By Mary Grace Coltharp
Today the Arlington Mission Office is proud to kick off the publication of the winners of the first Missionary Essay Contest. We start off with 3rd Place winner, Mary Grace Coltharp, and her wonderful essay on "How My Mission Trip Changed Me"
When I think about the defining events in my life, one of the first to come to mind is the first mission trip I ever went on. At the time, I was excited for my first international experience and to finally be the servant of God I’d always wanted to be. When I look back at the immense impact that first mission experience had on my life and how much it changed me for the better, I laugh at the smallness of my anticipation, in comparison. Two years ago, when the group from my parish and I were in the final stages of preparing for our mission to Tamara, Honduras, I was a pretty different person than I am today. I was shy, overly-cautious, and shockingly unaware of the conditions some people in the world suffer constantly. A few short years later, I credit my mission trip to Honduras as being one of the first major steps I took toward the life I wanted and toward being the person I believe God is calling me to be.
During the shock of first arriving in Honduras and seeing the poverty, I didn’t feel like I could make much of a difference in their lives, but the friends I made proved me wrong. Whether it was one little boy promising to learn English because I’d promised to learn Spanish or a single mother of two showing her gratitude after I handed her a bag a groceries, they taught me that every little bit matters. My mission team worked to repair and renovate the historic church and town square, central to their village. We brought donated goods and bought a few families some groceries. It was simple work, but in just over a week and through plenty of disjointed Spanish I made friends, served their community, and was changed forever.
That mission was a turning point in my life because it forced me to realize that poverty wasn’t just another worldwide issue I heard and occasionally talked about. Suddenly, I was hugging the beautiful children of God that experienced the reality of poverty. Now, the people who faced these difficulties every day weren’t just nameless populations hundreds of miles away; they were children and families I called my friends. My time in Honduras changed my life because I went without any credentials or special talents, just myself and enough love, and that community was still overjoyed at our presence there and incredibly grateful for my contribution and care. Now, on a regular basis I put myself in totally new situations in which I have to do tasks I’ve had no experience with. In doing what needs to be done and figuring it out as I go, I’ve gained so much confidence.
In large part because I took the risk of joining that mission trip to Honduras, I decided that after graduating high school I would take a gap year to do volunteer work, before starting at my university this Autumn. That being one of the first major decisions I’ve had to make about my future, I seriously doubt I would’ve believed in myself enough to choose this unorthodox path had I not done that first mission experience in Honduras. This year I’ve moved to southern Texas to work at a birth center; to Belize in Central America to do missionary work; and to Queens, NY to serve at an assisted living home. Last summer, I went on another mission trip, this time to Peru, and next year when my church is going to Honduras again I have no doubt I will be on that plane. I have matured exponentially and learned just how much there is left for me to learn.
I still get nervous with new groups of people, but I get over it faster. I still take things for granted most of the time, unfortunately, but I have a much clearer understanding of how good I’ve had it. I understand poverty far better than I did before my time in Honduras, but still only as well as a middle-class American with no first-hand experience can. I still, sometimes want to see some major change for the better in the lives of the people I serve, instead of being content with the little bit of stress I relieved or smile I caused. In the end, I still have a long way to go in my journey to being a faithful follower of Christ; but, I know I have already come a long way.
Mary Grace is a young parishioner at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manassas. She graduated from Saint John Paul the Great in 2017 then took a gap year to do service work in the States and abroad. Now she is attending Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, exploring different fields of study. Mary Grace is grateful to her parents, Mary Beth and Gordon, who taught her compassion and have always supported her ambitions. If you would like to donate to the efforts of Sacred Heart and its sister parish in Honduras to rebuild the church's roof, go to https://www.gofundme.com/church-of-tamara Thank you!