Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - While other high school graduates were packing for college, joining the military, entering trade schools or going to work, Kara O’Donnell and Kelsey Reese of the Diocese of Lincoln went to the Philippines for a year of mission work.
The young women have known each other all their lives. Their parents – Mike and Ginger O’Donnell of St. Peter Parish in Lincoln, and Herb and Katie Reese of the Cathedral of the Risen Christ Parish in Lincoln – are long-time friends.
Each woman realized her calling to the mission field independently.
Kara knew that she was called to do something different than most of her peers as she finished up her sophomore year at a Catholic boarding school.
“I was left with a sense of mission and unwavering belief that I have souls entrusted to my care,” she said.
During her senior year, Kara thought and prayed about attending college, but found no peace in it. So, she switched gears and started praying about taking a year off.
“Christ reignited this fire deep in me to be a missionary,” she recalled. “Everything became clear to me.”
In His timing, Kara said, God opened her eyes to Mission Youth, which was just launching a year-long program in the Philippines.
“I received the info without asking or looking, and I was instantly interested,” Kara said.
With her parents firmly in support and her application accepted, Kara booked her flight.
Kelsey, on the other hand, had long dreamed of being a missionary the way other children dream of being firefighters or astronauts. During her senior year of high school, she went on a mission trip to El Salvador.
“When I returned, I knew that college was not my next move,” she said. She promised to trust the Lord to lead her, no matter what His plans were for her.
After learning Kara was going to be one of the pilot missionaries for the new Missions Youth program in the Philippines, Kelsey applied and was also accepted.
Little did they realize that their mission work would start on the flight to Manila. Kelsey found herself seated next to Jen, a committed atheist, and spent a good two hours in friendly debate.
“Jen challenged me in ways that I never thought possible,” Kelsey remembered. “I was no longer debating the Catholic faith among Catholics; I no longer had priests or religious there with all the answers… How did I want to defend my faith?”
This encounter made her realize that she would never know whom God was going to put in her life next, nor for what purpose.
“But if you open up to whomever God leads you to,” she said, “His love will pour through.”
It was a good start, she said, for someone who admits she didn’t have the slightest idea what being a missionary meant before becoming one.
Kelsey explained, “You don’t have to build a house or feed 10,000 people to be a missionary. All you have to do is be there for the one person who needs you at that given moment.”
This is the “mission of presence.”
“I had no idea something like that existed,” Kelsey revealed. “But Christ does that for us everyday. He is present in the tabernacle everyday, every moment, 24/7. He is there and He wants us to be there for others and let them know His love.”
As Kara and Kelsey navigated the hurdles of learning and understanding the Filipino culture, they have spent the bulk of their time working in a school for poor children. In addition, they serve with the Missionaries of Charity in a home for abandoned, sick, and disabled children.
“We spoon-feed some of the children, we play outside with some of them, we change many diapers with a smile and just hold them with as much love as we are capable of,” Kara reported.
They have also accompanied the Missionaries of Charity in their prison ministry.
The pair has had many moments to share their faith in Christ as they serve others – or as Kara puts it, opportunities to be “Christ’s hands, feet and mouth to people.”
Kara recalled their encounter with a widow who was near hysterics, begging for food. The girls initially offered a bag of nuts, but with supernatural nudging, they took the woman to a grocery store to purchase rice, formula powder for her special-needs baby, and other necessities. A quick stop at a fast-food restaurant for a hot lunch, and the encounter ended with hugs and thanks from the woman and humbled hearts for Kara and Kelsey.
“Learning to see the face of Christ in each person you meet and love them is one of the hardest lessons,” Kelsey reported, “but as Christ said in Matthew’s gospel, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Both young women hope that other youth will pray about taking time to do mission work, whether that’s going halfway around the world or serving somewhere at home.
“If that is where God is calling you He will not forget your generosity,” Kelsey promised. “God will never disappoint you. In fact, He will surprise you with more graces than you can count!”
Readers can follow Kara and Kelsey’s year in missions on their blog: http://philippinesmissionyear.wordpress.com/author/philippinesmissionyear/