Hearts Forever Changed on Mission
Date published: April 24, 2017
After completing nearly seven years of study in the Master of Pastoral Ministry program at the Ann and Joe O. Neuhoff School of Ministry, Debra Neely has reached
the finishing line. A Nebraska native who has worked in the Diocese of Fort Worth
for over 15 years, Neely has been working as a Catholic campus minister at Midwestern
State University in Wichita Falls, TX.
Neely’s passion for ministering to college students inspired her to pursue her master’s
degree, and for her capstone – the culminating project of the MPM – she reflected
on her deeply transformative experiences of accompanying college students on mission
trips, oftentimes to far-off places like Guatemala. Her particular focus? What happens
after a mission trip.
Such service can form new faith in others and transform the faith of the missionary,
as Neely herself witnessed when she took a group of students to Mexico in 2008.
“It was a fantastic eight days,” Neely said. “What I didn’t expect was that students
wanted to change their lives. There’s so much that happens when they come back.”
After another such mission trip, this time to Guatemala, Neely witnessed several of
her students change their majors to prepare to work for the church or other missionary
Reflecting on these experiences, Neely honed in on the importance of the transition
from mission back into day-to-day life and how de-briefing from mission trips plays
a crucial role.
“There needs to be some type of discussion forum for post-mission reflection. There’s
no going back to your regular life, because you’re not the same person,” she said.
As part of her research for her capstone project, Neely created a Facebook group for
the students who had gone on the mission trips together to serve as a forum for post-mission
reflection. She posed questions in the Facebook group like “how did your perceptions
of the world change after your mission experience?” Nearly 90% of the students responded,
eager to share their experiences with one another.
Students wrote messages like, “Guatemala started my path… My heart will be forever
changed by my short seven day trip there.”
Neely also found that after surveying students, 80% strongly agreed that their “perceptions
of the world changed” and 65% strongly agreed that they were “more aware of the socio-economic
gap.” 100% said that they would go on a mission trip in the future. Citing research
from the Catholic Volunteer Network, she noted that of those who have participated
in missions, 67% expressed that mission experience was somewhat or very important
in their choice of career and 37% have considered a religious vocation.
This empirical data bears a strong tie to theological principles that are present
in our everyday life. By virtue of our baptism, Neely explained, we are all called
to do mission work in some way — not just in other countries or with other cultures
— but so as to understand and participate in God’s plan for us. It is not only in
the experience, but also in the reflection that such experience prompts, which allows
us to discern God’s presence in mission activity.
“The theological reflection is extremely important,” Neely said.
When asked what she wants to do with her experience at the Neuhoff School of Ministry,
Neely’s answer was simple.
“Being a light of Christ to someone else can make others want to do something similar
in their lives. Sharing what I’m doing, being transparent and talking about my experiences
makes all the difference.”
With the presentation of her final “capstone” project in early April, all that is
left now for Debra Neely is to receive her well-earned diploma, but we have every
reason to suspect that her missionary spirit will present new adventures for her and
the students at Midwestern State in the future.