Newman students Khoi Nguyen and Erin Schueller recently returned home from a pilgrimage to Liberia in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the five Martyrs of Charity — Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) — who lost their lives in Liberia fulfilling mission work.
Among these five were Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Mary Joel Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and Shirley Kolmer.
Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Rosemary Niedens reached out to ASC Scholars Nguyen and Schueller about the trip, which took place from May 11-20. Each student received a letter that stated they were selected as a candidate for the trip, then submitted their own letters explaining why they wanted to go on the pilgrimage.
“I tried not to have too many expectations before going,” Schueller said. “I knew we'd learn more about the sisters, the people they healed and taught, and the effect they had on the country, but I did not expect much else. I think this was because it didn't seem real that I would be going to a different continent.”
The students received their acceptance letters a few months before the trip took place. They scrambled to complete their final papers and exams when the semester drew to a close and headed for Liberia soon after. The students flew to Atlanta, Ga., met up with a few other travelers and made their journey to Amsterdam, Netherlands.
“There was not a whole lot of time to process, but I am glad I didn't have many expectations before going because it made everything a little surprise,” Schueller said.
While in Liberia, Nguyen and Schueller were accompanied by ASC Sisters Raphael Ann Drone, Rachel Lawler and Therese Wetta, along with Associates Donna Luetters and Juanita Mason-Fegley. The women celebrated daily mass on each of the nine days and ended each night with a collective prayer. They visited the places where the Martyrs of Charity worked, lived and were killed, as well as the clinics and schools that were named after them.
“We felt [the sisters’] presence while we traveled across Liberia,” Schueller said. “The people were still hurting from the war but you could see the impact the Sisters had on them. One thing that stuck with me was something we heard at church one morning: ‘The Sisters may not be here living anymore but their blood and presence can never be washed out of the Earth.’”
The small group of women had lunch with the Archbishop of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, and visited two parishes. Here they had the opportunity to greet and speak with parishioners, and even participated in a radio show for a Catholic radio station.
"Nobody knew that Khoi and Erin would be participating in the radio show before we got there," Wetta said. "The priest who was our host and driver also happened to be a radio show host. His show focuses on justice and peace, and he was interested in hearing their input on Khoi's Partnership for Global Justice experience that took place last June.
"Khoi and Erin were real troopers. I was impressed with their adaptability and flexibility with the circumstances they were in, and that they were continuously trying to learn more about Liberia's history and the story of the ASC Sisters. They definitely made us proud, and I think the people they met were impressed to see two college students who truly wanted to learn and be a part of the experience."
Nguyen recalls what it was like to go shopping at a market in Monrovia.
“The weather was hot, the sidewalks were small, and there were many people,” Nguyen said. “We were always looking at our feet to make sure we weren’t stepping on anything dangerous while looking ahead and at each other at the same time. It was quite an experience.”
While the trip was a wonderful opportunity, it still came with its fair share of challenges, Nguyen said. The women had to be extremely careful with what they ate and drank and brushed their teeth with bottled water since the water could be contaminated.
“The weather was hot and humid, which affected my health a little bit — I should have hydrated more,” Nguyen said. “I also think we had quite an intense schedule.”
Each day began at 7:30 a.m. and some days the women would not get home until 7 p.m. Nguyen said that communication with family and close friends also posed as a problem at times because they did not have access to the internet very often.
“The first night, I experienced waves of homesickness," Nguyen said. "I realized that I was sitting alone in silence, I was on another continent and didn’t have any means of communication. Although I was afraid, I was excited because I was about to have an amazing time with Erin, the ASC Sisters, and the two Associates.”
Nguyen said she was also thankful to have gotten to know Schueller better over the course of the pilgrimage. The two overcame stomachaches, shared bug spray and shared the back seat of Father Firmin’s car together.
“I also learned a great deal about the culture thanks to Sr. Raphael Ann and Sr. Rachel, who are very knowledgeable about Liberia since they spent a number of years there,” Nguyen said. “Sr. Raphael Ann has a special sense of humor and always cheered me up when I felt tired. Donna and Juanita inspired me with their desire to learn about the Martyrs of Charity and Catholicism.
“Donna said that she had observed that life in Liberia was ‘simple.’ She told me that, ‘Perhaps our lives are complicated because we have made them complicated — we have made the unnecessary our necessities.’ What she said stuck with me. I have learned to appreciate all that I have. I have also told myself to stop complaining about not having the things that I don’t really need.”
Schueller said that she, too, is more grateful for the simple luxuries we have, such as clean running water, constant electricity and a variety of foods.
“This trip not only taught me about the sisters and their hardships 25 years ago but it also taught me about the country's hardships today so long after the war,” Schueller said. “People are still struggling just to make ends meet. We need to appreciate the small things that we have and thank God for them every day because we truly do not understand how good we have it here in the United States.”
In Liberia, Schueller explains, beef is considered a rich man's food because cows are too expensive to raise. Water is scarce and mainly comes from wells which are unclean, so when people brush their teeth, they have to use bottled water. To take a shower, they must fill a bucket. Electricity is not readily available and if there is some it comes from a generator which runs on gasoline, so it is not turned on often.
Schueller also explained that roads that should take a few minutes to drive on take more than 20 minutes due to potholes, which can be as deep as the vehicle itself and have very sharp drops. This, in turn, ruins vehicles in half the time and many do not get repaired because it is simply too expensive.
“But despite all of this,” Schueller says, “people of Liberia are so content with their lives and the simplicity of it. We got to see how the five sisters touched each person's life and sadly how they were taken too soon from them. Talking about their memories almost brought tears to their eyes, yet they knew life got better and things were simple.
“Small things that we take for granted every day are a luxury for these countries. After this trip, I have learned to appreciate these little things and to give thanks to the people that surround me.”
Nguyen and Schueller said that the people they met were genuinely welcoming to them, and the sisters, and that they were constantly greeted with smiles.
“We could feel the love they had for everyone,” Nguyen said. “Two boys told me that they wanted to become priests, and two other children told me that they wanted to be pilots and study in America. The children were full of hope and aspirations, and that made me happy.”
Nguyen and Schueller also met with Liberia Coordinating Mechanism Vice Chair Sr. Barbara Brilliant, who is involved with eradicating HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB in Liberia. Nguyen also hopes to one day work in the field of public health.
“[Sr. Barbara] truly inspires me to continue to have faith in and pursue my dreams,” Nguyen said. “I would like to see where great opportunities could take me. If and when another amazing opportunity comes along, I will definitely take it into consideration.”
Schueller said that, even though life is hard in Liberia, it was an eye-opening and inspiring experience for her to be a part of.
“Instead of always rushing around and hurrying to do things, the people of Liberia have time to enjoy life, their families, and their friends,” Schueller said. “Everyone enjoys meals together, and their time is the sun — when it rises, they rise, when it sets, they sit. Life is hard yet simple. These people were content with the simple things and this is what I hope to really apply in my life and others’ around me.”
Wetta said that the trip was both a blessing and a challenge and that her takeaway was seeing the gratitude and awe that people had for the Martyrs of Charity.
"They were so welcoming and grateful to have us there," said Wetta. "It was incredible to see that the people who don't have much are the ones who are so generous to share what little they have. I think the Newman community will be very impressed when Khoi and Erin give a presentation of their experiences in the fall."