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|| By Margaret Gaughan

Maryknoll’s nine newest lay missioners begin their journeys overseas

Like parents the world over, Peter and Melissa Altman want what’s best for their children. That’s why the couple from Long Beach, N.Y., say they are taking their son, Eli, 7, and daughter Evey, 3, to mission in El Salvador.

“We thought that overseas mission would give us a unique opportunity to model our values for our children while giving them an opportunity to be immersed in a different culture,” says Peter, who with Melissa and seven other U.S. men and women are beginning their three-and-a-half-year commitments to serve as Maryknoll Lay Missioners (MKLM) in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

“Families have played a huge role in mklm,” Melissa says. ”We are very excited to be part of the great tradition.” MKLM, she explains, welcomes people from all walks of life, including families with children up to 8 years old, an age limit set in recognition that older children, with established life patterns, might find transitioning to a new culture too difficult.

Melissa herself was introduced to Maryknoll as a child listening to her great-uncle, Maryknoll Father Richard Callahan. Her interest in mission deepened when, as a campus minister at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., she went on a short-term immersion trip to the U.S./Mexico border. “I felt called to do more for the marginalized,” she says. Peter, a former history teacher at Bishop Loughlin, felt the same call as he placed lay people in service projects with the Good Shepherd Volunteers.
The Altmans’ decision to accompany the poor was sealed when Superstorm Sandy destroyed half their home in 2012. “We realized we can live with less and still thrive as a family,” says Peter.

During orientation, MKLM candidates participate in liturgy celebrated by Maryknoll Father James Madden, using cultural elements of the Aymara people he served in Peru. Father Madden died shortly after the new missioners went overseas in January. (K. Bortvedt/U.S.)

El Salvador will also be the mission of Joseph (Joe) Hastings, who has spent the last 25 years doing social justice ministry as well as adult mission education and faith formation in Seattle, Wash. Hastings, who has a master of divinity degree from Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts, most recently worked with Catholic Relief Services training diocesan leaders on the West Coast to raise global awareness in their local churches.

Now, he says, he is drawn to “more immediate, face-to-face ministry with the poor.” “An important part of Maryknoll’s charism is to bring the faith of the developing world to the United States,” he says. “I hope to do that when I return.”

Caitlin Reichelderfer, who learned about the work of Maryknoll reading her mother’s Maryknoll magazine, brings her nursing skills to Bolivia and is certain the experience will change her life.
“As a nurse, I have seen so many Hispanics needing help navigating the U.S. healthcare system,” says Reichelderfer. She is referring to Spanish-speaking patients who, because of the language barrier, struggled to make known their needs at the American Family Children’s Hospital where she worked in her native Madison, Wis. In Bolivia, she hopes to become not only fluent in Spanish but also a better advocate for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Hang Tran will be accompanying the people of Cambodia, where, she says, “I hope to participate with the local community in the journey of life.” Tran was born in Saigon, Vietnam. For the last three years, she has managed a business that specializes in nutrition. She has served as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, at a soup kitchen and hospice.

Tran is an alumna of the University of Texas, schools of chemical engineering and public health. Karen Bortvedt will also serve in Cambodia, where she looks forward to “being stretched in a new culture.” Working with people who have suffered years of oppression will be a challenge, she says, but feels her work in an immigrant advocacy center on the U.S./Mexico border has helped prepare her for this mission.

The Altman family joyfully goes forth to serve as Maryknoll Lay Missioners in El Salvador. (D. Northern/U.S.)

The native of Hillsboro, Ore., who most recently worked for a trade organization for wind energy in Washington, D.C., says she has long been attracted to service and social justice types of jobs. “But I was seeking something that was more of a vocation,” she says. She found her answer in MKLM, after “crossing paths” with numerous Maryknoll missioners and witnessing their faith-based lives.

Ashley and Michael Leen will serve in Tanzania. The couple from Dallas, Texas, was first attracted to mission at Boston College, where they met as undergraduates. Through an ecumenical service organization on campus, they participated in overseas immersion trips, Ashley to the Dominican Republic and Michael to Swaziland. Sharing those experiences drew them closer to each other through a common goal. “It started a conversation about living and working with the poor in an international setting,” says Michael, who has a master of business administration and a professional background in brand management.

He and Ashley, who married three-and-a-half years ago, were referred to MKLM because of its extensive experience placing married couples in mission. “MKLM was an instant fit for us,” says Ashley, who did data analysis and research for the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Leens look forward to mission in Tanzania because of its “rich culture and proud traditions” and the opportunity to, as Pope Francis urged, immerse themselves in the reality of life as Jesus did.

Kristle Bulleman from Riverside, Calif., is also drawn to Tanzania not only because of its vibrant culture but also because she simply feels God is calling her to this African land. Bulleman, a former Maryknoll Affiliate, who most recently used her background in theater working with at-risk youth in an after-school program, has training in massage therapy and holistic healing. She hopes to bring those skills to the Mabatini Parish Public Health Clinic in Mwanza, Tanzania.

Like her classmates, Bulleman praises the 10-week MKML orientation program with its emphasis on prayer and spirituality and workshops ranging from theology to conflict management. The new lay missioners all agree that meeting so many veteran Maryknoll missioners who shared their own experiences was a highlight of their orientation.

As the newest MKML class heads for overseas mission, Bulleman says, “We feel so prepared!”

Featured Image: Lay Missioners (l. to r.) Joe Hastings, Ashley & Michael Leen, Peter, Evey, Eli & Melissa Altman, Hang Tran, Karen Bortvedt, Kristle Bulleman, Caitlin Reichelderfer. (D. Northern/U.S.)

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About the author

Margaret Gaughan

Marge Gaughan worked on the staff of Maryknoll magazine from 1988 to 2022, serving first as copy editor, then assistant managing editor, and managing editor from 2000. She was named editor in 2019. A former Sister of the Divine Compassion, she was a middle school teacher and director of religious education.