North America is perhaps the region of the world where the Comboni Missionaries are least well known. An Italian priest, Daniel Comboni, founded the Comboni Missionaries in Europe back in the 1800’s. As a young priest, Daniel Comboni was moved by the extreme poverty and oppression that existed throughout much of Africa. During most of his life, he worked to get the churches of Europe more involved in helping Africa and fighting the slave trade.
Rather than bring Africans to Europe, he sought to develop education and social programs in Africa. He was a passionate promoter of human rights, as he struggled against the slave trade in Central Africa, set up centers for the education and training of Africans, and became the first bishop of Khartoum (Sudan).
The Comboni Missionary order of priests and brothers grew to include Comboni Sisters — and later, lay men and women — in the work of service to the poor in Africa. Today, the Comboni Mission family of priests, brothers, sisters, and lay has grown to more than 4,000. They serve in 40 countries, in some of the poorest areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
There are currently about 40 Comboni priests in the North American Province (U.S. and Canada). They have parishes and social programs in the inner city of Los Angeles and Chicago, a parish and the headquarters for Peace & Justice advocacy in Newark, a parish in Ontario, and their headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. A team of two lay people and one priest make up the staff of the Comboni Lay Mission Program in La Grange Park, Illinois.
Visit the website of the North American Province.
Length of Commitment and Training: Our program invites lay people to serve overseas for a renewable contract of three years. We have a 14-week orientation program in the U.S. and a 3-4 month language program overseas, if needed. There are a few other lay mission programs that invest as much as we do in our lay missionaries, but most short-term programs (1-2 years) offer a month or less of training.
Internationality: The Comboni Missionaries are a very diverse group of consecrated men and women from many different countries of the world. They all have in common the spirit of the founder, St. Daniel Comboni, but come from a wide range of backgrounds. There are Comboni Lay Missionaries working all across the globe from 11 different countries. In Peru, for example, there is a local Comboni Lay Mission organization that recruits Peruvians to serve within the country.
Personable and Responsive: We are a small group. Sometimes our smallness enables us to be a little more flexible, personable, and creative. (You won’t get lost in the crowd with us!) That is not to say that we want to stay small. But as we grow, we will strive to keep a personal and responsive approach.We see ourselves as part of the lay mission movement within our Church. We are lay men and women, single and married, who make a commitment to serve the poor in other lands. We collaborate with other U.S. lay mission groups during formation, and the CLMs make connections with others going to serve in the same mission areas.
a) Look at how they describe their understanding of mission, spirituality, and the role of lay missionaries. Is mission about charity or solidarity? Does it incorporate a justice component? Does it respect the local culture’s beliefs and values? What spiritual practices are important, and are they compatible with your own? What role do the lay missionaries play in the decision-making structure of the organization, if any?
b) Ask yourself what kind of group or overseas experience you are looking for. There are generally 3 types of ways to go overseas to serve. There is the long-term mission model, which allows you to serve for 3 or more years overseas. This model usually involves a longer training period, and better support in the field from the central office (due to smaller numbers). The second model is the type of service that is usually for recent college graduates, and usually involves a maximum commitment of 2 years. The size of the program is often bigger, and while there may be more volunteers at a site from whom you derive support, the support from the central office may not be as available. The third model is what is usually called an immersion experience. This can be anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months. This experience is great for what Albert Nolan refers to as, “exposure,” and leads to developing compassion for the poor of the world.
c) Look at their requirements and values and see if you are a good match. Do you meet their requirements? Do their values and vision match yours? (See our answer about our values below.) Learn about our Eligibility requirements.
d) Look at where they send lay missionaries to work. How soon in the process do they tell you about their placements and sites—during discernment, or after acceptance into the program? Would any of their placements match your skills, interests, and past experiences? Are their sites well-established? Do they have an on-going presence of lay missionaries in that community? See our list of sites at Where We Work.
We generally determine where lay missionaries will serve during the formation program. In some cases, it may be sooner. We ask our candidates where their interests lie, and we take that into consideration, but we ultimately make the decision based on the needs of the sites, and the abilities and personalities of the candidates. We ask our candidates to be open to any mission, and to going where the needs are greatest.
e) Look at the training and ongoing support they provide. What kind of formation do they provide, and how long is it? What kind of language training is provided (if any)? What will your living conditions be like? How much of a living allowance will you receive? Who will you be accountable to overseas?
