Local priest puts faith into action - in Peru
Pictured above is a recent mission trip in which Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Non-Denominationalists helped out the residents of a small Peruvian village suffering from severe poverty.
This missionary group included Fr. Gus Calvo -- second from left in front -- the pastor of Batavia's Anglican Community Church (see January article on his first service).
Having recently returned from this trip, Calvo was happy to share the experience with The Batavian and extend information about the program to anyone in the area who might be interested in next year's trip.
Calvo has been going on these missionary trips -- most of which last about 12 to 14 days -- on an annual basis for the past seven years. It all started when he was working in Honduras under the supervision of another missionary leader.
"My friend and ministry colleague Jeff Miller and I met in Honduras," Calvo said. "Our leader later left that area, so we got together and decided to put together a team each year for mission trips."
They then contacted SAMS -- the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders -- an organization that sponsors various projects in needful areas. All of the missions Calvo has been involved in these last seven years have been acquired through them.
Since getting started, Calvo and Miller have worked with participants from about 55 different churches, with an average of 15 to 18 people from each church. This past trip was a deeply ecumenical project that included people from the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Albany and Philadelphia, the Episcopalian Diocese of Albany and CANA (Anglican), as well as members of a Methodist Church and a Non-Denominational Church.
Destinations are usually South American countries, although last year's trip was to Texas for Hurricane Ike relief work. Calvo said that he and Miller are looking at a couple of South American locations as possibilities for next year.
The trip to Peru took the team to seven sites, including the village pictured above. This village was home to marginalized indigenous people who had been forced out of their homes in the Andes Mountains by a terrorist group.
"The government granted them a stretch of land to live on," Calvo said, "but it's basically a wasteland. On top of that, their circumstances force them to live in cardboard boxes -- literally. These homes are about 10-by-10, and some of them house multiple people."
Like all of these trips, this one was preceded by a year of careful planning, a key aspect of which was needs assessment.
"We always ask [the people in need of assistance], 'What are your needs?'" Calvo said. "That way they have some ownership. We respond by incorporating them into the project. We provide the materials, but then they put it together."
The whole approach is very different from the patronizing attitude that might come to mind when you think of missionaries -- namely, of being a major blessing to the "ignorant savages" they're visiting. Calvo and his fellow missionaries always go into the mission with the idea of mutual benefit.
"It's not just that we're a blessing to them. They're a blessing to us as well."
A major benefit that members of these trips experience is the opportunity to deepen their faith.
"One of the most common comments from religious leaders of all denominations is that American faith is six miles wide, but only about an inch deep," Calvo said. "These trips add depth to one's faith. After coming back from them, people are more invested and involved in their churches, and they know their faith in a more intimate way."
Throughout the course of each trip, every participant is asked to provide a five- to ten-minute reflection -- in the morning or in the evening -- on a given Bible passage or on an insight gained from working with the poor and needy.
Faith, according to Calvo, is the primary component of these missions, both in terms of personal and extra-personal benefits.
On the personal level, the Christian missionaries get to experience faith in action, discover what unites them with Christians of other denominations, and study passages of Scripture in a way that, in Calvo's words, "probes the many layers of Gospel passages, as opposed to superficial surface presentations."
The extra-personal benefits have to do with the sacramental nature of their faith.
"We follow Jesus' model of spreading the Gospel through word and sacrament," Calvo said. "We tell people about our faith and about the love of God, but we also show them what it looks like. Our work is also sacramental in the sense that there is something visible and tangible going on, but at the same time there are things connected to it that can only be perceived through hearts of faith."
Calvo welcomes anyone in Genesee County who thinks he/she might like to be a part of next year's mission, and he encourages people to form prayer groups in support of missionaries at their respective churches.
"That way the whole church walks together," he said. "It gives people the chance to be missionaries right at home."
But before someone goes off on a mission trip, there are some necessary steps to take.
"You want to discern the nature of the call," Calvo said. "Pray about it, consult your pastor, and then if you find that God really is calling you to work with us, contact me."
All applicants will need to go through a screening process and formation time. A mission trip of this sort requires a certain level of spiritual maturity and strength (pastoral endorsement will certainly improve people's chances of being chosen for the mission).
"A lot of people think of a mission as a sort of vacation with a purpose," Calvo said. "But you're really stepping out of your comfort zone and going to strange places."
In particular, he emphasized the suffering and poverty missionaries encounter in their travels.
"It's one thing to see suffering in movies or commercials, or even to learn about it through training programs. But when you actually see it up close, that brings out a whole new level of emotionality."
The aforementioned Peruvian village was a case in point.
The population suffered from high rates of tuberculosis, physical disabilities and HIV/AIDS. Social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, lack of education, and unemployment are prevalent.
Malnutrition is also a problem -- so much so that it's not uncommon to see 12-year-olds the size of 5-year-olds.
And that's not the worst of it. This area also sees a lot of child abduction, which is followed by trafficking in the slave market.
Needless to say, you've got to have pretty thick skin to get involved in something like this.
In the end, though, this is another means of deepening one's faith and Christian identity. Calvo sees the experience of suffering (as distinguished from the evils of it) as having the power to draw people closer to Christ and His suffering.
"We're able to find meaning in suffering," Calvo said, "because we're united in Christ's suffering. Personally, I find it helps me to redefine my humanity. [Suffering] can be a stumbling block for many people, but it can also be a stepping stone to a higher level of faith and a different way of thinking. And as Christians, we know that ultimately we will be released from pain and suffering."
Any person and/or church in the Batavia area interested in getting involved with Calvo in his SAMS missions should -- after a period of prayer, discernment and pastoral consultation -- contact him at 584-3694, or e-mail [email protected].
Photos submitted by Gus Calvo