Lay missionary who served in Kenya reflects on vocation discernment

Each month members of the Dubuque Area Vocation Association (DAVA) will address an aspect of vocation discernment.

By Gregory Darr

There is a beautiful line in the film “Of Gods and Men” – “Let God set the table here. For everyone. Friends and enemies.”  This particular line is spoken in the story by the superior of a Trappist monastery in the mountains of Algeria.

Based upon the true story of the monks of Atlas Abbey in Tibhirine, the film depicts the community’s final months before seven of its members, including the superior, were kidnapped and killed by an armed militia.

Their deaths, and those of thousands of others in Algeria, were the bitter fruit of a society polarized by extreme rhetoric, religious intolerance and violent prejudice.

I think often of these monks in my own ministry of vocational accompaniment. I suppose it’s reasonable to ask, “Why?”  After all, their deaths took place in a predominantly Muslim country some 23 years ago. What do they have to do with the lives of young women and men discerning God’s call in northeastern Iowa?  Well, it was a Muslim woman who showed me how.

Then, I was serving as a Maryknoll missionary in East Africa the same year as the monks of Tibhirine were slain thousands of miles away in northern Africa.  I worked in partnership with a small legal project that assisted poor Kenyans in securing their basic human and legal rights, especially land rights.

One day, I stopped by their office and noticed one of their administrative assistants, an attractive and sophisticated young Kenyan woman, wearing a hijab, a dark scarf she wore loosely over her head.  Since I had not seen her wear it before, I asked her in a friendly but respectful way, “What gives?” She smiled and replied, “I’m wearing this as a sign of my hope that I can overcome my own selfishness and pride. These things keep me from experiencing God’s love. And, if I cannot accept God’s love, how can I share it with others?  This struggle against selfishness and pride is what we Muslims call ‘jihad.’”

In becoming better acquainted with this Muslim woman, she took it upon herself to share with me how her own “jihad” against personal pride led her to reach out to Christians and to others so that she could recognize the surprising ways that God’s love was present in each person she met.

The film “Of Gods and Men” depicts beautifully — and painfully — these same experiences in the discipline of selfless love embraced by the monks of Tibhirine.

Any person who experiences a call to love as God loves is going to find themselves up against some pretty big challenges. The biggest alone is perhaps God.  God’s love is extravagant and indiscriminate. You could call God almost “foolhardy” for the profligate love bestowed to sinner and saint alike, without regard to faith, fidelity, character or consequence.

A person called to follow God must find their own way to cope with the reckless abandon by which God loves this world, even unto death. There simply is no rhyme or reason to it. Try as we might to discriminate as to who is worthy of our love, God does not.  And, as my Muslim friend and the Trappists of Tibhirine discovered, profligate love has profound consequences.

So, when it’s a bit hard for young people to wrap their minds around the idea of “vocation,” sometimes, the only way I have of explaining the extraordinary life that awaits them is simply this:  God has set the table here in northeastern Iowa.  For everyone.  For friend and enemy.  For “legal” and “illegal.”  For the faithful and the fallen away.  And, you have the extraordinary privilege of welcoming everyone to it.  And, the joy of serving them.

Greg Darr is a Minnesota native and U.S. Army veteran.  As a Maryknoll lay missioner in Kenya, Darr worked with a church-sponsored program assisting displaced and refugee communities toward developing local initiatives in reconciliation and peacemaking.  Darr now serves on the Vocation Ministries Team of the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers and is a member of the Dubuque Area Vocation Association (DAVA).