Phyllis Sanders is someone other people just love to be around. With sparkling eyes and an infectious laugh that fills any room she’s in with joy, Phyllis brings the love of God to everyone she meets — especially to those who are poor and vulnerable.
In the early years of her retirement after a career in children’s services, Phyllis is an energetic, devoted member the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill. She teaches English as a Second Language to Latino immigrants and advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, coordinates a monthly casserole drive at her parish for the local homeless shelter, and organizes soup suppers to help educate parishioners about the international aid work done by Catholic Relief Services.
The English classes are especially important to her. The immigrants she works with “aren’t just faces in a crowd,” she says. “They are incredible human beings who are working very hard for themselves and their children. They are such joyful, giving people — the most generous people I’ve ever met. I am amazed by the way they have overcome difficulties and struggles.”
Phyllis is what Pope Francis would call a “missionary disciple,” a term he coined in 2013. Missionary disciples are inspired to bring God’s love to others because of an encounter with that love in their own lives. Pope Francis says that missionary disciples “move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast” (Evangelii Gaudium, 24). Not unlike a young parent who, beaming with pride, pulls out a photo of his infant daughter to show anyone who’ll take a moment to look, missionary disciples are so filled with the love of Jesus they can’t help but share it with others.
Simply, missionary discipleship is evangelization — an essential, outward-facing element of the life of faith. “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love,” Pope Francis says (Evangelii Gaudium, 120). We don’t have to be theological experts to evangelize or have a lot of free time on our hands. All it takes is the sincere desire to embody the Good News of Jesus in our everyday words and actions.
As we strive to live as Jesus lives in the Gospels, missionary disciples make it a special priority to share God’s love with those who are suffering. Jesus spent so much of his time with those who were often forgotten or left out in first-century Palestine: lepers and other sick people, women, tax collectors, and sinners of every sort. He taught that whenever we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, or show compassion to others in need, we care for Christ himself (Mt 25:31-46). So, it’s fair to say that every time someone like Phyllis spends time with an immigrant working hard to learn English, she is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. And that is what missionary discipleship is all about.
Mike Jordan Laskey is director of Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden and vice chancellor for the City of Camden.