Read about our formation program at Training.
A strong, mature faith commitment: We are committed to the spirit and theology of the Catholic Church’s Post-Vatican II era. Our candidates are strong in their Catholic identity, and are comfortable with both traditional and contemporary practices of the Catholic faith.
Cultural sensitivity and awareness: We seek to be sensitive to the cultural values of the people with whom we live and work. We do not want to impose our North American culture and values.
Teamwork and community: Our program also emphasizes making time for regular prayer, reflection, and meals with other lay missionaries, the local Comboni community, and/or local faith groups.Solidarity: We strive to minimize the gap in lifestyle amenities between us and the people with whom we work. We strive to live a simple lifestyle, both in terms of possessions and distractions.
Qualities we value: Maturity, humility, faithfulness, resilience, flexibility, resourcefulness, creativity, humor, perseverance, and patience.
It’s important to preface this answer with the statement that much of life is about managing expectations; it is about finding a balance between what we hope for and what we actually end up with. How do we cope with disappointment? For many of us, this is a difficult task that takes discipline and self awareness. Without self awareness, we find that we hold many expectations in our subconscious, and these unrealized expectations may lead to major disappointments. This is true anywhere, but it becomes more pronounced when living overseas and going through the stresses of culture shock. Many challenges lay missionaries face become manageable or unmanageable depending on how well they realize and cope with their expectations.
From our experience, according to feedback from our lay missionaries, the biggest challenges are usually not the hardships of living in poor areas with occasional water and electricity shortages. For most of our missionaries, the toughest challenges are being away from family and friends (a familiar support network), getting through culture shock, and learning to work with a community that may have very different values. Sometimes the Comboni Missionaries who welcome lay missionaries are from a different culture. In many cases, the host Comboni community will have members from Europe, Africa, and Latin America all living and working together. Learning to communicate well, to negotiate differences, and to get along can take time—as in any relationship. Lay missionaries may not “click” right away with the other personalities in their receiving community. Lay missionaries may, in fact, never “click” with the others in community. This does not make it less of a community, but this surfaces one expectation people may bring into overseas lay mission work: that they will become close friends with others in community. This does not always happen. Many times, the Comboni Missionary community will have its own idea about what community life with a lay missionary should be like, and the lay missionary will have a very different idea. For example, a lay missionary may go to a mission site hoping for a close working relationship, and the Comboni community will expect the lay missionary to be more autonomous and capable of seeking out his or her own work. Sometimes these expectations for each other do not get verbalized, and conflicts can ensue. It is essential for a lay missionary with any mission organization to understand that community relationships take time to build. Hopes for community life should be named in some way, but it must be understood that they must be negotiated.
Part of why these assumptions are not always clearly verbalized is because of the cultural assumptions of the people in the community. Many assumptions that we make about others in our own culture are not necessarily true about people from other cultures. For example, in North America, we are very results-oriented and we value being organized, efficient, and punctual. In other cultures, those characteristics are not as valuable, and a primacy may be placed instead on the process rather than the result, spending time together, family, and community. We may think that if we leave a note for a someone or send an email, this is a sufficient way to communicate. Others may expect that you speak with them personally, and consider anything less to be rude or condescending. This can be very disconcerting and difficult to adapt to–especially if we are not even aware how the other feels! Flexibility, patience, and a spirit of “giving the benefit of the doubt” are necessities to succeeding as a Comboni Lay Missionary.
With this spirit, many challenges can be coped with more effectively, and the lay missionary can learn a great deal from the values of other cultures, other people in the Comboni community, and in the broader overseas community.
One of our lay missionaries once said that it takes 3 things to be a good missionary: patience, patience, and patience.
