Stepping out in faith
St. Margaret Mary parishioner Faith Thibodeaux will never forget her November visit to the home of a 94-year-old woman.
The woman, who lived alone and had no possessions to speak of, was barely scraping by in her remote desert village of central Mexico.
“She was just wasting away – she literally had to have a safety pin to keep her skirt on, yet she was such a joy-filled person,” marveled Thibodeaux, 35, who was in Mexico with her family for a month of missionary outreach.
When the elderly woman began tearing up over the recent death of her nephew to diabetes and the pending limb amputation of another relative, Thibodeaux’s daughter Gemma – already an experienced missionary at age 6 – knew just what to do: the youngster climbed onto the woman’s lap, stroked her face and wiped away her tears.
“You could just see how much it comforted her – that is why it is said that children make the best missionaries,” said Thibodeaux, describing how the consoled woman insisted on praying over her American visitors before they left.
“She offered all her suffering for our missionary work,” Thibodeaux said. “This woman was suffering so greatly but she still saw that her suffering could be worth something, that she could turn her prayers toward us. I just started weeping at her beautiful faith.”
‘Radical’ faith decision
A desire to live out their Catholic faith in a more radical way while living among the poorest of the poor is propelling Thibodeaux and her husband Jonathan to relocate their family of six children to the jungle villages of northern Peru. On Jan. 25, the Thibodeaux 8 will board a plane bound for two years of missionary outreach in Leoncio Prado, an Amazon Basin village of 1,500 residents.
In preparation for the bold change of life, Jonathan, 34, quit his 15-year career in sales, cashed in his retirement fund and donated or sold nearly all of the family’s possessions. In addition to Gemma, the Thibodeauxs are the parents of Joseph, 14; Timothy, 12; Kaylee, 11; Joshua, 4; and Lucia, 2.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing with my life? What account would I be giving my children at the end of my life?” said Jonathan, noting that the decision to become a family of foreign missionaries percolated for six years.
The first nudge came from the Thibodeauxs’ Slidell neighbors – Lutherans who had done a similar uprooting of their family of four children. Motivated by thoughts of “Why can’t Catholics do that?” the Thibodeauxs began searching on Google, coming across an endeavor based in their own backyard: the Family Missions Company, a Catholic lay apostolate in the Diocese of Lafayette that since 1997 has prepared families for foreign mission work in hard-pressed locations in nine countries.
“We thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Oh no! We would never be called to that! That’s crazy,’” said Faith of the initial phase of discernment.
As they were pushing those thoughts to the back burner, the Thibodeauxs’ overwhelming desire to serve persisted.
The couple and their children, all homeschooled by Faith, became self-appointed local missionaries with a special passion for taking home-prepared lunches and care packages to homeless individuals living under New Orleans’ bridges and overpasses, and visiting the residents of nursing homes.
The Thibodeauxs’ decision to serve in a more foreign post came in September 2014 when Jonathan read the story of the Kiehl family of Georgia on the Family Missions Facebook page. The Kiehls, who had just completed two years of missionary work in Mexico and were about to begin a new assignment in Peru, were almost mirror images of the Thibodeauxs: Both couples were around the same age and had met their respective spouses at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio; shared the same wedding anniversary; were the parents of six children; and had suffered the loss of a young child.
“They had given their lives (to foreign mission work). I didn’t sleep for two weeks,” Jonathan said. “The Lord kept putting it on my heart; he kept asking me, ‘Are you willing to do this?’ I just felt really called to follow this family and their example.”
Missionary ‘boot camp’
Final discernment came after a come-and-see week at Family Missions’ “Big Woods” headquarters south of Abbeville, where families get a taste of mission life by being given daily chores, eating in community and receiving formation.
A subsequent three-month-long immersion had the Thibodeauxs visiting the homebound, building fellowship at nursing homes and going door-to-door as a family to invite lapsed Catholics back to the church. This missionary “boot camp” also included the Thibodeauxs’ first trip outside the United States: a month ministering to the poor of General Cepeda, Mexico, where two priests attend to the pastoral and sacramental needs of the city’s 50 surrounding ranchos.
A similar dearth of priests will greet the Thibodeauxs at their Peruvian mission base, where some 200 villages – called “pueblos” – are served by two priests from the Diocese of Cordoba, Spain.
Area marked by youth
“Eighty percent of the population (in this area of Peru) is aged 20 or younger. The nuclear family doesn’t really exist,” said Faith, explaining that her family’s primary category of outreach will be conducting family ministry using a template created by the Kiehls: community centers in which children and teens can experience some semblance of family life through activities such as guitar lessons, choir, hiking and arts and crafts.
The first such center – called Ezekial House, in memory of the Kiehls’ late son – is also a place where the non-catechized can learn about Catholic faith and tradition. For example, youngsters are learning to pray the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
“Before (Ezekial House) opened, the Mass attendance of young people was zero. Within weeks of opening they had over 100 kids coming to Mass,” said Faith, who will take to Peru her knowledge of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – in which child-friendly props and other visuals are used to teach children prayers, Bible stories, the parts of the liturgy and the items used in the Mass.
Fostering vocations in Peru
“I just feel like vocations are blooming because of (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd) – the children just get this love for our faith,” Faith said, adding her hope that native vocations to the priesthood and religious life will sprout as a result of her family’s time in Peru.
Participating families are not paid for their mission work, relying instead on fund-raising and parish mission appeals. The couple said they were “overwhelmed” by the spiritual and material support promised by their home parish of St. Margaret Mary following an appeal held, fittingly, on the Feast of the Holy Family.
“We may be the ‘feet’ that are going, but this is the mission of the entire church,” Jonathan said. “If you are a baptized Christian, you’re already a missionary,” he added. “The real question is wheredoes the Lord want you to serve? You may be called to serve the poor here in New Orleans, or you might seek out the people in your own neighborhood who need Jesus to be brought to them. It’s what we’re all called to do, and it can change the world.”
Bolstering the family, deep in the Amazon jungle, will be the Gospel in which Jesus urges Peter to get out of the boat and walk to him on the water.
“It all comes down to trusting God. When Peter took his eyes off of Jesus he started to sink,” Faith notes. “If we take our eyes off of Jesus, we will always sink, but as long as we’re looking at him, we’re gonna be walking on the water!”
Family Missions Company sends families to Peru, India, Ecuador, the Philippines, Haiti, Mexico, China, Costa Rica and Taiwan. To contribute to the Thibodeauxs’ ministry in Peru, go to thibodeauxfamily.familymissionscompany.com.