifts from a US culture based on instant connections are welcome opportunities for the missioners to keep their pledge to live in Franciscan simplicity and solidarity with those suffering from economic poverty. Missioners at Valle de los Angeles typically use Skype, an instant messaging app that provides online text message and video chat services, to communicate with family, friends, and FMS.

Adding to the sense of separation produced by the difficulties communicating with those back in the United States, Menis-Kyler divulged she is “struggling to learn Spanish,” but she looks forward to the day she can fluently speak with the students to “build those relationships I so long to build.” For the time being, Menis-Kyler’s beginning Spanish skills and her non-verbal communication of smiles and hugs is helping her share and receive God’s love with the children.

Such challenges are not being allowed to interfere with her efforts even though she admits she does “struggle with putting myself out there.” There are other short-term missions groups going through Valle de los Angeles that Menis-Kyler helps with when needed, and she wants to get more involved with all aspects of the orphanage “once I really establish myself here and build relationships.”

She is amazed that this orphanage has a school, both a boys’ and girls’ dorm, a church, and a huge garden that provides fresh produce for the students’ meals, and plans for a future bakery. “The many options the students have here was mind blowing,” she says, making clear that this is not stereotypical. “It was nothing like I expected or what you might hear about orphanages.” Orphanages run by the Guatemalan government are often overcrowded with unsatisfactory conditions and reports of child abuse. Valle de los Angeles provides a nurturing home, a school curriculum based on Franciscan values, child psychology services, and wonderful extracurricular activities for the students to provide them with an enriching childhood.

Menis-Kyler is an English teacher for girls in Basico 1, 2, and 3, equivalent to American 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. She was nervous when she started at Valle de los Angeles “because I have never taught English before.” But the students made “settling in and teaching so easy and enjoyable” because of their kindness and pleasant attitudes, she says.

“The children are the most remarkable aspect of volunteering here,” she says; they come from unimaginably difficult backgrounds but “you can’t tell because they always have smiles on their faces and are always laughing and giving out hugs.”

Many of the children come from challenging backgrounds, where they personally have experienced abuse or lived in areas highly impacted by gang violence, says Emily Norton, FMS Programs Manager. Valle de los Angeles is considered unique because the missioners live on site and because of where it is located. “It is quite a unique juxtaposition,” Norton says, as “one side is a neighborhood of extremely wealthy families (many of which are dedicated benefactors of the orphanage) but on the other side is a red zone of gang violence.”

Menis-Kyler insists the orphanage is safe, that they “know there is a lot of crime in the city but we are far enough away and sheltered well here at Valle that we either don’t hear about it or we don’t experience it.” Providing a safe and loving environment for the children is top priority at Valle de los Angeles. She says the children, staff and missioners are well protected and cared for inside the orphanage but that she welcomes prayers for their continued safety.

Fr. McKinney shares that St. Joseph parish has been actively supporting Menis-Kyler both monetarily and prayerfully. He stresses that “regular intercessory prayer is important since without grace she could easily burn out or the mission of the orphanage would be less effective.”

The parish aims to stay informed on her missionary work and has “been very generous in donating to the agencies that organize her volunteer service,” he says, referring to both this mission trip and a previous one undertaken by Menis-Kyler. Support can be given in many ways, including “regularly visiting the FMS blog and keeping up with what is happening.”

The blog is “a wonderful way for people to learn about the day to day life of our missioners and gaining a better understanding of the social injustices that our Guatemalan sisters and brothers face,” says Norton. Online shoppers can add FMS to Amazon Smile and they are always in need of financial donations, but each missioner is asked to raise a set minimum goal. Menis-Kyler accepts monetary support through the FMS site general donation page, where supporters can select her name and donate towards her goal.

“She has a passion to serve others in need,” says Fr. McKinney, clarifying that “not everyone wanting to serve the church or the poor are necessarily called to the consecrated life.” FMS recognizes the important role that lay Catholics have in the Church, which is why the organization is providing avenues for lay Catholics to answer their baptismal call to sharing God’s love with others.

Menis-Kyler had previously spent two years serving as a preschool assistant at Northern Cheyenne Reservation in remote Ashland, Montana, with Cap Corps, another Franciscan service program. This background combined with her education from Marian University, the Indianapolis Franciscan School where she earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral leadership, are just steps along her path of service.

Looking forward, Menis-Kyler explains she sees herself “doing exactly what I am doing, mission work.” She has heard her calling from God and knows “this is my vocation and I will continue to follow where God is leading me.”

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