In addition to patience, it takes a high level of emotional maturity. That is, the lay missionary has adequate control of his or her emotions, and does not act impulsively. It takes resourcefulness and creativity for dealing with the variety of obstacles that come your way, particularly because there are usually few resources with which to deal with the obstacles. It takes a strong faith to remember that God is walking with you, as you walk with the people. It takes enthusiasm and joy, love for others, and it takes a high level of resilience in order to hang in there when the going gets tough. Language ability is important in every mission area. A basic foundation in Spanish is important for service in Latin America. For service in Ethiopia or Malawi, our lay missionaries need to study Amharic or Chichewa for 3-6 months before they begin their service. Lay missionaries must be committed to learning and using the language of the region in which they serve.
Look back on your life experience up till now. Based on your past experience, can you make the case that you have what it takes? What experiences in your life provide evidence that you have the maturity and other virtues for overseas mission with the Comboni Lay Missionaries?
Since we are a lay mission program — not a volunteer program or an “immersion experience” — we strive to live out, best as we can, values of solidarity, simple lifestyle, and community. We do not offer shorter options for overseas work.
This type of cross-cultural work needs a commitment of at least three years. As many people who have served overseas can attest, the first year is really a chance for the missionary to settle in and learn about his/her surroundings and the culture. The second year is where language ability improves and the work starts to flow. The third year is when the missionary really feels close to the people, establishes good friendships, and experiences a real sharing of talents and faith.
While we value flexibility, we are actually not flexible on this subject! If you are interested in a shorter period of time, it is best to contact other organizations. We recommend searching the Catholic Volunteer Network’s database to learn more about other programs.
A bag of M & M’s from time to time. (Just kidding!) One or two local Comboni priests, brothers, or sisters will be available to provide support to the lay missionaries. We do our best to put together a few lay missionaries who can serve together in the area, but this is not always guaranteed. The staff back in La Grange Park, IL, also keep in close touch with the lay missionaries and with the leadership of the Comboni mission sites. We try to schedule Skype chats every couple of months, and email a few times a month (on average). We do our best to ensure that the lay missionaries are receiving responses from us about their needs and requests. (And sometimes we even try to send a care package or two to the folks in the outlying areas.) We provide a sounding board if conflicts arise, and get involved in conflicts where prudent. We do evaluations once a year, usually around the time of the contract signing. We try to schedule at least one visit from a staff member from the U.S. office during the three year commitment.
Our applicants typically have in common:
– a demonstrated commitment to service and the church
– a strong Catholic identity
– an active spiritual life (including both traditional and contemporary faith practices)
– some coursework/study of theology
– experience in an intentional community
– previous travel or overseas volunteer experience
We have had applicants with Doctoral, Master’s or Bachelor’s degrees in Education, Pastoral Studies, Divinity, Sociology, Business, Spanish, Graphic Arts, Anthropology, Social Work, Public Health, etc. They have come from careers such as Business, Journalism/Marketing, Accounting, Nursing, Campus Ministry, Farming, Carpentry, Case Management, Parish Ministry, etc.
Since 2007, the Comboni Lay Missionaries only offer one 14-week formation program in the fall of each year, from September to December. A sample breakdown of the process:
March: last chance to submit preliminary form
February/March/April: attend a Discernment Weekend
April/May/June: attend a Call to Mission Weekend
September-December: attend the formation program
January-April: attend language school (if needed–otherwise travel to site directly)
April: move to begin work at the site
We accept applications on a rolling basis, which means that we will take applications at any time during the year. Completed written applications are due two weeks before the candidate attends a Discernment Weekend. As candidates apply and attend Discernment Weekends, they are invited to the formation program. The number of placements we have is limited, so the sooner a candidate applies, the better his or her chance of getting a placement with us.
Many people also find that starting the application much earlier (one or two years in advance) gives them plenty of time for discerning if this is the right path for them, and for taking care of any logistics that need to be finalized.
Other important things to know:
At the completion of the 14-week formation program, we have a Commissioning Ceremony at which lay missionaries will sign a contract to begin the 3 year commitment. They will have at least 2-3 weeks to spend saying goodbye to friends and family before departure.
We just threw that question in to make sure you were paying attention. But food and hospitality are some identifying characteristics of the Comboni Missionaries.In the overseas mission sites, the food may be very basic, but you will find hospitality wherever you find Comboni Missionaries –- whether they be priests, brothers, sisters, or lay missionaries.