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Chicago Consultant Answers Missionary Call

By Dolores Madlener
Catholic News Service

CHICAGO (CNS) -- Sometimes, when God calls, your first instinct is to hang up.

"My life in Chicago had been tied to my career and my home in the suburbs," said Sherry Meyer, a former Catholic schools consultant for the Archdiocese of Chicago, but then she got the call, and realized God meant business.

She's been a lay missionary now for 10 years.

"I'd wake in the middle of the night with Africa on my mind," she told The Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper. "It didn't make sense."

She was studying at the Catholic Theological Union at the time but wasn't taking any mission-related courses. "I was getting a master's degree in theology," she said.

But the idea of missionary work in Africa remained with her.

"I finally told God, `I'm going to mention this to someone, and you're going to hear them laugh and you'll know how crazy the idea is,'" she said. She was certain there was nothing she could do in Africa. A decade later, she said, she's come to realize "everything I ever learned or did was preparation for this."

She connected with Edwina Gately's Volunteer Mission Movement, which, after training her, shipped her off to Arua, Uganda, where she would live in community for two years. Meyer said she put her business suits, high heels and TV in storage for 24 months and figured she was keeping her part of the bargain with God.

After that two-year hitch, she was sponsored as a lay missionary by the Archdiocese of Chicago and by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, where her parents live. She receives some financial support from the Indianapolis archdiocesan missions office, and has her benefits covered by Chicago's missions office.

She continues to serve in the Diocese of Arua, Uganda, where she trains men and women who will in turn train lectors, catechists or pastoral counselors. The diocese pays her day-to-day expenses.

"These people were baptized as infants and now they are baptizing their children," she said, proud of their continuity in the faith. Ninety percent of the Ugandan population is Christian, about half Catholic.

Meyer, who was in the United States in October for a four-week visit and fund-raising tour, said she spent her first year in Africa almost too scared to sleep. "There were the night noises. They were creepy ... insect sounds, locusts and even the dogs, constant scary sounds in the night. I prayed a lot!"

For her first eight years in the Christus Center in Arua, there wasn't even solar power, so when the sun went down everything was in total darkness.

Though conditions are improving -- she now has solar-heated water for her morning shower -- Meyer must boil all her water and filter it over rocks. She also grows her own vegetables and fruits, cooks on a propane stove and has a kerosene-run fridge. She's learned to be flexible and innovative, "now that I don't have a Home Depot to run to."

The local food staple remains primarily casaba root. "They pound and boil it into a sticky dough that is very filling." She tries to encourage locals to eat the tropical fruits and vegetables but the culture won't budge.

At the parish center where Meyer is based, Comboni Sisters operate an AIDS clinic. She noted that some of her best and brightest helpers contract AIDS and die.

"Our human resources are so precious and not replaced easily," she said.

The malaria mosquito tops AIDS as the biggest killer, and infant mortality is high, she added.

New challenges were waiting upon her return to Arua. Along with Comboni Father Tonino Pasolini, she'll begin forming the diocese's first social communications department -- building a radio station as well as continuing a diocesan newsletter.

"Every family around has a battery-operated radio," she said. "So the audience is waiting."

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