By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Marita Bösch Figueroa has few possessions to call her own, but she gave me a gift on our very first meeting. The cuia is a common and multi-functional piece in the Brazilian villages where Marita lives, but she uses it to share a lesson on relationships, community building and humanity’s place in creation.
Marita is an itinerant missionary, a member of the Equipo Itinerante, founded by Jesuit Fr. Claudio Perani in 1998. The group began as a form of service for Jesuits, then evolved to include other religious communities and now includes lay people like Marita. Each missionary must be sent by some organization, one which will also provide financial support. In Marita’s case, she is missioned by Parroquia San Ignacio, the Jesuit parish in San Juan, P.R.
A member of San Ignacio since she was a child, Marita worked in the campus ministry office at Colegio San Ignacio from 2008 to 2014. As she hit her 40th birthday, she recognized she had reached a crossroad in her career and her life. She realized she could continue as she was, where she felt safe and was doing good work, but she sensed there was more to life.
“I thought, ‘If not now, when?’” She answered her own question by becoming a missionary, a decision that evolved from other brief missionary experiences that had marked her life.
Now she returns to her home parish annually for a month or two. While home, she spends time with her family and works on building her network of support.
“I share my story so that people can learn about the challenges of the indigenous people of the Amazonia and the need to care for our common home,” she said. “You can’t love what you don’t know. And what you don’t know, you don’t take care of or defend.”
The Equipo Itinerante is comprised of about 25 people, both vowed religious and lay. Some live in Manaus, Brazil, and others in the border between Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. The group is diverse; there are Indigenous, Brazilians, Afro, Argentinian, Costa Rican, Equatorian, Spanish and Puerto Rican. They are healthcare professionals, lawyers, teachers, even a physicist.
Marita explains that the Equipo team strives to live a reflection of the Trinity: Diversity in unity, in relationship. It is also a reflection of the diversity in the Amazon region where different species live in the rainforest, in relationship, in complementarity. “Our mission starts at home,” Marita says. “We learn to live in unity. We try to live what we say.”
The missionaries go out in small groups to the villages in the Amazon region, which includes parts of nine countries. The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon help them to see the region as a whole, as a territory. National boundaries are a function of politics, not of the indigenous interconnection with the Earth. Marita describes the missionaries’ experience as “a constant learning.”
“Father Perani intended us to serve as Jesus did, going from one community to the next, living among the people and getting to know their dreams, struggles and needs,” Marita said. “It’s beautiful because we listen to what they say, we take part in their daily lives. Only later, with them, do we think about what we can do. We don’t worry about results; we follow the Spirit.”
The missionaries depend on the communities they visit, respecting the fundamental principles of sharing and reciprocity. “We learn there are different ways of doing things, and it’s okay,” Marita said. “There’s a really beautiful complementarity between what we need and what we have to give.”
After the itinerant missionaries have spent time among the villagers, they return to their group home to discuss the challenges they’ve uncovered. Because of their diverse backgrounds and experiences, the brainstorming sessions spawn creative solutions. Their work was recognized in the Final Document of the Synod on the Amazon:
“Itinerant missionary teams in the Amazon, weaving and building community in their travels, help to strengthen the Church’s synodality. They bring together various charisms, institutions and congregations, lay people, men and women religious, and priests. Together they accomplish what cannot be done alone …”
If you feel called to support Marita’s mission to the indigenous peoples of the Amazonia, you can contribute through the Parroquia San Ignacio website. Choose the Mission Amazonia option on the online form.