The Virtues of Volunteerism
Heading into autumn, Jaime Rehmann could have had two semesters of medical school behind her. Instead, the 23-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., will begin her first year.
Rehmann, who earned a biology degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville last year, postponed her enrollment at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine in order to do a year of missions work in Ecuador.
In doing so, she joined the ranks of Catholic college graduates who are dedicating themselves to evangelical work before entering the job market or starting graduate school.
A student-led trip during spring break of her junior year was Rehmann's first encounter with Ecuador. The experience prompted her to lead the trip the following year.
“A week wasn't enough,” she explains. “God wanted something more.”
She was glad to be back with the people who had touched her heart. “It was wonderful to be with these people,” she says.
Although the Ecuadorian population is 95% Catholic, most are in need of religious instruction, notes Rehmann. She taught the Catechism, read Bible stories with the children and spoke to the adults about natural family planning, the Church-approved method to pace the rate of childbirths, which is relatively unknown there.
She was impressed by their devotion to the Blessed Mother. “They love Mary so much,” she says.
Guitar in hand, she shared Christ's love through praise songs at schools, churches, and hospitals in the capital and along the coast. “I'd visit and sing,” she recalls. “They loved it.”
During difficult times, her faith encouraged her: “I had to grow in trust of God. It was him and me.”
As much as her year in Ecuador strengthened her faith, it also reaffirmed Rehmann's career choice. She saw the great need for medical care in the eyes of the children who waited weeks to have surgery in the government hospital.
“I have the desire to learn all I can,” she says, so she can “come back as a doctor and serve them, helping them body and soul.”
Back to School
Nick Blaha has a liberal-arts degree, but the 25-year-old hasn't left college yet.
As a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus), the native of Kansas City, Kan., shares the truth of Christ and his Church with college students.
After graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., in 2002, Blaha returned home to take classes for admission to medical school. He also attended a Bible study led by a former Focus missionary. That's where he first heard about the organization.
“I wasn't interested in doing anything like Focus,” Blaha admits. But that changed. “The more I learned about Focus, the more I saw that it was a tremendous way to share what I'd been given at Thomas Aquinas.”
Focus reaches out to students on Catholic and secular campuses across the country through small-group Bible studies, large group events and conferences, and one-on-one discipleship.
For the past two years, Blaha has served at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has seen how much young adults need role models.
“There's a hunger for the spiritual, a desire for true maturity,” he says. “When young people see someone who is trying to live out true manhood or womanhood, it strikes a chord.”
Blaha recalls the freshman he encouraged to attend last year's Focus national conference. The young man was attending Mass but was still into the party scene. “He got the last seat on the bus, then had a tremendous turnaround,” he recalls. “He was ready to hear something.” Now that young man is leading a Bible study of his own.
“It's very humbling,” Blaha says. “You know it's not you personally. God is working through the things we say and do.”
Now Blaha is going into his third year — many missionaries serve longer than the initial two-year commitment — during which he will be campus director at the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts.
Heading back to school, Blaha is encouraged by his generation's eagerness to follow Christ. “Christ,” he says, “brings out the greatness in people.”
Goodbye, Comfort Zone
As graduation drew near, Mary Beth Albers knew God was prompting her to serve him in a special way.
“I felt called to do something that required me to trust God and go outside my comfort zone,” says the 23-year-old from El Dorado, Kan., who studied English and mass communications at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Albers looked into a variety of missions work early in her senior year, including Focus.
But when her brother, Father James Albers of St. Benedict's Abbey on Benedictine's campus, suggested she look into missions work with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, she did.
After graduating in 2004, Albers headed off to teach English and religion courses at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize.
Going to Central America was definitely outside her comfort zone, in more ways than one.
“I didn't know anyone. There was no electricity, no running water,” she recalls.
Teaching was new as well.
“It was scary at first, never having taught before,” she admits.
Her journal expressed her need for Christ: “There is nothing constant in my life except for Jesus,” she wrote during her first week in Belize.
The sacraments helped her feel at home. “You rely on that to strengthen you wherever you are,” she says. She found comfort living in community with the order's religious, the other volunteers and the parishioners. “There's such a family feeling,” she says.
Dinners at students’ homes defined the people's perspective, according to Albers. “When you don't have TV, you have time for people,” she notes.
Ultimately, the students and their families taught her a lot about appreciating small blessings.
“Seeing the people, how simply they lived, but how joyful they were, strengthened my faith,” she says.
Although Albers was back in Kansas this summer, she's returning for another year.
“I love it so much. I'll always have time to do graduate school. God rewards faith, and I've seen that.”
Amy Smith writes from Geneva, Illinois.
- August 21-27, 2005