From Joppa Mountain in eastern Tennessee, on the grounds of Glenmary Home Missioners, with birds chirping in the background, Maggie Sheehan speaks about her mission experience with a maturity that belies her age.
Now all of 23, she’s had a whirlwind past year that took her to Ecuador and back to Tennessee, where she is waiting out the pandemic like so many others and listening for that quiet voice that she believes has led her this far and will lead her to the next place.
Maggie was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and participated in a high school immersion trip to Glenmary’s Group Volunteer Program in 2014, when it was located in Kentucky. After graduating from the University of Dayton a semester early, she looked for a meaningful service opportunity and remembered her earlier time with Glenmary.
“During my week here, I fell in love with the community, I fell in love with the mission,” she says. “I held that week with me throughout my college experience.”
Glenmary serves the rural poor at 10 mission sites in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Forty-five Glenmary priests and brothers serve those sites, along with volunteers like Maggie.
She spent the spring of 2019 on Joppa Mountain, excited to be living in a rural community that was quite unlike the environment in which she’d grown up. While Maggie says it was “very exciting to grow in my knowledge” during that time, it was also jarring to be exposed to a kind of poverty she had never seen.
“In one sense, I was surprised by rural poverty. There are some lived experiences that are so different from my own growing up, and to see rural poverty in its most extreme form challenged me to rethink the ways I had been taught about poverty and lack of access to food,” Maggie says. “To live here and to learn from this community was something I’m so grateful for. It has pushed me to examine my own thinking about how I might work for justice in the future.”
That stay in 2019 lasted just for the spring, until Maggie left for a planned year of mission work in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with Rostro de Cristo. As it happens, one of the other Glenmary mountain managers had been to Ecuador with Rostro, and there is a large Spanish-speaking population in eastern Tennessee, in Grainger County.
“I just fell in love with the culture and hospitality that was given to me so abundantly in eastern Tennessee,” she recalls, “so I went to Ecuador.”
While Maggie worked four days each week in a shelter for women and children fleeing extreme physical violence or sexual assault, the rest of the time, she says, was spent living in and building community.
“It was a powerful experience. I fell in love completely. It felt like I was walking with God every single day, walking down those roads,” she recalls. “Here in Tennessee, I feel that as well, just seeing God and the face of Christ in each person I encounter.”
The pandemic forced Rostro to recall it 12 missioners back from Ecuador in March, so Maggie wasn’t able to complete her year, which is how she ended up back in Tennessee, serving as a mountain manager for Glenmary. She’s been helping them prepare to reopen their retreat facilities to groups who will do service work in the local community.
She hopes to return to Ecuador in 2021, to finish out her time there and possibly discern a second year. Meantime, beginning this fall, she’ll volunteer for a year at the Romero Center in Camden, New Jersey, through a new domestic Rostro program.
Michele Shimizu-Kelley interviewed Maggie when she applied to Rostro and was impressed with her from the first moment.
“Her social and spiritual maturity really struck me. Just the way that she talks about her faith and the decisions she’s made in her life,” says Michele. “How to live and be with others and love others who are marginalized in our society is so authentically present in her. She’s been an incredible gift for us in bringing her whole self to mission.”
Maggie isn’t sure of what she’ll do after Camden, and possibly another year in Ecuador. Perhaps graduate school studies in social work or theology. Or more mission work.
“I thought I would go into this period of service and know what I wanted to do,” she says. She never planned to become a missionary, which conjures images of going “to preach or convert, and that was not at all what my experience was. My experience was being invited and welcomed into people’s homes and finding God.”
Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Catholic Mission Association