I think that as Irish people, it’s part of our DNA to go out, and missionary work isn’t just about evangelisation. We evangelise through our development work with people,” says Sr Geraldine Henry, the Mission Development Coordinator for the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.
Belfast-born Sr Henry has travelled all over the world, helping with projects in Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Ghana. She has often been in dangerous situations when working in Africa, but regardless continues to oversee many missions to support the poor and marginalised.
Despite the challenges she faces, Sr Henry loves her missionary work because she has the opportunity to help people one on one and make a true difference in their lives.”
“One of our Nigerian sisters was kidnapped while I was there last October. She was coming out from Mass and they surrounded the car and they took her. I was there, so it was quite traumatic, but we managed to get her released, but I was in five armed robberies myself. The first one was in Sierra Leone during the war. Then, when I was in Nigeria, we had one on the road and then I had three in the house,” says Sr Henry. “It was a quite daunting experience, but I’m a Belfast girl so, tough.”
Despite the challenges she faces, Sr Henry loves her missionary work because she has the opportunity to help people one on one and make a true difference in their lives.
“We don’t just go and pray with people. We look at people and don’t just say ‘sorry for your troubles’ and walk away,” says Sr Henry.
She shared a story about a woman with aids who came to her looking for help. Sr Henry did not just say she would pray for her and send the woman on her way, but asked ‘what can we do to help?’ The woman wanted to learn how to sew, so the sisters got her into sewing classes and she was able to make a little life for herself.
“I met her a few years later, and what she said to me was ‘I am really well now, I’ve got my medicine, I’m able to buy food, my children are now going to school’, but the thing that struck me was she said, ‘when I met you the last time I was nobody and I had nothing, and now I am somebody’. Isn’t that what the essence of being a missionary is about? Changing someone’s life.”
While working in impoverished countries and trying to help various causes, Sr Henry says her faith has been tested. It can be overwhelming to see so many people who need help and not having resources to fix everything.
“St Vincent de Paul was a believer in divine providence, and there are often times in my work where I am just at my wits end and think ‘what could I do for these people?’, and then the next day I get a donation or something,” says Sr Henry.
“Even the other day, three weeks ago, somebody came to me and was offering me some funds, and I sent the message to our sisters in the different countries saying ‘I’m going to get a donation is there anything you need?’ and the sister in Ethiopia got back on to me immediately and she said ‘you know we have a school and we’ve just been here praying that somebody would come along because the roof has been leaking, the desks are all broken, and we’ve just been sitting here praying something might happen and we would have money to do something and fix the situation’. As they were sitting there, I sent her an email, and it was like an answer to prayer. So, I always say anytime I have witnessed divine providence in my life, that’s when I am reminded God will provide, and I’ve seen it so many times.”
The people Sr Henry works with may challenge her, but she says they are the ones who have great faith and strengthen her own trust in God.
“It’s the people that keep me in a strong faith. Every time I go to Africa, I say that it is the people who are poor and vulnerable who are so trusting in God and they have such wonderful faith, but they challenge me and they help me keep my faith, it’s not the other way around,” says Sr Henry.
Through all her work, Sr Henry says she learned that what makes a missionary is not their religion but their values. Although her faith personally drives her to do her work and helps her overcome the challenges she faces, missionary work is simply about helping the poor and marginalised, and everyone is welcome to do that.
“I’m a member of Misean Cara and we have missionary values and we share those missionary values. It’s not always with Catholics and it’s not always with Christians, but with people of all denominations and none that really work from a value system, and that’s what really makes us missionary: strong value systems.”