05 Jul Volunteer Abroad Profile: Maryknoll Lay Missioners
What if you could do meaningful work abroad and not have to worry about money? In our series of Live Abroad Profiles, we share stories and examples of great opportunities and the people who are pursuing them. Today’s profile features our friend (and former student leader from our University Student Life days): Karen Bortvedt who is serving with Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Cambodia.
“As I was biking home from the gym this morning, I passed a student who seemed to be cramming for an exam of some kind. She had her notebook opened and precariously held in one hand while she worked to balance and direct her motorbike with the other. Her eyes were glued to the page of the booklet as she zoomed along the road. With barely enough time to process this accident-waiting-to-happen, another moto cut me off with a dozen, white, live ducks strapped to the back. They were hanging by their feet, yellow-beaks toward the pavement no doubt contemplating their ill-fate. Just another five-minutes in traffic in Cambodia. Two short years ago, my bike rides included pristine nature trails and beautiful bike lanes winding through the streets of the DC-Metro area – the only ducks I saw were swimming in the creek. So, how did I end up half a world away, in Cambodia?”
After several years working with non-profits and social justice organizations in the States, Karen felt the call to serve abroad with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. She is currently in the midst of a 3 1/2 year volunteer term in Cambodia where she partners with an organization that serves the Cambodian deaf population. As a volunteer, she has learned and interpreted Cambodian sign language, assisted with summer camps, created social media content for the organization, coordinated matches with a deaf women’s soccer team, and much, much more.
About Maryknoll Lay Missioners (MKLM) Volunteer Opportunities
The official description is: “A Catholic organization inspired by the mission of Jesus to live and work with poor communities in Africa, Asia and the Americas, responding to basic needs and helping to create a more just and compassionate world.” Mayknoll Missioners are teachers, lawyers, NGO workers, finance people; young, old, and somewhere in between; we are at the start of our careers, at the end of careers, changing careers, or unsure if we want to ever have a ‘career.’
One of the great benefits I saw in Maryknoll Lay Missioners, when I was researching similar opportunities, is that there is no one type of person that is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner. Most of us do not even know what exactly we will be doing when we leave for Cambodia. It is like jumping out of a plane, unsure exactly where you will be landing, but knowing that you have a working parachute. What does that look like?
Once accepted into the Maryknoll Lay Missioners cohort for the year, there is mutual discernment about country placement (Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Kenya, Tanzania, or Cambodia). Before the ten-week orientation in New York, we know where we are going. After orientation, which includes everything from staying healthy in mission and inculturation to popular education techniques and conflict management, we leave on a jet plane to our new home.
Depending on the incoming language proficiency we have, we spend 3-6 months learning the new language we will be using. Maryknoll Lay Missioners puts a lot of focus on language and culture training because of the belief that to really engage with people, you must know their language and culture. It is amazing to see how even a little effort means a lot to those with whom we work.
While in language school, new lay missioners learn about the ministries of other lay missioners in the country and about organizations where their skill set may be put to good use. After more discernment, a ministry placement is selected and lay missioners start work (because learning a new language, culture, way of crossing streets, and how to find and prepare food is not work…).
The beauty of this whole process is that instead of coming in and telling the locals in a country, who actually understand the challenges their communities face, how you will help them, a partnership is formed. From my perspective and experience, it was about saying: “These are the few skills I have, does anyone have a need for this and if so, how can I help?”
In general, Maryknoll Lay Missioners takes what I find to be a very respectful approach to the work, doing everything we can to avoid setting up systems of dependence on foreigners, and instead, always trying to empower our local staff and play support roles. There are some MKLM folks that do manage projects, but, again, the goal is to always have an exit strategy and be looking for opportunities to encourage local staff to take on the leadership positions.
Short Term Options: Maryknoll also offers shorter-term Friends Across Borders trips for two weeks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. You can read more about those here.
Requirements and Benefits
Who Can Volunteer: Maryknoll Lay Missioners must be baptized Catholics and U.S. citizens who feel a calling to go overseas and serve alongside and within marginalized communities for at least three and a half years – though some have continued for more than 30 years. The minimum age is 23 years old. Volunteers can be single or married; MKLM can support families with no more than 2 young children.
Living Conditions/Arrangements: Housing is arranged by the MKLM Regional Coordinator. Volunteer may share a house or apartment with other single MKLM missioners; couples usually have a small house or apartment. All volunteers are committed to simple living.
Benefits: Other than the joy of learning a new language and culture, meeting and becoming friends with some amazing new people, and getting to try all kinds of new foods, MKLM provides a living stipend to cover housing, food, local transportation, and personal expenses based on cost of living for the area; amazing international health coverage; an on-going support system; retirement benefits (in the second contract); round-trip airfare to and from the country at the beginning and end of service; plus pre-mission orientation and post-mission re-orientation. Participants also get 4 weeks of vacation per year. Volunteers do fund their own transportation to the New York headquarters during the interview process and for state-side Orientation once accepted into the program.
Unlike some organizations, there is no set fundraising requirement, though, missioners are asked to participate in fundraising efforts through quarterly newsletters, church talks when in the United States, submission of stories for use in promotion efforts, etc. Of course, all one has to do to come up with a great story to share is walk out the front door and watch traffic for five minutes, so, it is a pretty easy request to meet.
To learn more about MKLM opportunities, visit their Become A Missioner page.
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