Evangelizing the Illiterate by Karen

Ministry is so much more fun when we can do it all together.
This is a photo of our friend, who organized the retreat,
giving a talk on prayer.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by another FMC missionary who was planning a women's retreat, to give a talk on prayer.  The focus would be the importance of the role of individual prayer in one's pursuit of a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus.  When I sat down to write my talk I found myself reflecting back on my own spiritual journey.  Immediately, I recognized the huge part that the written word has played in my story.  As a child, I used workbooks in catechism class to learn about the faith and write about its application to my life.  As a teenager, I enjoyed reading and often felt drawn to fictional novels with spiritual themes.  I've journaled during various seasons of life and have used poetry as a means of expression.  As an adult, I realized just how little I knew about the faith and set out to find the answers to my questions in various church documents and spiritual writings.  I began reading about the saints as well as present-day trailblazers.  About seven years ago I fell head over heels in love with Sacred Scripture and have read my bible (almost) every day since then.  Chris and I use our breviaries for morning prayer, as well as the daily missal.  Our kids have daily devotionals and we're always seeking additional materials that can help us grow in our faith.  When I have questions or need to verify something, I look online.  Where would I be today if I couldn't read or if I didn't have access to any written materials?  

There were about 11 retreat participants,
which was perfect.  There were enough people to make
it fun, but not so many that we couldn't keep it personal.

All of the women that attended this retreat are Nicaraguan, and my understanding is that since most have never had the opportunity to go to school, their literacy levels are pretty low.  As I prayed about how best to help them grow in their faith through personal prayer, I found myself feeling discouraged.   

During these last seven years or so, as I've been working hard to learn the art of evangelization, I've come to the conclusion that someone isn't going to voluntarily follow Jesus in an authentic way unless he/she has fallen in love with Him; and someone isn't going to fall in love with the person of Jesus Christ unless they've had the chance to really get to know Him.  So, my job is to help others get to know the Lord, trusting that once they make His acquaintance a burning desire to grow closer will well up in their hearts and propel them to do more and consequently learn more.  They'll continue to draw closer and closer until eventually, they fall in love.  Although the written word was a significant part of my spiritual journey, it wouldn't necessarily be a significant part of theirs.  I had to trust that these ladies could and would come to know the Lord without so many resources.... but how???  I began thinking about the early church and what the evangelists did to spread the faith.  The bible wasn't printed in mass quantity until the mid-1450s, which means that for over 1,000 years people had to rely solely on oral tradition.  Stained glass was used to teach the illiterate about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  Religious artwork and statues remind people of important events, beliefs, and individuals in church history.  For example, Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta helps us meditate on the moment in which Mary held Jesus' corpse in her arms at the foot of the cross.  If the early evangelists could use artwork to teach the faith, so could I.

Here are some of the simple drawings I made to
help explain the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In the book of the prophet Jeremiah (31:33) the Lord says, "I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts.  I will be their God, and they shall be my people."  During my talk, I pointed out that God's law is love, and that He fills every heart that He creates with an abundance of His love.  In 1Corinthians chapter 13, it says that love is patient and kind; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  In the book of Galatians, St. Paul talks about living in the Spirit and tells us that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control, and gentleness, which is exactly what Jesus taught because that is exactly who He is....love.  Using simple pictures that I had drawn as my visual aids, I spoke about each one and encouraged the ladies to think about these 9 fruits during their personal prayer time as a way to gauge whether or not their thoughts/ actions are in line with what the Lord wants for them.  When we have peace in our hearts, we're likely doing what we ought to be doing.  When our hearts are restless, there is probably something that needs to change.  When we're faithful, kind, and gentle, our relationships flourish.  When we're joyful we're able to enjoy life, and the wide variety of people in it, despite the hardships and challenges.  As a means of encouragement, I stated that we don't need to memorize every passage in the Bible to be able to experience the love of God and to learn how to love others as Jesus teaches; however, we do need to learn how to be attentive to what's happening in our hearts so that the Holy Spirit can guide us into a deeper sort of love.   

Leveraging the techniques of our ancestors, I had the participants draw pictures of the fruits of the Spirit and invited them to hang these pictures in their homes.  Just like the learned did in the days of old, these ladies could use their pictures to teach others about God's love.  From what I could tell, they really enjoyed this activity and felt that what they had created was valuable when we took the time to cover their artwork with clear contact paper so that it wouldn't get ruined from the rain and humidity.  


Our daughter, Anna, also gave a talk on prayer and encouraged the women to chat to the Lord about anything and everything, all throughout the day, and  reminded them that they don't have to use any fancy words or try to impress the Lord in any way.  She shared a bit about her own spiritual journey and emphasized the importance of seeing Jesus as a friend.   

In the afternoon, the ladies broke into small discussion groups and shared a bit about their faith.  The first woman to share stated boldly that she was done praying.  Her alcoholic husband has been beating her and her children for years, even though she's prayed and prayed that he would change.  I sat quietly and just listened, but I wasn't exactly sure what to say.  Another woman chimed in and shared her story. She explained that she did not grow up in the faith.  In fact, she didn't know anything about the Lord until six years ago when her adult son was murdered here in Costa Rica.  Everyone in the community knows who did it, but since she and her family aren't legal residents the authorities didn't do much to pursue the assailant.  She was drowning in grief and misery when a friend told her about Our Blessed Mother and how Her son was also murdered.  The friend encouraged her to seek comfort and counsel in Mary, which she did.  She explained how Mary led her to Jesus.  She reminded the group that they are really blessed to have missionaries around, as well as the religious sisters, and priests that are willing to drive out to their town to celebrate Holy Mass.  She told us that she's unable to read, so there's not much she can do on her own to learn about the faith, which is why she goes to church.  She encouraged the other women in our small group to go to church as often as possible so that they can learn about the faith and develop a real relationship with Jesus and Mary.  Her testimony and words of encouragement were more powerful than anything I could have come up with.  Thank you, Jesus!

My aim was to help the women who attended this retreat recognize the importance of individual prayer.  I hope that they're able to use the pictures that they drew to remember the gifts of the Holy Spirit and will think about those as they learn how to tune in to the movement of the Spirit in their hearts.  I hope that they understand that prayer doesn't need to be anything complicated, but rather just casual conversation with Jesus, who is the best friend they could ever ask for.  

I'm really thankful to have been invited to participate in this effort.  I'm thankful that Chris was able to join us for praise and worship, and that Anna and our friends' visitor were able to contribute their gifts and talents.  It was a beautiful example of what can be done when many different people are willing to say "yes" to the Lord.  

I look forward to other opportunities, in the future,  to collaborate on ministry initiatives.   I humbly ask that you say a prayer for all those seeking the Lord that have so few resources, especially those that are illiterate because they are completely dependent on others to teach them the faith.   Thank you and God bless, Karen

Ever since Anna was a little girl she has
loved painting fingernails.  During the
retreat, the participants got to go to the back
for some pampering in between other
activities.  It was a blessing for everyone!


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